Sarah and Lynsey interview Laura Castle, Collections Care Assistant at the Special Collections Centre
Tell us about what you do at the Special Collections Centre (SCC).
I’m the Collections Care Assistant for the SCC. That means that I’m a kind of caretaker for the collections. I have a very varied job and I do lots of different tasks during the week. I go out and do surveys of potential collections, to assess what can be brought in to the SCC. I also make sure our stores are kept clean by doing regular deep cleans. This is part of the Integrated Pest Management programme and it ensures that our stores are not an environment where insects or pests would want to come and live. They are the types of things that would damage the collections so we don’t want them here.
My job is mainly preservation rather than conservation. Preservation is making sure that our collection is housed correctly, from the environment in the stores to ensuring that the way the items are stored on the shelves isn’t damaging them. If an archive is in a folder made of acidic paper that can damage the material inside so I’ll change it to a new folder that is acid free. If papers have been held together with a rusty paper-clip I remove it and clean the surface of the document to take away rust stains. I cleaned a whole section of the collection when I was a volunteer many years ago.
Sometimes if an item is damaged I will put it in a melinex sleeve, made of a special kind of plastic. This means that the item is able to be held and used for access without it getting more damaged.
I do a lot of lone working but I also work with the rest the Conservation department. I learn new things everyday from my Conservation colleagues. Brannah, our book conservator, can teach me on one day how to put things in melinex sleeves and show me how to make a custom box for things that can’t go in the sleeves. And then the next day she could be teaching me how to use special kinds of pastes and paper to stick down parts of books which are coming off.
Conservators can repair items which have been damaged, but they are also concerned with the preservation side of things. After all there is no point in fixing something and then shoving it back in the same acidic folder.
As well as taking care of the collection I am also a first aider, a health and safety adviser and a work station assessor. I do a lot of volunteer introductions as well. I’m also a qualified archivist.
What do you like most about your job?
I like the variety of my job. One day I’ll be looking at graphs to monitor the environment in the stores and then the next day I’ll be wrapping up books for treatment.
Tell us about one your favourite items in the collection.
I have been delving into the collections since I started volunteering in 2005 or 2006, so I have many favourite items. I have been a little ferret in this place! I’ve worked on plans, glass plate negatives, rare books, letter collections, oral history, basically every type of archive material. Therefore it was very difficult to try and make a short list, never mind choose one favourite item. In the end I have chosen the Lib R Collection as my favourite collection because it reflects my job in its variety.
Lib R is short for the Librarian’s Room. Nowadays the University of Aberdeen has many libraries, including The Sir Duncan Rice Library, but until 1860 the University only had one library, King’s College Library. There was only one librarian and no archivists until the 1970s, so the librarian had to deal with a vast range of both books and archives. Certain books ended up in the librarian’s own special room and this formed the Lib R collection. It is still added to today, although they tend to be modern limited editions and the output of private presses.
From this varied collection, which would you say is your favourite item?
Out of them all I chose a photograph album, Lib R f 779 IND vol 2. It is volume 2 of a collection of photograph albums containing photographs from lots of different people going to different countries including China, East Africa and Canada in the 1900’s. This is the India and Ceylon volume and I chose it because I did my undergraduate dissertation on mixed race children in India in relation to the East India Company.
For people of the early 1900’s the photographs in the albums showed what life was like in these countries. You can see normal life (although slightly staged for the photographer), different types of buildings, weddings, fashion, festivals and lots more.
You can see people from different levels of the caste system, from royalty of India to ethnic minorities. There are people in what look like tribal settings with nose plugs. That is a brilliant picture; they don’t look that intrigued by the fact that they’re having their picture taken. And there is a Tibetan woman, so some of the photographers must have travelled quite far north in India.
Do we know who took the pictures?
There seem to be two main photographers; Skene & Co. and Bourne & Shepherd. However the photographs are so wide spread that I think this could be like modern photograph collections where you’ve got different photographers and they’ll just put their photographs together into one album.
What do you like most about the album?
I like the humanity of it. I like the fact that they’re not ignoring different social groups, you’ve got minstrels so to speak, you’ve got warriors and washermen, but then on the next page you’ve got a market place, and then a modern building that to me looks like it could be in the West Indies.
I blame my dad for my interest in photographs. Both my granddads used to take lots of photographs, and now my dad is midway through digitising 200 of our family photographs!
Do you have a favourite page in the album?
I probably like the photographs of women the most, the ones that are almost like really early fashion shots. I almost did my dissertation on how the East India Company with its big trade routes across India changed British fashion over the years, including the introduction of pyjamas.
This lady is probably my favourite of them all. I like the fact that’s it’s quite obviously not airbrushed. There’s an occasional hair out of place, she’s got a natural beauty. The fact they haven’t airbrushed out any of her imperfections makes her look more beautiful to me.
There is a University stamp on this page. This used to be done so that if someone tried to steal an item we would know it’s ours. Usually you’d find these stamps at the front and maybe in the middle, but this isn’t the middle of the book. The other ladies don’t have stamps, so the librarian who did this must have thought she was very beautiful too. That is my interpretation anyway.
Would you stamp it nowadays?
No, we wouldn’t. An interesting thing about the collection is that you can see which period an item came from by what the librarians have done with it, as cataloguing techniques have changed over the years. Some older ones will have little stickers on the outside which make me cringe because the glue can damage the book if the label is peeled off. Some will have the little tags on the top attached with string, and if the string is too thick and too near to the books spine it can damage it. Some will just have the catalogue number written in pencil in the inside cover, while a lot of the ones which are bequests and gifted items have bookplates on them. I’ve seen so many interesting bookplates while cleaning.
Are you more interested in photographs of people than of scenes?
Not really because there’s always somebody in the photographs. If you’re looking at one of the George Washington Wilson photographs online, zoom in and you’ll probably see somebody going about their day-to-day life in the background. They’ll be going to work, or taking their horse to market, or even having a snooze! There’s a great one in the Harbour Board Collection where they’ve taken a picture and there’s somebody quite obviously having a snooze against a lamp post further down.
The pages look warped; has the album got damp at some point in the past?
No, sometimes the pages just warp because the glue between the two media (the paper pages and the photograph paper) are very different. It’s quite common in albums. You can see from the outer board that there’s been no water damage to it, it’s just warps unfortunately. This also means that the wobbles in the pages create little pockets of space, and this causes dark patches and foxing. These albums used to be stored quite low down on the shelf so fibres from people, skin and generally dust would get in the pockets.
There’s foxing on the inside cover which is quite common. Foxing is discoloration which some people occasionally try to hide. I don’t like the idea of that because it just comes back and I personally like that aging effect.
Does foxing just occur with age or is it induced by something?
I’ve done a little research into it last year and they still can’t work out why it does it. Even scientists can’t agree on why foxing happens. I think it’s just a bit like wrinkles!
Thanks Laura, for a fascinating look into the amazing Lib R collection.
Laura’s job lets her see all sorts of amazing things in our Rare Book and Archive collections. If you would like to find out what sort of collections we hold why not take a look at our webpages. And if you are interested in travel photography, illustration and writing then keep an eye out for updates on our next exhibition opening in the summer term.
Posted by: Sarah and Lynsey