The Quay to Knowledge: Life in the Caird Library

Library Assistant Shane McMurray reflects on his role and reveals what it’s like to work in the Caird Library.

I am one of the newest Library Assistants working in the Caird Library and Archive, having joined the team in January 2019. A timely opportunity, then, to offer some thoughts on my role.

By Shane McMurray, Library Assistant

Paddling as hard as one can! Peter Halkett's The Boat Cloak 1848
Paddling as hard as one can! Peter Halkett's The Boat Cloak 1848

I had previous experience of university and public libraries, but this is my first research library, which presents its own unique set of challenges.

The workload is high but incredibly varied. It is fair to say that the past year has been quite the (steep) learning curve. I used to be a Caird Library volunteer and now, as part of my role, I co-ordinate fourteen volunteers! Luckily, the Museum provides plenty of training and support.

A seemingly daunting task is getting to grips with the Library and Archive collection.

It occupies twelve kilometres of shelving, half of which is dedicated to manuscripts and original documents divided into 749 different collections. The Library collection of published material numbers at approximately 135,000 items including over 20,000 rare books printed before 1850. Quite the task!

However, my main preoccupation when it comes to the collection is grappling with the weird and wonderful world of periodicals. I help to manage our 170 active print and electronic subscriptions and a collection that includes some 20,000 bound volumes. The Museum’s key interests concern naval and maritime heritage, art, time, and space – so there is much to cover!

I had to quickly learn a new library classification system (UDC), and how archive material is organized (the famous nine sections) before having a dozen item requests from readers thrust before you (gulp). Retrieving a large quantity of collection items safely and securely within the 40-minute window can be tough going! Fortunately, on the rare occasion when it has been too much to handle on my own, I have a friendly and knowledgeable group of librarians and archivists to call upon for assistance.

I am not toiling away in the archives all day to earn my keep, though. The Reading Room is the heart of our operation and I am regularly on hand to assist readers with any research questions they have. As a global maritime research hub, people come to us from all over the world with interests ranging from model-making to naval warfare. For those not able to make it to us in person, we receive over 1000 written enquiries a year and they all require a considered response.

Outside the Reading Room, the work continues. Group visits, manuscript study sessions for schools, writing digital content promoting our collections (look out for #CairdLibrary on Royal Museums Greewich's Twitter), and regular trips to our offsite storage facilities. 

All this experience is fantastic preparation for taking a postgraduate qualification in Library and Information Science or Archives and Records Management - should you choose to cross over to the dark side. If you are considering a career in libraries or archives do come along to the Caird Library. We may be able to have a chat and answer any questions you have.

The Library periodically advertises for voluntary roles so it is always worth checking the Museum’s website now and then as well.

Our collections are not just for maritime scholars and enthusiasts but art and cultural historians too. I studied art history at university and the amount of visual material available to view in the Library is a personal treat. Beautifully illustrated rare atlases, printed ephemera, personal sketches found in diaries and journals, photographs, prints and drawings, maps and charts … there is a huge array of visual source material that tells stories about the United Kingdom, the wider world, and our place in it.

Some personal Library and Archive collection highlights include:

  • Illustrated London News. A wonderfully rich chronicle of London life covering almost 150 years. While our holdings are incomplete, the Museum holds most issues from 1842-1989
  • John Speed’s The Theatre of the Empire of Great Britain (PBE6833). A colourful atlas surveying Britain and Ireland shortly after England and Ireland came under the rule of James VI of Scotland
  • The boat cloak! An illustrated rare folio (PBA3653) that details a coat that turns into a boat. 
  • Perhaps the oldest item in the archive is AML/M/1, a charter between Walter Giffard and Sir Hugh de Berham for freight of wine, dated 8 May 1322. Written entirely in Latin! In vino veritas indeed …

To access the collections and investigate some of our unique items, such as those I have mentioned above, sign up for one of our shiny new readers’ tickets (there are four designs to choose from!). Then you can explore the collections to your heart’s content – free of charge!

Visit the Caird Library

Banner image: The County of Kent (including Greenwich) in John Speed’s The Theatre of the Empire of Great Britain, 1676