Friday, 18 March 2011

Going out with a bang

'Rhein in Flammen - Feuerzauber in Koblenz' by a.renate on Flickr
For the last three years (almost to the day) I've been working on the Fred Hoyle Project at St John's College Library, Cambridge.

Tomorrow, Saturday, the project ends with, hopefully, a 'big bang'*. I've organised a day of events in College: three specialist talks (to be available later as podcasts), an exhibition of Hoyle papers (with accompanying online exhibition) and hands-on astrolabe building (with an online kit for those who didn't manage to book a place).**

This post was my first professional library job, and it hasn't really been your 'typical' library job (whatever one of those is).  The remit of the post was twofold: 1) catalogue an enormous archival collection and 2) do 'outreach' with it, hopefully according to the plan that had been submitted as part of the funding bid.

Weirdly, I managed to get the post despite having only a little experience with (but a great interest in) special collections, no archival cataloguing experience, and no public (let alone youth or schools) outreach experience to speak of.  But what I apparently showed was enthusiasm and a can-do attitude.  The can-do attitude was luck, really: lots of my friends do really cool science outreach, so I wasn't too phased, in principle, by the idea of talking to children about astronomy.

It's hard to work out what I've learnt from the project (aside form things like what colour ink Fred Hoyle wrote in during different decades, or what's best to eat in the College Buttery).  One main lesson is 'don't ask, don't get' - it's really worth getting to know people (networking again) and just asking what they might be able to do to help.  Another is 'build it and they will come'.  Ideas that might seem daft or unachievable at first often come to fruition, and in ways better than you'd imagined (Open Libraries, anyone?).  I've also learnt that if you're going to have to fill in an enormous form of all your expenditure at the end of the Project, it would be worthwhile and probably easy to keep your lovely records in that form, and not just beautifully ordered but somewhere else, in a different shape.

I've learnt things about putting up exhibitions: there will never be enough space for all the items you'd like to include, you wouldn't believe how little you can fit into a caption once it's printed at a legible size, taking time over the design really pays dividends in how people respond to it.  I've learnt that you can never have too many direction signs when people are trying to find their way round a college. 

More than anything else, I've learnt that you don't have to do every last thing that was planned, so long as the things you do do are good, and have learnt from experience, and meet your overall goals.  Perfectionism is useful in the details, but not always in the bigger picture.

Hoyle's been fun, but I couldn't work on him forever, much as I'm sad to be leaving.  Onto new, and more bookish things now.

*Among his many other achievements, Fred Hoyle is known for being the person who coined the phrase 'big bang', despite not having actually supported the theory himself.

**It might be quite a big bang, as there's been coverage in the Cambridge News, on the BBC News website, and on BBC Look East.


  1. Well done Katie! Hope all goes as planned tomorrow and the very best of luck in the new job.

  2. Hope everything went well today! Have a nice couple of days off :)

  3. Thank you both very much. We had a lovely day yesterday at St John's, and now I'm having an equally lovely day doing nothing :)