Being nosey at the Parker Library

Last week I had the total pleasure of spending four days in the gorgeous surroundings of the Parker Library at Corpus Christi College, and in the company of its unremittingly and uncommonly awesome staff, Gill and Suzanne, the sub-librarians, and the protean Shiralee.  Having never been to the Parker Library before, and being only a rare books ‘shambrarian‘ myself (as the cool kids would say, so I’m told), this was SUCH a treat.  Probably akin to Italian chocolates.  Which, incidentally, the Parker Library staff also have.

Getting down to business, the library is actually nothing to do with Spiderman, but is named after Matthew Parker (1504-1570), one time Archbishop of Canterbury under Elizabeth I, and even more prestigiously, former Master of Corpus.  Among other things, Parker was a prolific collector of ancient manuscripts and fortunately, a generous one.  He was a great benefactor of Corpus, as well as Gonville and Caius and our fair Trinity Hall.  His munificent benefaction to Corpus included his books and manuscripts, and it’s an incredibly fine collection.  Parker also seemed to understand its value–so his benefaction reveals a sense of his fondness for the college.  And he also understood how precious this collection was, which led him to draw up some practical and, dare I say, stringent conditions for their protection.  An annual inspection was to be conducted, led alternately by the Librarian at Caius and at Trinity Hall, and should twelve (12) items be missing, the entire collection would pass to the ownership of Caius with immediate effect.  Should any carelessness emerge at Caius, then Trinity Hall would become the lucky recipient of this astonishing gift.  It’s quite a relief then, for all concerned I’m sure, that the clause was never evoked.  Parker’s stipulations are now merely ceremonial, and a good excuse for a big posh dinner.  That’s my kind of library rule.

Not Spiderman

The collection at the Parker is nothing short of extraordinary. Really. I mean it. In normal circumstances I’d be telling you to go and see for yourself, but I don’t need to–because it’s all ONLINE.  You can, from the comfort of your ergonomic desk chair, or comfy armchair, go to the Parker Library on the Web site.  This is the result of a digitisation project based at the Parker which took place from 2005 to 2009.  The aim of the project was to produce a high-resolution copy of almost every page of almost every manuscript in the Parker Library.  The result, the website, it astonishingly comprehensive, the images are of a brilliant quality, there’s lots of detail about each item, bibliographies, foliation detail, all sorts.  Just go and have a look (once you’ve finished reading my blog post, of course).  You can even look with a cup of tea in one hand and a chocolate biccie in the other (mind your computer though). It’s quite simply a fabulous resource and the result of some really serious teamwork.

Random old book 1

One of the highlights of my week was a morning spent at the Cambridge Conservation Consortium, which is based at Corpus.  The conservators, Elizabeth, Edward, Jo (who’s in training) and Melvin (in absentia) spent some time showing their very high-tech conservation equipment.  My favourite piece was the guillotine which is approximately the size of a small country.  They chatted to me about some of the things they do, what they enjoy doing the most, they let me watch them repair things and showed me some finished conservation, and spoke to me about some of the decisions they have to make concerning how they choose to conserve an item.  I learned, most of all, that the work of a conservator requires an amazing variety of skills and talents, and the conservators were all, without exception, staggeringly clever and proficient.  I left completely in awe of them, and having been beaten over the head with a big dose of mediocrity.

Random old books 2 (and skull)

So, while at the Parker Library I learned: about the ‘vault’, high-security and high-tech, where the manuscripts are kept and protected; how damage to the early printed books is prevented through regular, thorough cleaning; how conservation projects are prioritised; exhibitions, and how to make them good; readers, and how to make them behave (thanks in particular to a kind and willing engineer who pretended to be a medievalist for the day for my sake); the good, the bad and the ugly of enquiries–and how the digitisation project has affected them; … and loads of stuff more.  There are practices that they’ve got at the Parker–such as an image database of the ex libris bookplates in their collection–which are so self-evidently good and useful I really hope we might be able to implement them here.

See, I actually did do SOME work…

I really enjoyed my four useful and brilliant days at the Parker Library and I’m so grateful to all the staff (including Liam at the Taylor Library) for all the tea and chocolates (crucial), for the good lunches (surprising), for their time and patience and for making me feel so incredibly welcome.  I of course extended an invitation to them to visit us here at Trinity Hall–and that invitation still stands–as long as they don’t suggest too many improvements…

Home sweet home

PS The Parker Library also have a blog which is highly recommended!!

Sources:

Parker Library on the Web (here)

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3 thoughts on “Being nosey at the Parker Library

  1. Great post! So glad you enjoyed your time at the Parker Library and that you have brought back lots of brilliant ideas. Now we just have to put them into practice..! I hope the skull is not that of a librarian who stayed in the library too long.

  2. “the website is astonishingly comprehensive, the images are of a brilliant quality .. It’s quite simply a fabulous resource and the result of some really serious teamwork.”

    It is indeed. But it’s a pity that so much of it — including the high-resolution images and even the basic search facility — is behind a paywall. Fabulous resource for those of you in Cambridge, not so fabulous for the rest of us.

  3. I work in the Parker Library and was interested to read Arnold’s comments about Parker on the Web.

    It’s true that the search facility and the high resolution images are only available to subscribers. The subscription
    fees are used to pay for the ongoing running costs of the site – servers to host over 200,000 images, maintenance and upgrading. We are still working on the site, adding additional bibliography – and I hope in the future, additional functionality.

    We worked really hard to create a balance between making as much as possible available for free while ensuring that the added value in the subscription version was sufficient that institutions would want to purchase it. If you compare what we’ve made available with the digital offerings of other manuscript libraries, I think the free version is pretty good.

    I also think that this is part of a wider debate about the extent to which digital cultural products should be available online for free – or more accurately, how they should be financed – whether it’s music, books, TV programmes, images, newspapers, academic journals or whatever.

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