Rip Roaring Reading Room News: Full opening from Monday 28 September 2015

Our Reading Room

Our Reading Room

Great news everyone! We have extended our Reading Room opening hours. Up until now, although you have been able to visit our wonderful Reading Room Monday-Friday, 9-5, we have operated a restricted service on a Monday. This meant that, on a Monday, we opened later (10am) and we were unable to retrieve material from our store.

But we are delighted to say that from (and including) Monday 28 September – our Reading Room will be ready for your visit and fully accessible, open and with staff making trips to the store to retrieve material throughout the day:

Every Monday to Friday – 9am to 5pm!

Our last retrieval from the store is at 4.15pm and we collect all closed access material in at 4.45pm.

(Allowing for a brief hiatus in retrievals from the store while our Reading Room staff take a hard earned lunch break between 1-2pm)

Our Reading Room

Our Reading Room

So why not pay us a visit?  You can find more information on using our Reading Room here.  If you have any queries or would like to order up material in advance, you can contact us at

Behind the scenes: digitisation of East German WW2 propaganda films

Ramona Salzgeber from the Centre of Eastern German Studies is working with us at Special Collections as an intern. For research purposes she is working to digitise propaganda films from WW2 and films from the DDR from the CEGS archival collection which will later be transferred to Special Collections for storage.

VHS tapes Ramona is working too digitse here at Special Collections

VHS tapes Ramona is working to digitse here at Special Collections

Working with old film material can be very interesting. Most of the films that are dealt with at the Centre of Eastern German Studies are propaganda films and films from the DDR time. The propaganda films show mostly the “happy and fun” time from WW2 and would not make you think of war time or pre-war time. Additionally, films from the DDR can be under censorship which did not allow any references to the war at all.

As the films are on old video cassettes, they have to be digitized in order to save the. Most of those films in the Archive were recorded in the 80s and 90s when people still had to process a lot from the past century.

What a lot of people may have forgotten about those old video tapes, is that every time you play the cassette it gets slightly broken. Therefore, a cassette cannot be played forever. That’s when my part in the Archive starts. I copy the films in real time, which means I also watch every film I archive. If you are interested in history this is definitely a dream job!

Many of those cassettes are not working properly anymore and digitizing them can be quite difficult. The sound can change sometimes and pictures start to flare occasionally. It is important though to keep going as this might be the last chance to save all this old film material. This is part of history and it should be available for later researching purposes.

It is to say that there are also many documentaries which might be depressing sometimes, as they are from WW2 times. But this is why we work with history, to learn from it and hopefully to prevent it from happening again!

Please contact us at for more information.

A strange sad week in the Beckett archive


Beckett library at University of Reading Special Collections Service

Beckett library at University of Reading Special Collections Service

It has been a very sad week for all of us involved with the Beckett Collection, as it marked the passing of two people associated with him, as well as the 25th anniversary of his death. Billie Whitelaw is widely recognised as having been Beckett’s favourite actress and the foremost interpreter of his work. Our colleague Professor Anna McMullan paid a fulsome tribute to Billie and noted her long association with the University of Reading.

The news of Billie’s death came on Sunday. On Friday we had announced that the University of Reading and the Beckett International Foundation had purchased the archive of Billie’s work with Beckett, and we were (and remain) full of excitement about that. The purchase has been the result of Special Collections staff working closely with academic colleagues to raise the necessary funding. It is this type of collaboration that created the Beckett Collection here at Reading and that helps to sustain and enhance it.

On Sunday we also learned of the death of veteran photographer Jane Bown. Her encounter with Beckett was less collaborative than those of Billie Whitelaw: Bown surprised him in an alley outside the Royal Court Theatre after he had spent the day avoiding her lens. The result was a portrait that has become one of the most iconic images of the author.

The co-incidence of these two extraordinary women dying on the same day  perhaps enables a moment to reflect on the strange and different ways in which works of art comes to be “born”. Billie Whitelaw’s brilliant interpretations of Beckett’s work were the result of long rehearsal periods and many hours of discussion, and of a close, friendly association – Dr Mark Nixon has called it a “crucial working relationship”, and the archive will throw more light on exactly how they worked. Jane Bown’s incredible image was certainly not the result of a collaborative venture – it was spontaneous to a large extent. In some ways it is a reminder of the fable about Picasso charging an exorbitant sum for a quick sketch (“It took me my whole life”).

While mourning their passing, we celebrate the extraordinary lives of these three people and the incredible art that their encounters – both long and short – generated.

A trip to the SS Great Britain

This post comes from David, our Graduate Trainee Library Assistant. Each year, our teams visit a few other collections to learn about how they work and what material they offer. 

Photograph by Mike Peel (,  via Wikimedia Commons

Photograph by Mike Peel (, via Wikimedia Commons

With just three weeks under my belt, I felt very fortunate to go on the staff trip to Bristol at the end of November. Although my Grandparents live in Ashton Vale and I have visited them often I had never really been to the centre of the city before. So it was with great anticipation that I met up with everyone outside the SS Great Britain. After a look round the gift shop, we were taken into the David MacGregor Library of the Brunel Institute where archive staff member Verity’s sister, Rhian, introduced us to their collections. Highlights included Brunel’s very own penknife, sketches of the ship and early design ideas for the Clifton Suspension Bridge with a pagoda in the middle! There was also a peepshow of the London tunnel (the collection had 12 in total), like Special Collections’ own from the Great Exhibition Collection. Their archive store was much smaller than ours but all the objects, paintings and papers were packed in neatly. I was surprised that there was no dedicated librarian but what they lacked in staff numbers they made up for in access. The conservators work behind glass panels so people can see them at work during their Conservation in Action sessions and they deal with over 100 volunteers. Another idea that we thought was possibly worth doing at MERL or Special Collections in the future was Archive in Five, a regular session in which a particular item is put on display and its story is explained to the public.

By mattbuck (category) (Photo by mattbuck.), via Wikimedia Commons

By mattbuck, via Wikimedia Commons

On first approaching the SS Great Britain you get some idea of its size but it’s only when you walk around it that the scale truly sinks in. Very cleverly the ship is preserved in dry dock in a humidified zone and you can go below the water level and fully see the hull, propeller and anchor. From the top deck down the ship has been refurbished to its mid-nineteenth century heyday (including class distinctions)! The promenade and dining saloons give an idea of the grandeur of travel for first class passengers at the time (as well as providing workspace for educational visits), while the steerage and galley sections show how the other half sailed. The accompanying Dockyard Museum was also atmospheric and informative; covering the ship’s origins, its 30 years carrying migrants to Australia, its return to Bristol and much more. You could have a go on the fog-horn too!

The second part of the trip was at Bristol University Special Collections but due to the bad traffic (clearly one reason I’d never made it to the centre before), we were only there for half an hour. Still, the staff there were very welcoming and showed us some highlights from their rare books including architectural and early medical texts (though we’d seen Vesalius before) and National Liberal Club Pamphlets. In the safe there was a fine Book of Hours like our own and the papers of Bristol University’s founders, the Wills and Fry families, who in some respects couldn’t have been more different. The former made their fortune from tobacco plantations while the latter were leading chocolate manufacturers and Quakers. Lastly, we had a quick look at the Penguin archive which is one publisher that managed to escape Reading’s collections. All in all, to quote Bristol’s very own Wallace and Gromit, it was a grand day out!

Life behind the scenes and beyond …

Today’s post comes from our Library Assistant Helen, who has a special interest in books about illustration and design and has been working on the Mark Longman Library.

When I joined the library as Library Assistant 15 years ago, little did I know where it would lead me. I have remained in this post, but I have had many opportunities that exceeded the role, so progression didn’t seem important.

I spend half my time working with the new books on their way through cataloguing and onto the shelf in the library at Whiteknights and the other working with the elderly and rare books at Special Collections.

For the last 10 years I have had sole responsibility for the Mark Longman Library, a collection of books from the publisher’s archive. I have reclassified 4,000 books and pamphlets relating to all aspects of the publishing world from 1900-1980. I have handled every book and as time as gone by I have made some intimate connections with some items.

During this time I have also worked on a little collection of contemporary items published by the Two Rivers Press, a local private press founded by the late Peter Hay who was a print-maker and illustrator.  I enjoyed his work so much I began printmaking and drawing with a view to become an illustrator myself.

As you can imagine, while I worked steadily through the Mark Longman books, I came across many about book design, illustration and binding. I soon noticed who were the most favoured engravers and illustrators of the early 20th century.

As the classification draws to a close I am also looking back at the lesser known artists of the publishing world and take the opportunity to try myself.

This year my son-in-law, who writes short stories, had a motorbike accident. While he has been unable to work (as a social worker), he has collated and published his recent works. I was asked to design the cover, and I was able to use the many works in the Longman collection as inspiration.

This week the book was launched and celebrated in Rio de Janeiro to an excited audience. The stories are those of a Carioca in Rio; although still in Portuguese, the book will be translated into English in the New Year and will be a candid insight into life on the streets of Rio without the spin that we have seen of late during World Cup and will see during the Olympics.

Behind the scenes: Volunteering at Special Collections

Today’s post comes from Eleanor Wale, a former volunteer for our library team as well as in MERL. Eleanor’s volunteering stood her in good stead, and she is now the Library Graduate Trainee for Christ’s College, Cambridge.

Labelling Landscape Institute books

Labelling Landscape Institute books

Having been a volunteer at both the University of Reading’s Special Collections and the Museum of English Rural Life, I was fortunate to get a glimpse behind the scenes in heritage and information sectors. While the hands-on nature of being a tour guide at MERL engaged my enthusiasm for history, it was volunteering at Special Collections that appealed to my love of libraries and my passion for books. While volunteering back home at my local public library during my GCSEs and A Levels gave me experience in public libraries, it was learning of Library Graduate Trainee Schemes during a careers session provided by the University that spurred me to seek further library experience in academic or research libraries while studying for my history degree. This was how I began to volunteer at MERL and Special Collections.

I first answered the door once a week to visitors of Special Collections, so that the Reading Room desk remained manned, while transcribing a Longman Publisher’s ledger into an Excel spreadsheet, a task that was worked on by many volunteers. This was a pleasant and useful task – and as I have since discovered, anyone interested in working in libraries must be able to perform this type of task adeptly, without losing either enthusiasm or concentration! As this duty became redundant I was then asked to help with the re-indexing of the library cuttings. These have often been acquired from external sources. Despite not getting through as many as I had wished, re-indexing was a thoroughly enjoyable task. The process of indexing the cuttings under the library, not museum, system not only rationalised and explained the classification system used but also showed me various interesting and amusing clippings.

The last major task I helped with was the labelling of books from the Landscape Institute. Although hours of typing and cutting labels down to size might not be the most interesting task for some people, I personally enjoyed using the Kroy machine and exploring the classification system further; now working with the Library of Congress Classification system I have found that using a non-Dewey system at MERL and Special Collections was immensely useful!

During my final year of my degree I also worked in the University’s main library. Yet, having begun to work in Christ’s College Library Cambridge where I will begin my traineeship in September, it is certainly my volunteering experience at MERL and Special Collections that has confirmed my love of library work. Without a doubt the volunteering I have been fortunate enough to undertake at Special Collections gave me a wonderful insight into the workings of academic libraries, particularly where the collections are unusual and unique. I can only hope my traineeship at Christ’s will be as enjoyable a time as I had at MERL and Special Collections!

A place for everything… and everything (hopefully!) in its place: the wonderful role of UMASCS Graduate Trainee Library Assistant

As we look to recruit a new Graduate Trainee Library Assistant (closing date 25/08/2014) here is a quick introduction to the role and overview of my day to day activities…

Written by Claire Wooldridge, UMASCS Graduate Trainee Library Assistant


ook jacket exhibition I assisted with (Winter 2014)

Book jacket exhibition I assisted with (Winter 2014)

The role of GT here at UMASCS has been exciting and varied, packed with interesting projects and valuable opportunities for new experiences and training.  Below is a brief introductory overview of the requirements of this role.

My main tasks revolve around assisting the UMASCS library team and taking care of the day to day operations of the MERL and Special Collections libraries.  Each day is different as I complete a variety of tasks; I rarely spend a whole day sat at my desk.  There are certainly lots of tasks to keep on top of, but it is this variety that I have enjoyed most whilst working at Special Collections!

A place for everything…

Every day I make time to keep up with shelving, of books used by readers in the reading room, that have been returned to our closed access stores and of new books.  During University term time I will fetch books from the store that have been selected by the librarian and academics in the University for use in teaching (and await the later need to shelve them again!).  I will also assist readers and colleagues if they are having trouble finding books.

Reading Room

Our Reading Room

Our Reading Room

Here at UMASCS all members of the library and archive team contribute to the staffing of the reading room service.  The reading room is mainly run by the archives graduate trainee (the Reading Room Assistant) and as the library trainee, I am likely to do 1-2 half day shifts a week in the reading room.  Essentially this involves supervising readers in their use of collections, assisting readers with enquiries, fetching material from the store, registering new readers and coordinating enquiries on a wide range of topics from members of the public on the phone, in person or by email.

I also collect and compile a range of statistics which are then made available to the librarian, on usage on the reading room (using our events booking software) and rare book and open access book usage.  I often complete this task while on reading room duty.

Book processing

Doing some book repairs

Doing some book repairs

One of my more office based tasks is carrying out a range of different types book processing.  I label books catalogued by the library team, using our labelling making machine called the Kroy, and shelve them appropriately.  I have also been trained by our Conservation Manager to conduct book repairs, so I might spend half a day a week conducting small repairs, such as repairing pages and book jackets, replacing boards and cleaning books.  I also bib check books donated to the library, this involves checking new titles against our catalogue to see if they are already in stock here or at the main library.  I will assist the rare books cataloguer by beginning the cataloguing process by accessioning books, downloading records for new books from a database and editing those records before passing the item to the cataloguer.  Sometimes I classify books using the MERL library classification, or withdraw items from our accession registers which are no longer required.

Volunteers are a really important part of our work at UMASCS, I will often supervise and assist library volunteers and work experience students with their book processing tasks, such as labelling, bib checking and listing of uncatalogued collections.

Social media

At @UniRdg_SpecColl and Beckett, Books and Biscuits: University of Reading Special Collections we have a social media presence through Twitter and our WordPress blog, which I regularly contribute content to.  We are always looking to increase our output and impact by engaging with relevant events and trends.  Sometimes we do this in collaboration with our colleagues at MERL, I recently spent a purrfect afternoon searching our collections for images of cats to mark #Museums Cats day (see above and  On occasion I also do some web editing.

Alongside these duties I will also attend regular staff meetings, heartily partake in regular tea and cake breaks, assist with exhibitions, occasionally visit our off site store and spend time answering library enquiries forwarded to me from other colleagues.

So as you can see, life as a GT here at UMASCS is varied, exciting, interesting and a fantastic opportunity; the perfect grounding to pursue a career in Special Collections.  Please apply here if you’re interested in the GT position for 2014-2016.

The making of an exhibition: Max Weber

Professor Anna Gruetzner Robins (Department of Art, University of Reading) has been instrumental in building the current exhibition at London’s Ben Uri Gallery on the cubist painter Max Weber. The exhibition, which is on until 5 October, includes paintings and rare books from our collections.

Portrait of Max Weber from Alvin Langdon Coburn's Men of Mark (1913) (Coburn Collection)

Portrait of Max Weber from Alvin Langdon Coburn’s Men of Mark (1913) (Coburn Collection)

The making of Max Weber: An American Cubist in Paris and London 1905–15, currently on at the Ben Uri Gallery in London, took place over several years. The exhibition focuses on a collection of Weber  pictures  left to the University in 1966 by the photographer Alvin Langdon Coburn, who also features. I was unaware of their existence until a few years ago. I knew little about Weber but I remembered that his name cropped up in books I had read about the Bloomsbury Group, and  I could see that the pictures were of good quality. After reading Coburn’s letters to Weber, I realised that they represented some of Weber’s best early work, and that they had a great historic value for British Modernism. Many of them were in a 1913 exhibition organised by the critic and painter Roger Fry, and Coburn subsequently made his Hammersmith photographic studio a showcase for the entire collection. 

I  decided to plan an exhibition which would tell the story of the collection, and I approached Sarah MacDougall , the Eva Frankfurther Research and Curatorial Fellow for the Study of Émigré Artists and Head of Collections  at Ben Uri. Sarah is a Reading graduate  and well known for her work on Mark Gertler and other British Modernists. Sarah came to see the collection with David Glasser, the Director of the Gallery. David was a great fan of Weber, who is very well known in America where his work is in all the major museum collections.

Weber's the Dancers

Max Weber, The Dancers (1912). Pastel and chalk. University of Reading Art Collection

We decided to make the exhibition in three sections: 1) the formative years Weber spent in Paris, where he persuaded Matisse to set up a teaching studio and got to know Henri Rousseau and Picasso; 2) Weber’s friendship with Coburn; 3) Fry’s 1913 First Grafton Group Show. To do this we needed to borrow pictures from America for the first section, and also comparative works by  British artists that had been shown alongside the 11 Webers in Fry’s show. The last task was problematic because  while Fry identified the exhibits by Weber and Kandinsky, he chose not to indicate which picture was by which British artist, all of whom were nameless in the catalogue. It was only by reading reviews of Fry’s show that I identified some of the British works. We borrowed them from the Ashmolean, the Courtauld Galleries, the Government Art Collection, the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Tate, the Victoria and Albert Museum and several private collectors. The exhibition and accompanying book also include photographs taken by Alvin Langdon Coburn of Weber, his contemporaries and his art from the University of Reading Special Collections.

The book that accompanies the exhibition  makes a lasting contribution to Weber scholarship. My essay explains the exhibition history of  the University of Reading Webers, but with so many stories to tell we decided to bring in a team of international art experts including Weber scholar Dr Percy North, Dr Nancy Ireson, who researched Weber and Paris, Coburn expert Pamela Roberts and Lionel Kelly, who the professor responsible for the paintings coming to the University.

Max Weber's Cubist Poems (1914) (Elkin Matthew Collection)

Max Weber’s Cubist Poems (1914) (Elkin Matthews Collection)

The day finally came when we stood in Ben Uri watching large crates of pictures from as far away as New York being unpacked and hung by a technical team trained to place pictures safely on the wall. Sarah and I had worked out where we wanted to place the pictures and the accompanying explanatory texts  beforehand. Everyone was delighted with the installation. The exhibition looks superb, and the 250 people who attended the private view seemed to agree. I urge you to go and see it.

Max Weber: An American Cubist in Paris and London 1905–1915
Ben Uri Gallery
108a Boundary Road , off Abbey Road, NW8 ORH
Tuesday–Friday 10am–5.30pm; Sunday 12 noon–4pm

The accompanying book, Max Weber: An American Cubist in Paris and London 1905–1915, is available for sale in the gallery, and is distributed by Lund Humphries.

The A-list archive: filming the Mills & Boon collection for the BBC’s Celebrity Antiques Road Trip

Today’s guest post from Judith Watts explores our Mills & Boon Collection. Judith is studying for her PhD as part of a unique collections-based research project at the University of Reading. The working title of her thesis, which explores the nexus between publisher, author and reader, is The Limits of Desire: the Mills & Boon Romance Market, 1946-1973.

Mills and Boon books

Judith shows off a selection of Mills & Boon books for the BBC

What happens when the archive you’re researching is a star attraction?

Since I began my PhD last October in the British Publishing and Publishing Archive at Reading, I have been thinking about how and why different people have used the Mills & Boon collection to tell a story or support a particular point of view. As mentioned in a previous blog post, the fact that Mills & Boon is a household name means that it has been the subject of a number of TV and radio programmes – especially around the 100-year anniversary of the company in 2009. If you haven’t watched Consuming Passion, Guilty Pleasures, or How to Write a Mills and Boon they are well worth the time. The people behind these projects have approached archival material in different ways to tell their tale of the house of romance. It’s now my turn.

On Valentine’s Day this year I worked with the inspirational archives team here to showcase the collection using the ‘naughty notebook’. In selecting the ‘innuendo’ angle we were able to suggest in a short article how the language of love and desire has changed over time – a narrative which holds special interest for me. It led me to wonder how much we appropriate collections to enhance our own critical thinking or creative acts – and if our subjectivity helps or hinders when we want to engage the interest of others? On 9 July I had to think about this again when reading Special Collections hosted the Celebrity Antiques Road Trip team. This time it was a dual between presenter Rebecca Wilcox and her mother, Esther Rantzen (who had been a guest at the Evacuee archive the previous day). In part of the show the TV personality, together with an antiques expert – in this case, the charming Will Axon – visit a place of interest and are shown its treasures.

So how do you decide what to share when so much is so significant? Which letters do you extract from thousands to demonstrate the archive’s social, cultural and historical importance? Of the many and varied authors, who do you choose to best represent key parts of the story? Which covers are most evocative or cherished? Squeezing a whole collection into a five-minute broadcast means hard choice. Naturally you think of the audience. What might appeal to the widest range of viewers? How can you catch their attention without perpetuating the myths that exist? Fortunately the BBC researcher had done his homework – we needed to provide context, to cover how M&B grew and reflected the changes in society and notions of romance. But what criteria should I use to select material for its short moment of fame?

In the end I deferred to a thought-provoking article I’d read called Materiality Matters: Experiencing the Displayed Object. While it made sense to choose Betty Beaty and Violet Winspear as different yet representative authors, I selected the objects (letters, a photograph, a postcard, a sketch) which had ‘spoken’ to me, that I had connected with emotionally during my research. Through these evocative objects I felt confident about sharing my passion for the archive with Rebecca and Will. What I hadn’t expected to witness was the spark when Rebecca connected to a letter from Violet to Alan Boon. It referenced her forthcoming appearance on the BBC’s Man Alive programme. Rebecca’s father, Desmond Wilcox, had produced the programme in 1970 when Winspear achieved notoriety for her comments about male heroes. It was fascinating to experience the archive coming to life in this way. In some special way it reduced the distance between us all.

Judith and the BBC team 're-enacting' M&B covers

Judith and the BBC team ‘re-enacting’ M&B covers

The following day I read a letter in the files about how nice Desmond had been. I’m glad.
I have become very fond of Violet – protective even. She is too often characterised in the Mills & Boon story as the spinster who lived at home with her mother and cat writing racy books. Her thoughts on writing and desire have engaged me at a fundamental level, and I like to think that the archives can tell a fuller version of her story than they have so far. There is also so much more to write about how we attribute meaning and value to objects and how we experience them in archives. But for now I can say that exposing even a small part of the Mills & Boon collection for national TV was great fun – even if it took four hours of filming to create four minutes. Who knows what will make the final cut! I can’t imagine that I won’t be embarrassed when it airs in November, but I hope we managed to leave the viewers wanting more.

Further watching and reading:

And of course, Celebrity Road Trip in November!

With thanks to all the archives and library team for their help, especially Nancy Fulford for her role as ‘runner’.

Behind the scenes: Work experience at Special Collections

Today’s post in from Anna, who spent her week of work experience on the library side of Special Collections.

I applied for work experience at the Reading University Library because I adore books and I have been thinking about becoming a librarian. When I found out that I would be working in Special Collections I was ecstatic. I loved being able to have the opportunity to learn new things about the library, the books and even a little of what it takes to get books on the system and keep things running.

During my time working in Special Collections I have been able to see some of the amazing collections including Cole, Overstone and the collection of children’s books. Among the collections that I didn’t get to see are the Archive of British Publishing and Printing and The Beckett Collection. Reading University Library has the largest collection of Beckett in the world containing over 600 manuscripts, typescripts and photocopied transcripts.

In my short time here I have been able to help organise some of the material from the Landscape Institute that is slowly being phased into the library. Also I have been able to shadow one of the library assistants as they processed rare books in the collections that were not yet on the system and saw the first step in this process.

Special Collections is right next to the Museum of English Rural Life, or MERL for short. Because of this Special Collections has quite a large section in the open library about agriculture. This also means that during the course of the week I was able to have a look at a good part of the Museum. I saw two of the rats from the rat trail and I got to see the corn dollies, one of which is a six-foot tall King Alfred which is on loan to the TATE (so I wasn’t able to see it). During the week I was also able to help with some transcribing of one of the collection catalogues.

A rat on the MERL rat trail!

A rat on the MERL rat trail!

My favourite tasks during the week came when I was helping in the reading room; I helped one of the reading room librarians collect items from the archives. During this little excursion I discovered that the Reading University Library has connections to the library in Hiroshima; the University library sent books over to them to help back on their feet after the incident.

I also enjoyed looking around MERL and the library itself and being able to come and experience this has been fantastic.

I want to thank everybody at Special Collections for allowing me to come in for work experience. It has been an enlightening venture that I enjoyed thoroughly.