The British Library / 8th December 2017

This event aimed at first year PhD students as well as Masters students looking to continue at doctorate level allows access to the music collections at the British Library, which are unparalleled in their scope and diversity, providing a wealth of material to aid and inspire researchers and performers. The Library’s holdings of written musical sources (printed music and music manuscripts) and related literature (books, journals, concert programmes) encompass all genres and countries from the Middle Ages to the present day.

Current PhD student, within the School of Music and Performing Arts, Jon Williams, attended the event and was kind enough to provide the following report…

One of the undoubted benefits of being based in Canterbury for Doctoral studies is that the British Library is literally feet away from the High Speed Train terminus at St Pancras. The mind-boggling wealth of the BL’s collections, especially in the field of Music, must surely be a, if not the first, port of call for PhD research and this Doctoral Open Day aimed at Music researchers was an invaluable introduction to the range of research materials available as well as an opportunity to meet the specialist curators and to network with fellow researchers across a broad range of disciplines.

The usual housekeeping announcements, and a general welcome to the BL from Richard Chesser (Head of Music Collections) in which he outlined some of the history of the insitution as well as profiling the BL’s ‘evangelistic’ role as a promoter of research opportunities in its dual role as a major university-research orientated depository and as a public library.

Presentations from Dr Rupert Ridgewell (Curator Printed Music) and Chris Scobie (Curator Music Manuscripts) were as comprehensive and fascinating as the time allowed, their joint roles and responsibilities encompassing some several million items. The printed collection, covering items from 1501 to the present numbers approximately 1.6 million items, of which about 1 million derive from the UK, and only about 340,000 predate 1900, which gives an insight into the explosion of music-related publication in the 20th century. The presentations provided an overview of the major collections (e.g. Hirsch and Royal Music) as well as some of the less well catalogued collections (called ‘Secondary Collections’ which include ‘popular’ music items from the 19th and 20th centuries, some 60,000 of which items have still to be catalogued at all) and the developing area of Ephemera. I was particularly drawn, for my own research, to the concert programme items from the 18th century to the present which are scattered around various collections but which have been drawn together in one many digital research projects which were highlighted expertly by Lia Ridge (Digital Curator) and Amelie Roper (Research Development Manager) in one of the afternoon sessions (see Digital Research seems to becoming a very important and exciting part of modern research methodology taking advantage of technological resources, enabling access to large data sets in order to examine tracking of features and trends over time and the testing of hypotheses as broader context to support closer work with more specific sources. Such data sets highlighted included Early Music Online; Big Data History of Music and Chopin Online amongst others. See BL website for more information.

Another area of activity for the BL, sound and vision archive, was profiled by the school-masterly Jonathan Summers (Curator, Classical Recordings) including tips on how to access and search the archive in the best ways. As with the secondary collections, not all of the items in the S&V archive are catalogued as of yet, but all are accessioned. Increasing numbers of items are being digitised and are available online or in the BL, and for those interested they were keen to promote the Edison Fellowships which offer grants for 1-year placements to doctoral researchers to work on aspects of the sound archive in support of their studies and to further enhance the archive to the wider community.

In a similar vein, the day included a Q&A session with four of the Music Collaborative PhD Students who are based at the BL and work on the various collections alongside completing their theses with their Universities. See the BL website for more information about these partnerships.

Steve Cork (Rare Books and Reference Team Leader) provided an informal but very informative session on the reference services available in the Reading Room including general guidance on protocols and the availability of the team for more specific enquiries and 1:1 sessions.

The Open Day also included a ‘Meet the Curators’ mini-exhibition with a number of items on display covering the various collections and specialisms, including the Mulliner Book (instrumental music from the 16th century) and the original score of a Mozart anthem composed during one of his childhood visits to London. The inclusion of a musical card game produced by Thomas Goodban, a 19th century luminary of the Canterbury Catch Club and Lay Clerk of Canterbury Cathedral was a pleasant novelty to discover.

I’ll be honest, the Open Day was billed as of interest to PhD researchers in their first year of study, so this 2nd Year was a bit doubtful about what I might get out of the jaunt up to town. I was, as it turned out, very pleased I attended this highly worthwhile and illuminating conference and would recommend it as essential for the CCCU PhD musicians…..and not only because it’s just feet away from the train!

– Jon Williams