The University of St Andrews, currently celebrating its 600th anniversary, is the oldest university in Scotland and the third oldest in the United Kingdom, right behind Oxford and Cambridge. The city of St Andrews has been dubbed "The Home of Golf," with evidence suggesting that the game has been played here since around 1400 AD. St Andrews' Old Course, one of the oldest golf courses in the world, is just a few steps away from the West Sands Beach, where the opening scene from the movie Chariots of Fire was filmed. Across the town from the Old Course and just around the corner from a couple of pubs, a grocery store, and a used book shop stand the ruins of a castle and cathedral overlooking the rocky coastline, both structures dating from the 12th century and destroyed during the Protestant Reformation.
That's nice, but what does it have to do with the LMU library?
In April 2012, the University of St Andrews advertised that they were seeking a Rare Book Cataloguer for a 1-year temporary appointment to cover another staff member's maternity leave. Drawn by the prospect of living alongside so much history, not to mention working with a rare book collection that had been accumulating since before the invention of printing, I sent in my application, interviewed via Skype, and was offered the job. In June 2012, I took a leave of absence from my job as LMU's Special Collections Librarian to try to tackle a 600-year-old cataloging backlog.
As it happened, my arrival coincided with the launch of a project called "Lighting the Past," a push to eliminate that backlog within the next 10 years. After six centuries of book collecting, the university's rare book collection numbers over 210,000 volumes, and boasts two copies of the first edition of Isaac Newton's Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica (often just called the "Principia"), more than a hundred incunabula (books printed within the first 50 years after the invention of of the printing press), and other notable first editions or inscribed copies of significant books. Of those 210,000 of rare books, however, only around 74,000 (approximately 35%) are currently searchable in the online catalog. My job for the next year would be to prepare detailed descriptions of the rare books, making note of not only the bibliographic information like author, title, publisher, and date of publication, but any clues about the books' ownership history before they came to the university, evidence of how they were manufactured, and significant published bibliographies that may have mentioned them.
My first four months were spent cataloguing geography books from the Copyright Deposit Collection, books given to the university in exchange for copyright protection during the 18th and 19th centuries. Then, in November, the university received a donation from the widow of a local book collector, Brontë scholar, and former Special Collections librarian named Geoffrey D. Hargreaves. The Hargreaves Collection contains a mixture of books on printing history in general, early editions of novels by the Brontë sisters and their contemporaries like Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins, and secondary sources on the literature and publishing industry of the 19th century. The timing of the donation coincided with the completion of the Copyright Collection project, so it became the new focus of my work. These days, when I'm not up to my eyeballs in Brontë novels, I'm upgrading the existing, but sparse, records for books in the Golf Collection. Once those are done, I may switch to a collection of 18th century and older texts on alchemy, or an extensive collection of Bibles.
Outside of the office, I've also had the opportunity to learn a little bit about the university's many traditions. The easiest one to spot is the tradition of undergraduate students wearing their bright red academic robes on St Andrews day, during meetings, chapel services, or when conducting campus tours. First-year students wear their robes close to their necks, second- and third-years wear theirs hanging off one shoulder--whether it's the right or left shoulder depends on whether they are studying arts or sciences--and fourth-year students wear them just barely hanging from their elbows to show that they are about to cast off their undergraduate status. Outside of the entrance to St. Salvator's college, one of the oldest buildings on campus, the initials "PH" are set into the paving stones, marking the place where the Protestant martyr Patrick Hamilton was executed in 1528. Local superstition says that any student who steps on the initials is doomed to fail his or her degree. Luckily, the curse can be lifted either by participating in the May Dip, wherein students stay awake until dawn on May 1st and then collectively run into the North Sea, or by streaking through St. Salvator's quad at noon. On Raisin Monday, the original tradition of first-year students giving their third- and fourth-year "parents" a pound of raisins and sharing a tea party has been exchanged in favor of sharing a bottle (or two) of wine, dressing up in costumes assembled from whatever odds and ends are available, and engaging in a massive shaving cream fight on St. Salvator's quad.
Beyond St Andrews, I've managed to explore some of the rest of the UK, visiting York, Salisbury, and Tintagel over the Christmas holiday in spite of the freezing weather.
While I miss my friends, family, and colleagues back in Los Angeles, I'm having a fantastic time here, and can't wait to see what the coming months will hold!
Image 1: The St Andrews Cathedral is only a ruin today, but Computer Science, Art History, and Special Collections have been working together to create a virtual reconstruction of the cathedral as it would have looked in its prime.
Image 2: One of four collections storage rooms in the main collections storage facility at the University of St Andrews. In addition to the rare books, the Special Collections Department is responsible for the manuscripts, muniments (what we would call the university archives), and photographic collections.
Image 3: An inscription by J. M. Barrie, the author of Peter Pan, in a volume entitled The Flying Carpet, in the Children's Book Collection
Image 4: The initials "PH" mark the spot where protestant martyr Patrick Hamilton was killed.