Coming to the End

We all knew from the start that the traineeships were fixed term contracts, but fifteen months seemed such a long time. That was now fourteen and a half months ago. The time has absolutely flown by – as it tends to do when one is having fun – and I sometimes wonder what I did with it all. The answer would be quite a lot!

With four exhibitions, a major collections decant, the setting up of a pop-up museum and the studying for a postgraduate certificate, this year has certainly been a busy one. Add to that the general day-to-day running of the library, the delivery of tours, answering enquiries and running a social media presence, and it soon becomes clear just how much I have achieved as part of this traineeship.

I have been able to learn new skills – in volunteer management, in palaeography, in digital image editing, cataloguing, preventative conservation and public speaking – while keeping my existing abilities in Latin and research skills nice and sharp.

Then there have been the discoveries I have made and the institutional knowledge about the collection that I have been able to add to – whether through finding (perhaps) the first evidence of Hops being grown in England or discovering that some of our books were once owned by important Elizabethan courtiers! It’s been great to share these findings with a wider audience through the library blog, and I’m currently training up some volunteers to keep it running after I’ve gone – do keep up with it here: !


Deciphering obscure book provenances has proved to be very rewarding!

I’m due to start my new job as a Project Research Assistant at Guildford Museum in early November. I’m very excited to be starting my new role, and have no doubt that my traineeship will have prepared me very well for it. I will, however, thoroughly miss the library and its collection. That’s not even to mention the staff here and the volunteers! To everyone involved in the traineeship – I thank you from the bottom of my heart for what has been the most fascinating and illuminating period of my life so far!

Tom Hopkins


Decanting the Past into the Future

As was mentioned in my previous blog about the Trainees’ swap shop hosted at the Cathedral, we are having some pretty serious work done to the library’s ceiling. In order to protect our lovely books from the manifold dangers implicit in building work of such a nature, it was necessary to move them out – wholesale – to another location.


Books being wrapped.

My previous blog dealt with wrapping. Today I’d like to talk to you about packing. And shifting. Putting books into boxes has many advantages. It makes it easier to carry lots of them in one go. It also adds a sturdy layer of corrugated cardboard to further protect them.

First, the boxes were gently layered with bubble wrap, and the books, upon being deposited inside, were lovingly ensconced within a protective helping of biodegradable filler-puffs (christened ‘Wotsits’ by one of our volunteers, owing to their similarity with the popular maize-based, cheese-flavoured snack).

Boxes can, of course, sometimes be too heavy. We had to make sure that our boxes weighed no more than 15kg – roughly the weight of a small spaniel, or fifteen one kilogram bags of self-raising flour. But we had no scales, and a rare books library is no place for animals or food. So we launched an appeal for loans of bathroom scales, and received a really good response. At first, we would weigh ourselves. Then we would weigh ourselves holding a box. Using maths, it was possible to work out how much the box weighed. At length, though, we discovered that it was better to just weigh the books. Not least, this prevented any sensitive information about my own body weight from falling into enemy hands.


The old technique of weighing boxes was soon superseded by a more efficient method.

We recorded information as we went. Each box was numbered, and the shelf-marks of the books were recorded as and when they were put into the boxes. This means that we can tell straightaway which box contains which books – a helpful way to keep track of them as they move between sites.

Books in boxes take up much more room than books on shelves. Unlike Tokyo, it’s just an inefficient use of space. This meant that it soon seemed like we had more boxes than we had room for – so we had to be really inventive. Every available bit of floor, shelf, cupboard or flat surface was used, while making sure we left passageways between the stacks of boxes, and keeping clear access to fire escapes and extinguishers. Safety first.


Many boxes.

As soon as the last books were boxed, it was time to take them out. Simultaneously, the builders swooped in and started preparing for their end of things. Even though the books would be safe, our (far less portable) 17th Century shelving had to stay in place, and required protection.


The specialist builders prime the shelves with protective sheeting.

As any of you who have visited the library will now, access is only available via a narrow spiral staircase. Moving all the boxes down there would be a task not even Hercules could manage. Fortunately, we had a lift installed, and had the help of the Cathedral’s service team move everything out.


Hercules wasn’t required for this job, but Theseus was – in order to navigate around the labyrinth formed by the boxes.

It took us three and a half days to achieve in the end. Fortunately, the weekend came in the middle of that period – providing much needed rest and recuperation. In the end, we had something like 1500 boxes – getting on for 22,500 kg in weight – almost as much as a Soviet T-34 tank, although considerably less than a Tiger II.


The library – almost empty.

The building work is due to finish in the Summer – and then we have to move everything back in.

Tom Hopkins

Our First Swap Shop: Worcester Cathedral Library

As part of our traineeships, we’re each encouraged to host the other trainees at our placements, so that they might learn skills not necessarily on offer in their own ones. The library hosted the first of these last week, and all agreed that it was a fun and successful day!

As the library is closing due to repair work on its ceiling, all the books are having to be wrapped and packed for their safekeeping. Owing to the great age of most of our books, this means more than just shoving them into a box! First, the books need to be vacuum cleaned, before being wrapped in acid-free tissue paper. This helps to stop both dust and sunlight from getting to and damaging the books, as well as forming a protective layer between them and harmful, corrosive chemicals that may be present in non-archival grade card and plastics. Then the books are labelled so that we can keep track of their location. The boxes that they go in are lined with bubble wrap before being loaded, and any voids between the books and the sides of the box are filled with protective wadding.


Demonstrating the correct use of the vacuum cleaner.

That may still seem rather simple. The whole point of the swap shop was to show that such an exercise (known as a ‘decant’ in museum parlance) is rarely, if indeed ever, that straightforward. Books come in all shapes, sizes and different levels of condition – what technique may work for one could well spell doom for another. I demonstrated a number of packing options for some of our more poorly books – including one lacking its front and back-boards, spine, and most of its stitching. Even in a library, you can’t bank on every object being of regular dimensions. I showed a number of techniques for dealing with some of the more difficultly shaped objects in our holdings – not just books – including an iron crucifix, shrapnel-scarred organ pipe, and some orchestral batons.


Can Emalee and Rachel guess just what funnily shaped object is in the box?

Although I was leading the day, the process was always intended to be a two-way process. Those who had experience in working with collections before (which included most of us) were encouraged to share their insight. Etta showed a brilliant trick for easily lining boxes with tissue paper – which I wish I had learnt years ago – and Emalee had some very useful criticism on my wad-making technique.


Etta demonstrates her short-cut to acid-free bliss.

Aside from the educational aspect of the day, having the other trainees working in the library for the day really helped with the ongoing decant project, and we got through a truly impressive amount of material amongst the seven of us.

Tom Hopkins

Orangutans and Latin

When as a sixth-form student it was time to decide what to study at university, I was truly undecided. The way in which the world around me worked fascinated me just as much as delving back into the mysteries of the past. Eventually I was able to narrow my choices down to one of two options – do I study Biology, or Classics?

I chose the latter, and enjoyed every second of it. As the seconds ran out, I started to have to think about what I wanted to do for a career. At a bit of a loss, I started to volunteer in my local museum and absolutely fell in love with the heritage sector. Before coming to Worcester, I had volunteered at a range of different institutions: the London Borough of Sutton, the National Army Museum and the National Maritime Museum. As I learnt more and more about the periods of history covered by these organisations, I began to think that using my Latin would become a thing of the past for me – as too would indulging my interest in natural history.

How wrong I was. A good proportion of the books in the Cathedral library and archive are in Latin, and being able to read them has obvious benefits when it comes to carrying out research – or just being plain nosey. Leafing through one of our more sumptuously illustrated natural history books (and one written in Latin), I came across a rather dubious illustration of an orangutan. As I would later find out, this was actually the first ever depiction of the ape to appear in Europe, first published in 1631. Yet what was truly fascinating was the rather curious inscription underneath the picture: Loqui vero eos easque posse, Iavani aiunt, sed non velle, ne ad labores cogerentur: ridicule me Hercules! This translates as something like ‘The Javanese say that they [the orangutans] are able to speak, but do not want to, lest they be compelled to work. Ridiculous by God!’ I still find orangutans fascinating. Yet there’s just something truly amazing about reading the first European account of one – to think of the astonishment that a 17th Century Dutch naturalist must have felt at seeing this red-haired form – almost human, but not quite – swinging through the shadowy jungle, and his attempt to make sense of it all.


The first image of an orangutan to appear in Europe. Image copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK)

My interest was truly pricked. Here was book that had it all: Biology, Latin, and a good smattering of the histories of science and colonialism. I think it goes a long way to demonstrate too that it doesn’t matter what pathway you take into the heritage sector. The main thing is to be endlessly curious about everything and to really enjoy communicating that enthusiasm.

I was able to post many of the other lovely woodcuts from this book on twitter as part of #explorearchives week. I also enjoyed #archiveselfie feature – here’s one of me looking appropriately serious at work!


Archive selfie!

Read more about my encounter with the orangutan at Contact me on Twitter @TMPHopkins1

Tom Hopkins

If Monks had WordPress: Medieval Libraries and Social Media

As part of my traineeship I’m responsible for maintaining Worcester Cathedral Library’s social media presence, employing a Facebook page, a WordPress blog and a Twitter account. Our library is located up 46 steps of a very narrow spiral staircase, which can make access very difficult for many people. Yet our collection encompasses a vast range of material that is of interest to an international audience. Social Media is therefore a really good vehicle by which we can increase access – at least electronically – into a space that is physically remote from most people.

As I mentioned in my last post here, I’m starting to get some of our volunteers to help write material for the library’s blog. Not only does this mean that we get a broader range of topics covered, it also takes some of the work load off me so that I can focus on my exhibition work, palaeography lessons and tours. Yet that doesn’t mean I can always put volunteer-written articles up on our blog without doing any work on them. I have to proof read them (just as my supervisor does with my own posts), make sure they’re appropriate (they all have been so far), and sometimes do a little tinkering to make them read a bit better.


Quirky and fascinating, but maybe not beautiful. South American wildlife, allegedly. How could I not want to make material like this more readily accessible? Image copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK)

As part of a joint training session, all the Growing Worcestershire’s Treasure Skills for the Future trainees undertook a workshop on ‘Exciting Writing’, delivered by Kate Measures. I learnt an awful lot from this session about how to produce writing that is engaging, accessible, and of course exciting. Ever since, I have been trying to put the principles I learnt into practice – both in my own work and in that of my volunteers.


Ditto, with these fine sea monsters I came across recently. Image copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK)

Running the Facebook page requires rather less facility with written language, but it is an excellent platform on which to quickly post pictures. Each day, I’m bound to come across something quirky, fascinating or beautiful (and sometimes all three) in the library – so it’s a simple case of photographing it and whacking it on to our page for our followers to enjoy!

Check out our Facebook page at:

And our blog at:

Tom Hopkins

Enthusing, Enthralling and Entertaining: Learning how to do Tours

An important aspect of my traineeship has been learning how to conduct tours. Given the setting of Worcester Cathedral Library – up a very narrow medieval spiral staircase, and with no glass cases in front of our books – we cannot be open to the public all of the time, and visits must be escorted.  Yet conducting a tour is so much more than ensuring the well-being of our visitors and the security of our objects – it is also about educating and entertaining.


The tour that we offer typically lasts about an hour. That means there are a lot of books to get through (we get some out for display), and a lot of information to hold in your head at one time! So far, I’ve only been doing parts of the tours, while shadowing my supervisor for the remainder. However, he has taught me far more than just facts to regurgitate!

Knowing who your audience is and pitching to them is of critical importance. By picking up on someone’s particular interests, or where they’re from, we can present them with material that is going to fascinate them. Most recently, a group of retired nurses were engrossed with our anatomy and medical textbooks, a visitor from the Netherlands was keen to see one of our medieval Books of Hours written in Middle Dutch, and an American man was enthralled by some of our earlier maps that erroneously showed his native state of California to be an island.

It is a very rewarding experience when someone really enjoys their tour, but there is more in it than just personal satisfaction. The more impressed someone is by their visit to the Cathedral library, the more likely we are to benefit from word-of-mouth recommendations, or even receive generous donations. Interacting with the public face to face also gives me a good idea of what topics will be of most interest generally when it comes to the other roles encompassed by my traineeship: exhibition development and running the blog, both of which are all important aspects when it comes to opening up the collection of the library and archive to the widest possible audience.

Talking of the blog – we have a steadily growing number of hits per week, and I have now got a good amount of material coming in from our fantastic team of volunteers.  This is important for making sure that I don’t write just about the things that I’m interested in! See our latest content here:

Tom Hopkins

Magnificent Manuscripts and Incredible Incunabulae

Hello, Tom here at Worcester Cathedral Library and Archive.


The view from my window!

Like everyone else, I’ve been amazed by how fast the last few weeks have gone by! I’ve been working on a number of different projects at the same time, so no two days are quite the same. One of the first things I started with was updating our blog. The library has such a wealth of fascinating content, so I think it’s really important to try and share this with the widest possible audience. Social media seems the perfect vehicle for this – especially since access to the library can be tricky (up an 11th Century spiral staircase) and many of our objects are too fragile to handle regularly or put on long-term display.

I’ve been working closely with my supervisor, David, to learn important new skills. Unsurprisingly, book handling is one of these – and I now feel confident enough to leaf through the medieval manuscripts. However, my sense of awe that something so fragile and vulnerable could survive so long remains undiminished.


Another key skill I’m getting to grips with is palaeography, or the study of old hand writing. Apparently by the end of my 15 months I should be able to sail through texts like this:


Image copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK)