‘My life is very rich and varied: one minute it’s medieval manuscripts and the next it’s blocked lavatories’

What does the Sub-Librarian do?

I am responsible for the day-to-day running of both the Wren and student libraries at Trinity – the largest College library in Cambridge. I manage a large staff – we have over 25 full and part-time staff – and I deal with reader enquiries and look after the fabric of the building.

Sandy Paul with one of his favourite treasures in the Wren: Zazel the human cannonball

The Wren is a working library for Fellows of the College and researchers from the UK and from around the world. It’s also a tourist attraction – we welcome over 28,000 visitors a year. It’s a place of pilgrimage for book lovers, and lovers of art and architecture. Within the constraints of an old and challenging complex of buildings, I try to make life comfortable for our users, to provide them with a first-class service and to make them feel welcome. My life is very rich and varied in all sorts of ways: one minute it’s medieval manuscripts and the next it’s blocked lavatories.

What makes for a good librarian? 

Liking books and the printed word is a good start; patience, a sense of humour and despite the stereotype, getting on with other human beings because libraries are where books and people come together.

‘It’s a a bit like spending each day in a jewel box. It’s impossible to tire of such fabulous surroundings.’

Also, flexibility and a willingness to change. My first library job was in 1980, I appreciate a very long time ago. It was a totally different world: no email, word processing or online catalogues. We had guard books and card catalogues and brown issue – terms no doubt unfamiliar to my younger colleagues and students today. The pace of technological change and the explosion of available information has been staggering; it continues to stagger and, as I hurtle towards 60, to astound me.

What have been the biggest changes in your time at Trinity? 

The Library might look much as it did when I came here in 1995 but it has changed enormously. When I arrived there was a lot of paper and much use of pen and ink by staff, as well as devotion to the card catalogue. Now we have a superb online catalogue, a fully automated circulation system – we’re going self-service this year – as well as online acquisition of books and periodicals.

An incredible programme of digitisation started about five years ago and we can now make our unique and precious items freely available to the world. The Wren’s wonderful collection has been enriched recently by the great Crewe Bequest and the stunning gifts of artists’ books given by the late Nicholas Kessler.

Some new arrivals at the Wren Library

What’s the best and worst aspects of working in the Wren Library? 

Top of the best list must be the committed and supportive team of staff here.

It’s not always glamorous work

The Wren is an achingly beautiful place, a total work of art with a stunning collection of books and manuscripts, exquisite architecture, carving and sculpture. I handle treasures every day of my working life. I suppose it’s a bit like spending each day in a jewel box. It is impossible to tire of such fabulous surroundings and it still feels, after many years, a huge privilege to work here.

The downside? I worry about the increasing demands on this fabulous building made by the growth of tourism – visitor numbers have doubled over the past five years. The cold in the winter and the heat in the summer can be wearisome, but the benefits and joy of being in a place like this far outweigh a bit of discomfort.

My job is probably very different to that of most other librarians because I work in such an amazing environment and get to work with, and meet, all sorts of people. I’ve welcomed both Naomi Wolf and Alec Baldwin, to name but two – both charming and delightful. I count myself hugely fortunate to be here and to have contributed a little to this exceptional place.

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