City of London School Library and Archives
During the allotted networking time of the E-books conference I attended recently I got talking to the senior librarian of The City of London School for Boys who; as fate would have it is also a London Library member. I was delighted when David invited me to visit the school library and archives which was to intentionally coincide with a visit from children’s book author Kimberley Quinn (or as she prefers to be known for her fiction K.A.S Quinn).
I arrived at 9am which, in these dark and dreary winter days, struck perfect alignment with the sun rising above the River Thames casting the school in a brilliant light, serving as an embellishment of its already impressive exterior. Whilst waiting for David to meet me in reception I admired the three mini models, each of which represented the buildings the school had inhabited over the years since its official opening in 1837; the first of which I was later told, was unfortunately decimated during the war. Being a country bumpkin myself, I could not help but speculate on what life must be like attending school in the City. David elaborated that the school as it is today provides a very different environment from that of the original building on Milk Street which lacked any outside space for its students meaning break times were spent in the basement; a very Dickensian prospect!
With a longer history than even the London Library, the school was littered with historical portraits, plaques and memorials acknowledging notable students and amongst other things, the devastation of the war and the lives of students that were lost. The Asquith Room commemorated the man himself, having been a past student and boasted a very impressive portrait, a room which Asquith’s great granddaughter herself had visited of late.
There was also a statue of John Carpenter, a London common clerk who, during the reigns of Henry V and Henry VI, played an important role in building an endowment to fund the education of the priests. He had a keen interest in education and upon his death in 1442, a portion of the endowment was bequeathed to four boys who would be known as “Carpenter’s Boys”, they would be provided with adequate food, accommodation and most importantly education. Carpenter’s boys, would go on to contribute to the foundation of the City of London School for boys; years later when the school opened, the fund was applied to that very same school and Carpenter’s boys were enrolled amongst the very first students.
The library boasted an impressive collection with over thirty thousand items forming the enviable compendium. Located in prime position for Thames viewing (though ironically the blinds were closed!), the library was unlike many dusty, old, poorly stocked high school and college libraries and was a fantastic resource that was complimentary to the very separate entity that was the school book shop. (Yes that’s right, as if the library wasn’t enough the school has its very own bookshop). The multi-media collection consisted of CDs, DVDs, E-books and of course thousands of good old fashioned books. With David and his library assistant bearing the brunt of all responsibilities, he ensured me his days are always extremely busy. It became obvious very quickly from observing the displays and photographs around the room that in addition to the every-day administrative responsibilities and the student study periods that were to be covered, David takes a very active part in his role as Senior Librarian. The walls were abounded with photographs of events featuring a whole host of playwrights, novelists and poets that David had personally organised to compliment the children’s curricular studies; from fiction writers like Anthony Horowitz and Steve Feasey to Children’s Laureate of 2014, Malorie Blackman.
Later over lunch, David told me that he attended a lot of networking events and worked hard to forge relationships with as many people as possible that would be beneficial to the school. He seems to have got this down to a fine art and has been approached to stand on the committee of The CILIP school libraries group. He is due to attend a conference where he will impart some of wisdom, giving a practical session on organising events such as these.
The archive consisted of ledgers dating back to 1837 and held some of the relics from noteworthy students such as Julian Barnes, Daniel Radcliffe and Warwick Davis. Before Christmas break, David came to collect a book from our library called Mauve by Simon Garfield. The book narrates the story of William Henry Perkin; yet another notary City of London School student. In 1851, as a young boy, Perkin was sent to the school and pursued his interest in chemistry, a relationship that was to bloom and carve his name into History. Alongside his studies, he continued his passions at home and had a personal laboratory set up. During the Easter vacation of 1856, he failed in his experimental attempts to synthesise quinine by oxidizing a salt of allyltoluidine with potassium dichromate. In his second attempt he replaced the former with aniline and inadvertently created the first permanent dye which was characterised by purple hue. This discovery was soon to be adopted and propagated as a huge trend by Queen Victoria herself. He patented the process and refined knowledge in the area through years of further research and was eventually awarded a silver and gold medal by the Société Industrielle de Mulhouse in 1859.
Come ten am, Mrs Quinn had arrived and I was surprised to find her pleasantly approachable. I was initially unsure what to expect and wholly assumed such an accomplished individual would have little time for a graduate trainee! I had been struck with awe when I researched her to find out she had written for The Wall Street Journal, Vogue, The Times and The Independent to name but a few. Publisher of The Spectator; marketing and communication director of Conde Nast and now author of a trilogy of childrens’ books are all titles Kimberly has tucked firmly under her belt.
David had lent me a copy of Quinn’s first book in the “Chronicles of the Tempus” trilogy, The Queen Must Die and it was a pleasure to find something aimed at nine to twelve year olds with a bit of meat on the bone. Quinn had researched Victorian history in her postgraduate studies and transferred this love affair into her books. The story follows Katie, a New Yorker school girl with a passion for reading who inadvertently travels through time to find herself in the Palace around the time Prince Albert’s Great Exhibition is being erected in 1851. The series goes on to explore later decades focusing on themes such as Florence Nightingale and The Crimean War.
When the class of boys sat down, it was obvious that Kimberly knew exactly how to command them. Having two boys of her own whose ages straddled the class of ten year olds she had in front of her, they were instantly absorbed by her talk, the predominant focus of which was using secondary and primary sources; essentially a history lesson. The boys remained receptive throughout as she moved fluidly from one topic to the next in what was an extremely educational but simultaneously fun and interactive history and English session.
After introducing both herself and her characters she stimulated her audience by asking them questions about what they like to read and why. She then introduced the Victorian period and explored some of the eccentricities of their culture, enriching the presentation with some beautiful curiosities she had acquired over time including parasols, newspapers and morbid lockets with human hair encased in them. The boys were unashamedly excited about trying on some of the ladies’ mourning wear that Quinn had brought; other memorabilia included top hats, garters and shawls.
With writing in mind she talked about how language can often be even more important than plot. She conveyed the importance of individuality of characters and how their dialogue should effectively express who is speaking without the reader being told the name of the person. She showed images of Queen Victoria’s diaries and explored how the handwriting conveyed the personality of each individual. The conclusions she drew from this helped her to effectively bring the characters alive in her work. She instilled the importance of “just writing”, bringing examples of her work which were written on the back of a menu. Having written her first book in longhand, Quinn expressed the importance of not glorifying the act of writing; if you just get on with it anywhere in any way, you will improve the craft of writing.
My morning at The City of London School was a very informative and inspiring one. Amongst my jealous leering at all of the books I wished I’d had available to me at that age, I was reminded that perhaps thinking like a child can sometimes be a good thing! With regard to college and school librarianship, the word of the day for me was autonomy. It was clear that David has lots of autonomy in his role which means lots of hard work and lots of trying to assimilate his projects around the timetable and curriculum; something he made sound very easy (though I’m sure it’s more challenging than he lets on). As a librarian amongst a band of teachers, David seems to have put his autonomy to great uses by applying it to his skillset and providing the best opportunities available, capitalising on the great resources at his disposal to maximise the learning opportunities the library can offer to the students; hence (hopefully) breeding a generation of library enthusiasts amongst his pupils.