When school groups come to the College they often come to the Old Library for a tour and a quick peek at some of our most interesting books. These school groups are generally completely different to the groups we usually see in the Library. Although we have plenty of school visits, both primary and secondary, these are usually from nearby schools, and, by definition, they come from schools that are actively seeking ways to enhance the classroom teaching with outside visits.
The schools liaison visits are generally from inner city schools that might not be doing too well. The groups are far more ethnically diverse than those we usually see in Cambridge, and the students often have had very little previous exposure to historical buildings and artefacts, or to the sort of cultural offer that we take for granted in Cambridge.
This disparity certainly makes the schools liaison visits a challenge for me. I only see each group for a short period of time (usually 30-45minutes), so there's not much scope for getting to know the group, or to investigate different ways in which they might interpret or relate to the Old Library. I'm always strongly aware that the (National-Trust-guide-style) spiel about the Library's age, origins, highlights, etc. would probably be utterly meaningless to them, so I try to spin out each session according to what they respond to.
Fortunately, I've never yet had a group that aren't interested in anything about the Library. There's always something (or, usually, several things) that catches their attention, and so we talk about using the Library, or the use of Latin, or how books are made, or telescopes, or whatever else for the length of the session. There has, I think, never been a visitor to the Library who wasn't impressed by our largest and smallest books, so we usually take a look at those, but the rest of the session is pretty form.
Free-form sessions are quite hard work, it's true. You have to have a lot of information at your fingertips, and be prepared to explain it in new ways according to the base knowledge of whoever's asking. But once you have mastered the information (and it's taken me a while to feel confident that I have), then it's great fun to be able to explore objects with which you're familiar in unexpected ways. I really must find out roughly how many sheep it would have taken to make the parchment for our biggest book, for example!
|The tour was cool. The big one [book] was great,|
though the small one [book] was amazing.
Anyway, this is a rather rambly post that basically says that outreach to a group that you might initially think would be really hard work can actually be the most rewarding and enjoyable outreach that you do. A group of north London teenagers whose slang seems quite incomprehensible to this Cambridge grad might seem intimidating, but when they leave a comment like this, it's impossible not to feel that it was very much worthwhile.
Thanks to various people on Twitter for their help interpreting slang that was, frankly, well beyond my area of expertise.