Dr Nicolas Bell has been appointed to succeed Professor David McKitterick as College Librarian. We caught up with him on his first day at the Librarian’s desk in the Wren Library.
It’s a real honour to have been appointed as Librarian of Trinity. The College’s collections are outstanding in many different ways, and are looked after by a truly dedicated team of staff. And it would not be possible to imagine a more magnificent place to work than the Wren Library.
Where have you come from?
For the last fifteen years I have been a curator at the British Library. During my time there, the ethos changed markedly in two ways. The British Library had earlier been seen as a ‘library of last resort’, a place to visit only if you had tried every other library first, but it is now much more welcoming, seeking out and encouraging new users of its collections. The other big change has been in digitisation, making more and more of the collections freely available online.
Do you see that changing ethos at Trinity too?
At Trinity, I’m keen to find new ways of using the special collections in teaching and research, as well as making sure that the College Library continues to satisfy all the expectations of students. Space is quite a problem, both for books and for readers, and I’ll be looking into ways of addressing that.
What about digital developments?
The Wren Digital Library is a major project that began two years ago thanks to generous funding from Trinity alumni. So far more than 400 of our medieval manuscripts have been photographed and made freely available on the internet, together with selected treasures from later periods. I will be seeking support to expand this programme in new directions, including some of the major collections of modern scientific papers which the College is privileged to look after. Professor David McKitterick has been Librarian of Trinity for almost thirty years, and is the best model imaginable of what an academic librarian can and should be. It would be difficult for anyone to follow in his footsteps, and it is a relief to know that he will be remaining as Vice-Master and still able to share his expertise.
Do you have particular interests in the collections at Trinity?
At the British Library I worked in the Music Collections, acquiring and cataloguing archives of composers and musicians. But my main research interest has been in the music and liturgy of the Middle Ages – I completed my PhD in that field while at Selwyn in the 1990s and have kept up my interest in medieval history ever since. Trinity has outstanding collections in so many areas, and I hope to get involved in research in all of them, but the medieval manuscripts are a good starting point. The Library’s most famous music manuscript is the Carol Roll, a collection of songs and carols on a two-metre-long parchment scroll which includes the famous Agincourt Carol. We have lent this to a major exhibition in Paris at the Musée de l’Armée, which commemorates the 600th anniversary of the Battle of Agincourt.
What are your views about public access to the Wren Library?
The Wren Library has always been open to the public: ever since it opened in 1695 it has welcomed visitors to its exhibitions. There has been a sharp increase in tourist numbers recently, with more than 25,000 visitors already this year. I hope to find ways of encouraging local people to visit regularly – exhibitions of the Library’s treasures change often , so that each visit will reveal something new about the wealth of materials here. The collection is continuously growing, and we often show items that have never been displayed before – alongside the manuscript of Winnie-the-Pooh, which is not surprisingly our most popular exhibit.