On My Summer Vacation I… Had a Rare Job

Flip, McGill’s Rare Books and Special Collections department is cold in the summer! Actually, it’s cold all the time. It’s got something to do with book preservation, but I’m no old-book expert. I’m just a summer student worker. To kick off the “Library-ish Shenanigans I’m Up To This Summer” series, I’m going to tell you all what it’s like in a land where fleece is worn yearlong and books need spine protectors.

At Rare Books and Special Collections (RBSC), I technically work under two job descriptions: Student Navigator and Safdie Project Assistant. However, my daily work assignments are hard to categorize under either description. I guess, generally, I’m a student assistant and as such, I get to do a lot of different things. This means that I’m learning new stuff all the time, like What’s an incunable? Where is the best Architectural Archive in Canada? What’s in the McLennan Library basement? And totes more.

I suppose the three tasks that I spend the most time doing per week are: re-shelving books, conservation work, and manning the desk. While re-shelving books is never the most exciting job, re-shelving books in RBSC keeps me on my toes. The collection is divided up into lots of little sub-collections and each one has its own quirks. When it comes to classification systems, the main collection and many sub-collections are easy peasy LC call numbers, but I’ve also had to learn about Cutter call numbers, as well as some custom in-house systems like the one used for a sub-collection called Colgate. Half of the items in this collection are listed under textual call numbers and the other half under numeric call numbers, but all are inter-shelved together. And then divided into more mini Colgate collections. And then housed in two locations. So yeah, finding things isn’t always so straightforward. As another example, an item in the Blackader-Lauterman Rare collection could be in any of 4 different rooms depending on its format (octavo, folio, or extra large folio, a.k.a. “elf” in the biz) and whether it’s under LC or Cutter classification. Lugging around all the keys to get to books in various glass cases beyond various locked doors kind of makes me feel like a dungeon master.

Conservation work, on the other hand, keeps me on my butt. Conservation work entails sitting alone in a back room, suiting up books in mylar dust-jackets, spine protectors, acid-free-cardboard boxes and other gear that helps to ensure these books last another couple hundred years on the shelf. It’s during this task that I get to look through some pretty neat stuff. I’ve heard that books are supposed to be dead and whatever, but gosh, some of them are so pretty and old and alive! Like Vanna White.

And finally, manning the desk at RBSC, which is what I was doing when most of this blog post was written, can sometimes be a little dull. However, at the desk I get the chance to practice my reference skillz and interact with patrons. And that’s pretty fun! Even when patrons are befuddled and have come into RBSC only to find out how to get away from RBSC. (They’re usually looking for the P’s on the 5th floor). When I’m at the desk, I feel a little glamorous. I get to buzz people in and check ID’s. I act as the face of the whole operation and I keep things moving along. Just like Vanna.

And then I remember that I’m just a summer student worker. But hey! It’s good experience for the resume.


SIS students! What are you doing this summer? I need s’more submissions, so don’t be shy! Email me your ideas: emily.upper@mail.mcgill.ca

*Are you an incoming SIS student and looking for a library job on campus? Sign up for Work Study (if you’re eligible) ASAP. That’s how I found my job. Feel free to email me with questions. Also, props for finding the blog!

2 responses to “On My Summer Vacation I… Had a Rare Job”

  1. Wayne Pender says:

    Emily, I really enjoyed this and other posts! We’ve got to get the word out about this blog and get some other MLISers contributing. I guess that means that I better get writing!


  2. Emily Upper says:

    Thanks Wayne! I’m looking for all kinds of ideas and contributions. I don’t want this blog to just be me writing for a crowd — I really want it to become a space for MLIS students to share thoughts and have a conversation. So please feel free to submit anything!

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