Lighting the Past Reflections – Part I
The Lighting the Past (LtP) project has come to an end, and last time we wowed you with stats about the project. This time we hear from past and present members of the team, as they reflect on their time on LtP.
Marc Cole, June 2013-May 2014
I have very fond memories of my time on Lighting the Past. First, the co-workers were fantastic; it was a great group of people to get to know and work with. Second, it was an amazing feeling to be surrounded by so many books, many of which were very old. It was like working in a vast cave full of treasures and my job was to catalogue said treasures. There are so many cherished memories…whether it was holding a first or second edition of a David Hume work in my actual hands (I forget which…but it was old!), or writing a joint blog post on calligraphy, or writing a blog on the Crombie Collection. My time on LtP is filled with amazing moments like this, and I feel honoured to have been part of a team whose job was to share with the world the treasures found deep within the cave of Special Collections, St Andrews.
Emma Collins, June 2013-February 2015
I remember finding really interesting books in the collections, like the ones featured in the blogs – the children’s books for example. I also remember slogging our way through the many, many Shakespeare pamphlets, but it being so satisfying when we finished them. Another of my highlights was the first collection we catalogued, the Beveridge Collection, which contained an eclectic mix of Scandinavian travel, Esperanto and bee-keeping books! Another of my memories was going to fetch the huge books from the ground floor that you could only fit onto the trolley one or two at a time and that took two people to carry. I really enjoyed working on LtP and I always looked forward to fetching another trolley of books off of the shelf because you never really knew what you would uncover next.
Kieran Cressy, October 2014-June 2017
Kieran gave us so much detail about his time on LtP that you can read about his experience here.
Cecilia Vinesse, June 2013-July 2015
I feel a lot of nostalgia for the quiet hours I got to spend poring through books in the collections. More than a job, LtP also felt like a crash course in book history, and I made many wonderful friends during my time there. Plus, I have never forgotten the term “foxing” – one of my favourites!
Pilar Gil, October 2014-August 2015 (Lead Cataloguer, August 2015-November 2016)
I remember my time as cataloguer in the LtP project as one of continuous discovery and of quiet dialogue with an unknown book. Every time that I pulled a book off from the shelves that we had in the office – we called these shelves on wheels a “sprite”, evoking images of something refreshing and ethereal – it felt like a surprise was awaiting for me. Most of the time the book was not especially memorable, but it was special as it was not catalogued previously, and until I entered its title, publisher, place and date of publication on the computer, it was just me who knew of the existence of this particular book on the shelves of the University of St Andrews.
During the year that I worked as Lead cataloguer, I had the best team that I could possibly ask for. We were a family, working hard and having fun while doing it. Our little office was an island that, with the immediateness of online cataloguing, was open to the entire world.
I specially remember the day after the Brexit referendum. Our usually cheerful group of cataloguers (they were French, American, Greek-Italian and English) was feeling sad and gloomy and we decided to change the books that we were supposed to catalogue that day. We swapped 19th century sermons for books about travelling in Europe. This was our full-of-hope response, because no matter the barriers, nobody could limit the wandering of our imaginations.
Andrew Wade, October 2014-August 2015
I have many fond memories of working on LtP – especially tea times! To share one besides tea, I remember spending a significant amount of time with a Fraktur font guide online, pecking each letter into the title fields and despairing of ever being able to complete one of those entries in less than 20 minutes. After a few weeks of this, I sat down at the desk one day and could suddenly make out the letters (well, for the most part). It sounds silly, but I genuinely felt like scales had fallen from my eyes! (Unfortunately, I never had the same miracle take place with grecs du roi…)
Hrileena Ghosh, February 2015-February 2016
Now that I’m in Greece, I fondly remember those massive bound-withs at the Bute, some of which included 80 or more articles, all of them arguing whether the ancient Greeks knew the colour blue or not. There’s a lot of blue here, and I assume the weather was similarly good two thousand years ago!
Emily Savage, February 2015-July 1017.
Working on LtP was a wonderful experience; we had a great little community and fascinating material coming across our desks every shift. I especially loved leafing through the books that had been doodled on by students centuries ago (probably not so good for my stats, which is why Jordan and Vittorio were always way ahead of me!). Finding pressed flowers, calling cards, and other ephemera was always a treat. But I don’t miss the red rot. Or the ancient spiders crushed between the pages. Viva LtP!
Just some of the doodles found in A history of the siege of Gibraltar. Although some criticise the scribbles, this is exactly what the criticiser is doing! St Andrews copy s DA89.5D8.
Jenny Greiner, October 2015-July 2016
One of the main things I remember from LtP, that always made me laugh, was Vittorio’s and Jordan’s unspoken friendly competition. They were both always very interested to see each other’s previous numbers, to see if they could get a few extra records done. My favourite thing about the project was working with Pilar – that perfect combination of being able to work together in friendly silence and then have the occasional juicy gossip.
Vittorio Mattioli, October 2015-June 2018
My favourite collection that LtP worked on was – by far – the books of classicist and former Principal Sir James Donaldson. It was such fun to find out that so many editions of Cicero existed, even though cataloguing all of them was somewhat taxing on one’s sanity. Some of my favourite books were in the Donaldson folio collection; one was Του Αγίου Ιουστίνου Φιλοσόφου και Μάρτυρος, Ζηνα και Σερήνω, by Justin Martyr, which has some amazing illustrations.
Pierre Azou, October 2015-May 2016.
I have such great memories of my time “lighting the past”! And notably all these times when one of us found a “gem” and we would all bend in delight over it and make all kinds of comments in all our accents (Indian, Italian, Spanish, French…) from all our different perspectives on books and knowledge (history, literature…). I am sad to hear the project is coming to an end, but I guess this is because the mission has been accomplished – and so I rejoice at the same time and extend my warmest congratulations to the whole Rare Books team in Special Collections!
Jordan Girardin, October 2015-June 2017
My favourite moment at LtP was cataloguing travel accounts about the Alps, which I then used in my PhD thesis. I also wrote a blog about advertisements found in these works.
Lizzie Marshall, September 2016-November 2017
I think one of my favourite/most memorable books was The Progress of a Water-Coloured Drawing which I ended up writing a blog post about, because it was hand-coloured by the author, and because of all the great doodles on it!
Ethan Birney, October 2016-June 2019.
I have too many memories to mention but here are a few: copying out an entire title in Cyrillic only to learn that I had done so in all caps and needed to redo it. Cataloguing a bound-with of a court case set in nineteenth century Scotland: a father had died leaving children behind and a paternal uncle claimed that they were all illegitimate. The eldest child, a daughter fought the case and won her inheritance. It felt like a Wilkie Collins novel. Oh, another “favorite” memory: cataloguing lavishly illustrated books of venereal disease. All in all the medical section of Copyright was not my happy place…
Margie McKerron, October 2017-February 2019
During the year and a half that I spent working with the Lighting the Past team, there was seldom a week that passed without some kind of curious discovery. George Augustus Walpoole’s The New British Traveller was one favourite find. With a full title measuring a mind-boggling 611 words, it prompted some rather ambitious fantasies for titling our own postgraduate work. Imagining future cataloguers adding our own work to the collection, we laughed and promptly decided to spare them the time and stick with something more manageable.
Another memorable moment was finding Countess of Winchilsea Anne Finch’s ‘Pindaric Ode to the Spleen’, in the preface of Dr. William Stukeley’s eighteenth-century medical treatise Of the spleen, its description and history, uses and diseases. Countess Finch (1661-1720) was a lifelong sufferer of melancholy and low spirits, and her belief was that much of her distress had a physical cause rooted in the diseases of the spleen. She writes:
What art thou, Spleen, which ev’ry thing dost ape?
Thy false suggestions must attend,
Thy whispered griefs, thy fancied sorrows hear,
Breathed in a sigh, and witnessed by a tear;
Whilst in the light and vulgar crowd,
Thy slaves, more clamorous and loud,
By laughters unprovoked, thy influence too confess.
O’er me alas! thou dost too much prevail:
I feel thy force, whilst I against thee rail;
I feel my verse decay, and my cramped numbers fail.
Through thy black jaundice I all objects see,
As dark and terrible as thee,
My lines decried, and my employment thought
An useless folly, or presumptuous fault:
Other times were more heart-breaking. With today’s hindsight, the day-by-day reports from nineteenth-century physicians who were administrating mercury to dogs to discover its potential health benefits were difficult to read. Somehow, it was humbling to have the glimpse into the past that regular cataloguing gave us – to see what people were reading, writing, and thinking about; to have a window into their lives and life works; and perhaps to recognize some of our own modern hubris in the process too. While I am sorry that this project is coming to an end, I am glad to know that others will now be able to find and use more easily what we were privileged to work on.
Mary-Elisabeth Moore, October 2017-June 2018
I had an awesome time working on LtP. I worked for a full academic year on the project with Beth and Briony as my primary supervisors. I have plenty of warm memories from working with the team, a team full of good-humoured and warm colleagues. Thinking back, listening to Federica sing the Beach Boys while we both catalogued seemingly endless bound-withs summarizes what a typical work day was like. I was excited to be cataloguing books from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries while taking an art history course focused on the same period, ‘Romanticism and Visuality, 1780-1830’. I was hugely satisfied when I had the opportunity to use a book catalogued through LtP as the primary focus in one of my final honours papers which I titled, ‘Arbor and Wasteland in the Book Illustrations of David Jones.’ Without being hyperbolic or complimentary for the sake of it, working on the LtP project was hands-down one of the best decisions I made while at university.
Katie Feldkamp, October 2018-June 2019
I would have to say that by far my favourite, or at least most memorable, periodical to work on was the Journal des Sçavans. It took me about four working days to create the bibliographic records and add all of the items for the entire collection. The works quite literally spanned over a century and it was neat to see how the publication changed over time, but it many ways retained its original character and purpose. Personally, I really enjoyed working on this project because it allowed me to get a behind the scenes look at the University’s collections and I was able to work with really interesting material. Plus, Lighting the Past gave me valuable archival skills that I know I’ll be able to use moving forward.
With thanks to all our former team members, whether or not they are mentioned here. We continue to very much value all your work and the catalogue records you produced. Your enthusiasm for the Lighting the Past project and our collections will live on in our memories!