You might think of institutions like museums and libraries as places to visit: defined, more or less, by the physical boundaries of their buildings. Indeed, we at the Whipple Library are used to playing host to all kinds of students, staff and visitors with an interest in our collections – whether they are using the library space to study, consult rare material or simply take advantage of Eduroam. Likewise, our colleagues at the Whipple Museum organise a wide range of activities for members of the University, visiting researchers and the general public. However, our work is not just about getting people through the front doors. In this blog post, I’ll talk about an opportunity we had earlier this year to team up with the Whipple Museum, taking some of our Special Collections on a (careful!) jaunt across Cambridge in the name of education.

On 30 January 2019, we accompanied the Whipple Museum’s learning co-ordinator to Impington Village College, a secondary school a few miles north of Cambridge, to help deliver the Museum’s post-16 teaching session on Darwinism to a group of International Baccalaureate students. This is a session we have collaborated on for several years – in fact, we wrote about it last year. The session centres on Charles Darwin’s The Origin of Species, and discusses the background of and reactions to his work. It is normally taught in the museum itself, but this can be a challenge when your building is undergoing a facelift. While the Museum staff have participated in plenty of other events around Cambridge while the building is being restored, this was my first opportunity as a library assistant to talk about our material somewhere other than the safe haven of the library office.

Much of the session is taught using objects from the Museum’s handling collections and copies of books that are on our open shelves, as these items are robust enough to survive the attentions of herds of students. However, our Special Collections include a wealth of material on evolution, and teaching sessions are a great opportunity to showcase it to people who might not otherwise get to see it.

Transporting and displaying Special Collections material outside of the library comes with risks – the environment is not as predictable or controlled, people are often not as familiar with the etiquette of rare book handling, and you have much more individual responsibility for the safety of the material. As such, my role at the teaching session was twofold: to talk about the books in the plenary, in the context of what the students had been learning about, and also to keep a very close eye on the material, making sure nothing went astray or suffered abuse.

People seem to be used to treating material designated as “rare” or “special” in an almost reverential manner. This is something we tend to reinforce in the way we display these items – carefully laid out and supported, and often locked up in a case. There are of course important practical reasons for this, since we want to minimise the risk of damage in order to preserve the material, but it can be somewhat alienating. When we present material like this outside of its ‘usual’ environment, at least some of these barriers are reduced or removed. There is no protective glass, for instance, and often I will handle the books when talking about them to people.

My experience of showing rare books to people in this sort of context – particularly when they are unfamiliar with them – tends to go one of two ways. Either they are wary of coming too close, apparently for fear of damaging the material by merely being in its vicinity, or they interpret the lack of barrier as an invitation to try and handle it, generally with no awareness that items as apparently innocuous as pens or hand cream need to be kept away. Ensuring the safety of the material is my primary concern, especially in the latter case, but it’s a pleasure to be able to help demystify rare books to both groups – both explaining why and how they need to be kept safe if need be, but also showing people that material like this can be consulted the same as any other book, if done with care.

Throughout the session students and teachers were able to come and look at the books we had brought, and during the plenary we put these books in the context of the activities they had been doing. In doing so, we were able to illustrate some of the things that can be gained from looking at the works as they were previously printed. For instance, though the text of the sixth edition of The Origin of Species will be the same whether it was printed in 1872 or 2002, merely reading the text won’t show you that the 6th edition had a paperback ‘popular impression’ in 1901, which was available far more cheaply than any previous printing, and so accessible to a broader audience.

We were also able to show multiple editions of The Origin of Species, highlighting some key differences (and similarities) between the first and later editions. Being able to show the incremental nature of key texts like this gives students a perspective on the interaction between book and context that may not be as clear from a modern reprint.

The content of the Darwinism session is interesting in and of itself, and people who come to sessions like this in the Whipple Museum do of course get to see and work with the Museum handling collections and our material when they do so, which can really liven up the material. However, I think being able to take at least some of these items out of the more structured, controlled and perhaps intimidating environment of the museum has its own kind of value, and we are very fortunate to be able to arrange events like this. Since it’s fairly unusual to experience rare books outside of museums, libraries and private collections, it’s great to be able to show people in a slightly more casual environment that this material is interesting and useful in and of itself – not merely a contextless relic to be wondered over behind protective glass.

Written by James, library assistant.