Anna James, Antiquarian Cataloguer, Angus Library & Archive, Regent’s Park College, Oxford

Anna James (2)

How did you first get into the information and library profession? On graduating from university in 2003 I decided to put some gap-year gained secretarial skills to use in a non-graduate level administrative role to gain work confidence. The job was far too easy for me (I often finished my official workload by 9.30), but the firm recognised my abilities and gave me the task of archiving the entire filing system.

After 18 months, I felt assured enough to start looking around for higher level jobs, and having found the archiving project enjoyable, decided to look into information management. I went and had a chat with the (now defunct) Infomatch Cilip recruitment agency, who explained the graduate trainee scheme to me. Trainee job list in hand, I applied for jobs in business libraries (I had office experience and a suit) and historic libraries (I speak Latin).

I quickly found myself with a job offer at Lambeth Palace Library, the historic library and archive of the Archbishops of Canterbury. I remained there throughout my training, and continued to be employed at a professional level for several years.

What qualifications did you take? First degree in Classics, MA in Library and Information Studies (both UCL).

What is your current job title? Antiquarian Cataloguer, Angus Library & Archive, Regent’s Park College, Oxford. Follow us at @RPCLibrary

What does your job involve? Cataloguing antiquarian books, oddly enough. It’s part of a 3-year project financed by the Heritage Lottery Fund and the Baptist Union of Great Britain to catalogue backlogs of archives and printed books, and also to promote the library to new users and encourage access. In addition to me, the project also employs a modern cataloguer (‘modern’ meaning anything after 1830), archivist, education and outreach officer, and administrator. Over and above cataloguing work, I pitch in with exhibitions and outreach events, tweeting and blogging, and generally organise the cataloguing side of the project. I’m also trying to raise the profile of the historic collection by getting involved with the wider rare books world. I’m the newsletter editor for the CILIP Library and Information History Group which means I can always get good coverage for our exhibitions!

Can you describe a ‘typical’ day? Every day I have a target of 10 books to get catalogued. This has to happen almost regardless of circumstances, so it’s not a job where every day is different. However, the collections at the Angus Library are really interesting. Regent’s Park College was founded (in London, as Stepney College) in 1810 to train Baptist ministers, and is one of the leading collections of historic Baptist materials in the world.

Traditionally, Baptists tend to have their roots in the working classes, so the literature produced by and for them is not of the highest printing quality, and has not been highly prized by bibliophiles. As a result many important early Baptist works have become very rare, and are now of considerable importance to those studying religious non-conformity.

However, as the college was founded with an aim of improving the intellectual credibility of Baptists, the founding Stepney College collections have uncovered an unexpected array of bibliographic treasures collected by the earliest staff from a copy of Augustine censored by the Spanish Inquisition, to a 19th century biography given to William Wilberforce by John Ryland, and later obtained by the famous preacher Charles Spurgeon.

 What skills do you think are most important for today’s information and library professional? To work with rare books, cataloguing is still a really important skill, even for those who do not have ‘cataloguer’ in their job title. The standards used for early printed material are slightly different from those used for modern items, but the rule book has recently been made available online for free (, and there are regular cataloguing courses run by the CILIP Rare Books and Special Collections Group and the Historic Libraries Forum, which I would strongly recommend. Understanding basic preservation and conservation is also important, as you can’t weed books when the cover gets worn if it’s the only copy in the world! And of course you have to be able to prove the worth of a historic collection to its owners.

It’s all too easy for a cash poor organisation to look at its valuable library as portable property to be sold off to pay bills. It’s no longer enough to insist that books are important just because. You have to be able to infect your organisation with your own enthusiasm for the collection, and make it a source of communal pride to your colleagues.

What advice would you give to anyone considering a career in Information Management? The key for getting to work in rare books tends to be existing experience in working with rare books, which suffers from a certain circular logic. However, there are always lots of chances to get involved in the rare books and special collections community by joining committees, and particularly by volunteering.

It’s surprising how many churches, tiny municipal museums or venerable charities own a collection of early printed books, and would be delighted at an offer of help from a professional librarian, and many small professionally run historic libraries will gladly exchange rare book skills for good quality volunteering. Send off a few messages to ‘Contact us’ sections of websites, and see what happens…

Anna James


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