Wednesday, 18 February 2015

Storytelling and selkies with Gillian McClure

Korean Sketch Book. Image reproduced by kind permission of Gillian McClure.

On Wednesday 11th February, the Cambridge Library Group hosted a presentation by children’s author and illustrator Gillian McClure.  Gillian’s presentation entertainingly explored the many different facets of creating a picture book – from the initial inspiration, to the evolution of the idea, and then the capturing of the characters, energy and emotion of the tale through illustration, text, and typography.  This journey through Gillian’s creative process was accompanied throughout with illustrations from her works, conveying her creative range and celebrating the evocative nature of visual storytelling.

It was fascinating to hear about the creative process involved in formulating a character and a story.  Sometimes a story could begin with a simple image – like a hen nesting in the tail of a fox (Flood, 2014) or a line of sticks in the sand (Selkie, 2010).  Sometimes a story could begin with a friend recounting the antics of a kleptomaniac cat (Tom Finger, 2002), or from sketches of a South Korean village seemingly untouched by time (The Land of the Dragon King, 2008).  In each instance Gillian stressed the value of an organic approach to writing, and the importance of finding a personal connection with the story’s setting. Trying to pin down a story onto paper too soon can stunt its growth.  A story cannot be forced, but rather formed by countless experiences, images and encounters.  An unexpected remark from a stranger whilst waiting in a queue at the fish van, for example, took the story of Selkie in an entirely unexpected direction, ending up in a setting deeply rooted in memories of holidays in Colonsay and Orinsay. 

 Tommy Finger 'dummy', pages 6-7.  Image reproduced by kind permission of Gillian McClure.

Picture book story telling is a complex and diverse art form and part of Gillian McClure’s appeal is the stylistic variety of her work.  Gillian’s most recent book, Flood, is highly suitable for early years with large earthy images, sparing language and a simple story.  This contrasts sharply with Tog the Ribber (1985) a collaboration with her father, Paul Coltman.  Coltman’s frightening story, Jabberwocky-like word play, and fast-paced rhythm are complemented by darkly detailed illustrations that gradually break through the borders on the page as we reach the climax, undermining any former illusion of safety and containment.  This book is certainly more appropriate for older readers and it is no wonder it was highly commended in the Kate Greenaway awards, 1985.  Different again are works like Zoe’s Boat (2012) and We’re Going to Build a Dam (2013).  The former provides a great example of the use of graphic novel frames to capture a fast paced, action-packed story; the latter demonstrates the interdependence of illustration and typography, showing how playful use of type can enhance the narrative. Gillian works very closely with typographical designer Lisa Kirkham from an early stage to achieve this. It is also important to read the words aloud as you’re writing to hear how they sound. Words lie flat on the page until the tune or tone of the story is captured and the words spring to life.

This was a fun and fascinating event that also included a display of Gillian McClure’s art and an opportunity to buy some of her books.  We are both now in possession of signed copies of Flood (Jodie for her three year old niece, Annie for herself) and Jodie fully intends to hunt out a copy of Tog the Ripper. Picture books aren’t just for kids, you know.

Colonsay sketch. Image reproduced by kind permission of Gillian McClure.
Contributed by Jodie Walker, Librarian at Peterhouse College, and Annie Gleeson, Deputy Librarian at Magdalene College.

For more information about Gillian's work see her website and blog: 

Tuesday, 16 September 2014

CLG & CILIP East joint event - Clare McKenzie (International Librarians Network)

We have an exciting event coming up in October! Cambridge Library Group and CILIP East of England are hosting a talk by Clare McKenzie, one of the founders of the International Librarians Network.

This free event will be on Tuesday 21st October 2014 at the Law Faculty (room B16), Cambridge. There will be drinks and nibbles available from 5.30pm, and the talk will begin at 6pm.

The International Librarians Network is a global peer mentoring programme which helps librarians to develop their networks beyond the borders of their home countries. Join us on 21st October to learn more about this programme and how you can get involved!

Tuesday, 15 April 2014

Gwen Raverat talk by Frances Spalding - 3rd April 2014

A few weeks ago CLG met for a lively talk by art historian and Newnham College alumna Frances Spalding on the subject of the artist Gwen Raverat.

We were fortunate enough to be able to use the Old Library at Darwin College as our venue, highly appropriate as it was once the front room of Gwen Raverat's family home, then called Newnham Grange. Primarily known for her wood engravings, Gwen was also an illustrator, painter, author and journalist. Frances illustrated her talk with quotes from Raverat's autobiography Period Piece: A Cambridge Childhood. These charming, and often very funny snippets took us back to the late nineteenth century, when as Gwen wrote, "nearly all the life of Cambridge poured back and forth over the bridge outside our house". One of my favourite anecdotes was of Gwen's eccentric aunt Etty, who was a bit of a hypochondriac and fashioned her own anti-germ mask out of a tea-strainer stuffed with antiseptic-soaked cotton wool, which she wore over her mouth and nose!

As a member of the very tight-knit Darwin clan, the presence of her grandfather Charles Darwin was there throughout Gwen's life, despite Charles having died three years before she was born. The Darwin family were often viewed by others with some scepticism, which perhaps led to the tighter-than-normal family bond.

Gwen taught herself the art of wood-engraving while at the Slade School in London, where she also met her husband Jacques Raverat, who had been a mathematician until doctors advised him to give up mathematics for his health, and take up art instead! Sadly, Jacques' health continued to deteriorate, and he was eventually diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. The Raverats decided to move to France in the hopes that the warmer climate would help. While in France, they continued to keep in touch with friends at home, in particular with Virginia Woolf, who wrote to Jacques often and kept him up-to-date with news and gossip.

After Jacques died in 1925, Gwen decided to return to Cambridgeshire, and in her final years was often seen sitting by the Backs in her wheelchair, painting.

I knew very little about Gwen Raverat before hearing Frances' talk, and I found the evening thoroughly enjoyable. As always it was great to catch up with other librarians, and Period Piece is now next on my 'to-read' list!

By Annie Gleeson, Senior Library Assistant at Homerton College

Monday, 10 March 2014

Talk by James Campbell, 12th February 2014

Our February CLG event was a talk about the history of library architecture, by the author of The Library: A World History, James Campbell. He gave us a quick overview of everything, a whistle-stop tour of significant libraries from around the world, accompanied by some stunning slides.

Apparently libraries were originally used merely to house scrolls or books, and instead of studying within the library you would come and take away the item to needed to peruse elsewhere. This impacted on the architecture as there was no need to plan for people to actually use it. James also said that there’s a possibility Greek and Latin libraries might have purposefully been built together, to complement each other when those languages were both vitally important for education. He took us everywhere from a monastery in South Korea, where a huge library houses just one book and its corresponding printing blocks, to Michelangelo’s Medici Library (which is beautiful but apparently not practical at all!), to the Biblioteque Nationale and the National Library of Beijing, shining examples of modern library architecture. We saw libraries change from repositories to interactive study-spaces, and the rise of the public library from the 19th century onwards. From 16th-century stalls to (apparently James’ favourite) 18th-century Rococo designs and 19th-century barrel-vaults, the library has always adapted to the architecture of the time in new and surprising ways, including hidden doors and libraries completely made from iron!

It was a really interesting lecture and made me want to go travelling just to see libraries around the world. Talk about your busman’s holiday…! There really are some amazing library buildings out there. I’m also definitely going to be buying his book, if only to give me something to aim at for future holidays!

By Lucy Woolhouse, Graduate Trainee Librarian at Christ's College.

Thursday, 11 July 2013

A Library Camp for the East of England: #libcampeast

This CILIP East of England event may be of interest to CLG members:

Library Camp East: Sat 7th Sept, 10.00 - 16:30, Harlow College

Join us for this free event sponsored by CILIP East Members' Network and hosted by Harlow College (

Bookings open on Monday 15 July at 09:30 at (the event page will be password protected until that time). We’ve reserved 20 tickets for mid-career library professionals/paraprofessionals.  

In the meantime, see the wiki at for further details including information on how to apply for one of two travel bursaries on offer.  You can also keep up to date by following @LibCampEast.  The hashtag for this event is #libcampeast.

Any questions?  Email us at

Thursday, 27 June 2013

Talk by Michelle Spring, 18th June 2013

Last week CLG members gathered at the English Faculty for a talk by the author Michelle Spring. Michelle's topic was 'What does a writer do when she's not writing? Teaching, mentoring and the Royal Literary Fund'.

After working as a professor of Sociology at Anglia Ruskin and Cambridge University, Michelle turned her hand to writing crime fiction. However she was able to combine her new career with her passion for teaching by becoming a Royal Literary Fund Fellow. The RLF Fellowship scheme places writers in Higher Education institutions, to support students and staff in their writing. Currently there are three partner institutions in Cambridge - Anglia Ruskin University, Newnham College and Magdelene College, and Michelle has worked in all three of these institutions as an RLF Fellow.

The RLF Fellowship scheme provides students with the opportunity for confidential one-to-one sessions on any aspect of writing they are having difficulties with, ranging from correct use of a semicolon to turning a dissertation into a publishable article. This kind of support is not always available from supervisors and tutors, and can make a big difference.

Michelle also talked about her experiences teaching creative writing courses and mentoring less experienced authors. While creative writing courses are excellent at providing a support network and making new authors get writing and keep on writing, mentoring develops a stronger, long-lasting relationship which can be very rewarding for both the mentee and the mentor.

Michelle with some CLG members
I thoroughly enjoyed this event. Michelle was an engaging and down-to-earth speaker, and I think many of us were inspired to find new ways to support our students with their writing, or indeed to pick up the pen ourselves! Michelle had brought along a list of recommended books on writing, which I have copied below:

Elizabeth Benedict, The Joy of Writing Sex: A Guide for Fiction Writers
Dorothea Brande, Becoming a Writer
John Gardner, The Art of Fiction: Notes on Craft for Young Writers
Stephen King, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft
Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird: Instructions on Writing and Life
David Lodge, The Art of Fiction, Illustrated from Classic and Modern Texts
Michelle Spring and Laurie R. King, Crime and Thriller Writing: A Writers' and Artists' Companion
William Strunk, Jr. & E. B. White, The Elements of Style

Reference for writers:
Writers' and Artists' Yearbook
Collins Easy Learning Grammar and Punctuation
The Merriam-Webster Dictionary of Synonyms and Antonyms

Michelle Spring's novels:
Every Breath You Take
Running for Shelter
Standing in the Shadows
Nights in White Satin
In the Midnight Hour
The Night Lawyer 

Wednesday, 15 May 2013

Samuel Butler Project - Presentation by Rebecca Watts, Butler Project Associate

Samuel Butler - Victorian polymath (1835-1902)
In the fleur-de-lis decorated Lightfoot Room CLG members gathered for a very illuminating presentation on the Victorian polymath Samuel Butler (1835-1902). Butler was a writer, artist and photographer. He engaged in ‘written debates’ with Darwin and was respected by significant contemporaries such as George Bernard Shaw and E. M. Forster. Butler wrote fiction and non-fiction, subjects include evolution, art, religion and travel. He often provided illustrations for his own works. His photographic works reflect his travel in Italy and provide a social history of Victorian society.

The Butler Collection includes around 100 boxes of papers, articles and correspondence, more than 650 printed books, 450 paintings, watercolours, drawings and prints, 50 artefacts and a substantial photographic archive.
Selection of Samuel Butler's paintings and sketches

Rebecca also provided an insight into managing such a diverse archive, including deciding which items should be conserved, creating a searchable catalogue, organising events and exhibitions, working with schools and putting Butler scholars in contact with one another.

The Butler Project began in July 2011 and runs until July 2013. The project is funded jointly by the Heritage Lottery Fund and St John’s College. For further information visit
Rebecca Watts (Butler Project Associate) and Rachel Walker (Temporary Library Projects Assistant)
By Jo Milton, Collection Development Manager at Cambridge University Medical Library