Life as a Student Assistant in Special Collections

Danielle Blee

Special Collections Reading Room

I had decided to begin my Master’s degree amid the Covid-19 pandemic and at the time, hadn’t been thinking much about securing a job. I was studying English Literature and was hoping to eventually get my foot in the door working for a library or archive as I felt I would enjoy and be good at working within that field. When I saw on the QUB MyFuture website that the McClay’s Special Collections & Archives were hiring Student Assistants I wasted no time in applying, and to my surprise (and delight!) I was offered the role.

Danielle Blee

On my very first day, I was introduced to the Head of Specials, Deirdre, and the librarians who guided me through the tasks I was to begin. I had never worked in an office setting before and was naturally nervous about this new prospect but everyone made me feel so welcome and trusted me with tasks and deadlines which I really appreciated.

Hart Correspondence (detail)

I began working on the Sir Robert Hart correspondence, reading through the letters from the collection and cataloguing important information such as names, dates, points of interest, and location. I felt very excited with this project as I understood the level of responsibility entrusted to me. From doing this, I learned so much about the history of China and Robert Hart’s time there, specifically from the perspective of women as I had chosen bundle MS 15/2/3/6 of the correspondence, primarily received from his female friends and acquaintances. The letters were wonderful insights into history and numerous letters were so fascinating to me. As Hart would often receive letters from friends, many women from the bundle became familiar to me, such as the young Miss Effie Ragsdale and I became quite invested in her correspondence. Slowly, I began recognising her handwriting and hoping that she would update us on her time teaching in Switzerland and hoped she hadn’t been missing home as much as her last letter. Eventually, I felt as if the letters were addressed to both myself and Hart!

I also has the opportunity to address a delegation of study abroad advisors from America who were visiting the University and was able to discuss my own time at Queen’s as a student – I enjoyed this thoroughly as I love meeting new people. I gave them a tour of the first floor of The McClay Library and the C.S Lewis room, where my colleagues had laid out really cool manuscripts from  our collections … I even got the opportunity to see Seamus Heaney’s lecture notes up close! What I enjoyed most was the customer-service aspect to the role and I would staff the service desk during my shift, signing students, staff, and visitors into our reading room to consult our collections. As my confidence in my new role grew, I was trained on various other tasks, such a thesis scanning. I helped with new thesis orders and scanned over 700 pages for one!

I have to say that although I started off very nervous about working in Specials that soon wore off when I met and befriended all the wonderful people who work there. I would regularly go on lunch with other Student Assistants too and it was nice to meet other students outside  my own course circle.

Both Deirdre and the acting Senior Library Assistant, Conor, helped me apply for other full-time roles and with preparation for my final job applications and, with their help I was able to secure a Visitor Experience Traineeship with the Wordsworth Museum in Grasmere! I am so grateful to everyone at Specials for making my time there so worthwhile and enjoyable. This role was a great insight to working in an academic library, giving me the training and confidence to pursue this line of work as a career option. And who knows, I may come back to Queen’s in the next few years to undertake a PhD… maybe I could work for Specials again in the future!

With thanks and congratulations to Danielle from all the Team at Specials – we’d love to have you back with us in the future. But in the meantime, have a fabulous time at the Wordsworth Museum (and don’t forget to send us a postcard!)