By Dr Richard Espley, Research Librarian for English, Irish and Post-Colonial Literatures and Languages at Senate House Library

Dr Espley answers our questions about his experiences engaging the public with the collections of the Senate House Library.

Could you tell us a little bit about who you are and the research that you do/your role in SHL?

I’m a research librarian at Senate House Library. I’m theoretically just responsible for the English and linguistics collections, but just as our readers stray across all our floors in their research, I find myself engaged by many collections, and particularly the history of their assembly here. I’ve done research and public engagement activities around Shakespeare, banned books and First World War pacifism.

What public engagement activities have you been involved with in the library?

As well as giving talks in the Library on some of our past donors, like anti-censorship campaigner Alec Craig (1897-1973) or pacifist Caroline Playne (1857-1948) , I’ve helped to curate several of our exhibitions with related events and lectures, all open to everyone. I even found myself masquerading as a human book last year as part of the Being Human festival (see below). Depending on how we define ‘public’, in truth if a librarian isn’t engaging them, they’re probably not doing a terribly good job.

Why do you think it is important to get involved in public engagement?

Senate House Library exists centrally to serve the University of London’s staff and students, a veritable public in themselves, but sharing our resources and the story of this extraordinary institution beyond that community better locates us in the city, reminds us of the ultimate origin of our funding, and undoubtedly can bring fresh perspectives to our understanding of our purpose.

What have been your most challenging experiences whilst undertaking public engagement activities?

We are custodians of treasures, but also darker materials, such as books and journals donated by the German state in 1937, each adorned with a swastika. I brought one of these incredibly problematic items to a public event, and I will not forget the conversation I had with a Jewish reader whose family, carrying her as a baby, fled Hungary in advance of Nazi invasion. As we passed it between us, she moved from abject revulsion to a reflective recognition of it as a pregnant fragment of material culture, but in retrospect I consider my unannounced use of it as a basis for discussion as a little crude and probably unjustified. Ultimately, the experience demonstrates what a librarian should know, that a book is very rarely just an object, but is a carrier and collector of human significance which can be uplifting but also devastating.

In truth, if a librarian isn’t engaging them, they’re probably not doing a terribly good job.

What have been the most rewarding things that you’ve taken from public engagement?

However trite it might sound, the often passionate and delighted engagement with our collections when they are placed into the hands of the public is enormously rewarding. In my experience, such activities have also involved me in correspondence with attendees which has led to further events and to donations of material which would otherwise have probably been destroyed and lost to everyone.

Do you think that getting involved in public engagement has helped your professional practice? If so, how?

Public engagement can be enormously helpful in reminding a librarian that buying and cataloguing a book are only part of the story. Seeing our collections handled and discussed by an audience who hadn’t specifically sought them out helps to remind us that our purpose isn’t just to get the books neatly on the shelf.

Dr Espley’s introduction to the Craig Collection, a Special Printed Collection at Senate House Library, University of London, can be viewed here