A view from the margin: cataloguing antiquarian books freelance

Who doesn’t love the smell old books? You know, that slightly musty and rich smell of books marbleleather bindings, the faint whiff of sweetness rising from handmade paper … In the age of e-books, e-journals and digitisation projects, it is sometimes easy to forget that primal feeling of opening an old book that perhaps was last opened decades, if not centuries before, and inhaling that special ‘old book’ smell (having checked for mould first obviously). There are many reasons why I decided on a career change from struggling academic to being a librarian, but one certainly was that I loved the idea of being surrounded by books. Another deciding factor was that as an academic, I enjoyed the pursuit of knowledge and the challenge of solving riddles. What I found less appealing was the pressure to produce research outcomes, the relentless admin, and what felt like exploitation of early career scholars. And yes, I wasn’t very keen on teaching either.

This is partly why I decided to go alone when the opportunity presented itself to become one of the National Trust’s freelance book cataloguers. My background in medieval studies had equipped me with basic Latin and I had a well-trained eye for detail. I can read more or less successfully several languages other than English (even if I don’t speak all of them). I retrained as a librarian in one of the UK’s distance-learning masters’ programmes.

Despite initial misgivings about the viability of working freelance, I quickly learned to love the diversity, meeting new people, being my own boss, and acquiring new knowledge. I get to work in fascinating places and with people from a range of backgrounds (librarians, museums professionals, archivists, conservators).

Survey in progress

Rare book librarian in action! (Photo credit: P. Hoare)

How often do we get to catalogue books in their historic context? To get to grips with a collection owned by an individual or by members of a single family? Or to be exposed to the challenges of the preservation of collections in environments which are less than congenial to the wellbeing of books? Most of the libraries in the care of the National Trust are remarkable for their survival as a collection and the insights they give into the intellectual fashions and reading habits of the upper class; only a few, such as at Blickling Hall, are ‘special’ collections in the sense of containing unique, spectacular, or otherwise rarefied individual items. So, yes, I might be cataloguing a fairly pedestrian publication one moment (a first edition Barbara Cartland), but then find a rare seventeenth-century rendition of the story of Reynard the Fox. I feel I’ve come to know superficially at least some of the individuals who inscribed their books; how one of them was obsessed with health and sports, but died very young of cancer; how another’s political career is reflected in his reading matter while also being exposed at a more personal level through some of his surviving children’s books. And how yet another had literary aspirations but seems to have been frustrated by the eighteenth-century relative disinterest in women’s education.

But being freelance is not an easy route to take. Opportunities are rare and need to be actively pursued; lateral thinking is extremely important; and you need a Plan B. Contracts are usually short-term and you need to be prepared to spend time away from home. I’ve worked in Wales, Ireland, Southern England and within commuting distance from where I live. From cataloguing, I’ve branched out into collection surveys, the occasional editing job, historical research, and recently, project management. I’ve had to get over my dislike of social media and now blog, tweet, like and follow to my heart’s content to raise my professional profile. Networking and self-promotion are not part of my default settings…

Access to online resources, such as the cataloguer’s toolkit or even the digitised databases of Early English Books Online and Eighteenth-Century Collections Online, is problematic when you’re a sole trader. There are no pension or NI contributions; holidays and illness mean no income; there’s the annual tax return and mad last-minute scrabbling about for receipts. Career development opportunities don’t present themselves through staff programmes or a line manager. No organisation pays for the ‘up-skilling’ of a freelance. Then there is the constant fear that the work may not materialise. There is a degree of chasing after jobs that go to other people or fall by the wayside. It can be lonely, spending week-day evenings in rented accommodation or a B&B when you know the alternative is being at home in the company of your family.

So, after this litany, the question begs itself: is it really worth it? For me it is, but it is a personal choice. The freelance path is uncertain, but rewarding in its variety. It gives a sense of freedom. I learn an awful lot from other people. I catalogued my first ever Mills & Boon at Calke Abbey (NT) a couple of years ago, but I’ve also seen some amazing incunabula. I’ve had the joy of working alongside book conservators and learn about the techniques of book preservation first-hand. And I get to meet people who look after collections with boundless passion and dedication. It is a real privilege to be part of that.

And my Plan B? Still working on that one!

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