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Looking after Harewood’s 10,000 + books – Our Library Guardians

There are more than 10,000 books held within the 3 libraries – Main, Spanish and Old Library- at Harewood, collected by every generation of the Lascelles family and covering a range of different genres. A dedicated team of Library volunteers check the details of more than 11,000 books on the online catalogue, and adding extra information about their condition, contents, bindings, illustrations etc. This #VolunteersWeek, Kathy, Paul, Susan and Raymond take us through the work they do and what brought them to volunteering at Harewood. 

“It is interesting to imagine who has read the books over the years.”

Retired Librarian 

My name is Kathy and I am a retired librarian, working with a small team of 3 other volunteers to update the catalogue for the library collection at Harewood. We are checking the details of all the more than 11,000 books on the online catalogue, and adding extra information about their condition, contents, bindings, illustrations etc.

Many of the books are 200 to 300 years old, and some are rare and valuable. What makes them especially interesting are the personal histories shown in many of the books. They contain bookplates and armorials belonging to the member of the family who collected them. They often have inscriptions showing who gave the book as a birthday or Christmas present, or who presented the book to show their esteem. Sometimes there are notes in the margins, and occasionally some doodles (such as those where a member of the family was getting bored during a long church service). Some contain sketches done by members of the family.

It is a privilege to work with so many old and rare books. It is interesting to imagine who has read the books over the years. Some of them are in quite a fragile state, with covers loose or detached, leather deteriorating, spines becoming split and corners damaged. We have to be as careful as possible when we are cataloguing these volumes so that we do not damage them further. They have to be preserved temporarily by taping them together, and handling them as little as possible. Conserving these books properly is a huge and ongoing task, but one which is certainly worth doing.

“I very nearly said ‘no’ to an offer to work at Harewood; I am so glad I didn’t.”

Former British Library employee

When I left the British Library and the best part of thirty years spent cataloguing I didn’t want to catalogue another book and I very nearly said ‘no’ to an offer to work at Harewood; I am so glad I didn’t. I was worried about being ‘stuck at home’ on my own all day and every day through the long, cold and wet Yorkshire winters.

The day I come here is often the best day of the week as I become a working person again, I get up early, dress smartly(?), and have a peaceful commute as I am able to leave home later than most people and the roads are quieter. I work in pleasant surroundings with friendly colleagues, no pressure, and the feeling that I am doing something useful again. As we only work in the mornings of our one day a week, I often stay at Harewood in the afternoons in summer, walk in the gardens, or sit and read. I love the Himalayan garden most of all. I previously worked in an anonymous office building on the edge of an industrial estate — here the house and gardens provide an exceptional environment. All this is of course conducive to better mental health in this age when we have suddenly discovered its importance.

“The rewards of working with congenial companions, in overwhelmingly beautiful surroundings, with such an amazing collection of books, and, crucially, no deadlines or statistics to achieve, have been enough to keep me at Harewood ever since.”

Library Volunteer since 2013

In 2003 I responded to an advert sent to the British Library asking for volunteers to join a team working on a new Library Project at Harewood House. I was due to retire shortly and this was a perfect opportunity for me to continue working with books as I have done all my life. I was told that there were already two qualified librarians, transferring records from the existing 20th century card catalogue onto a database. This was the first phase of preparing an on-line catalogue of all the books in the three libraries on the State Floor.

Coming to Harewood was an opportunity to immerse myself in a worthwhile project, helping to secure the future for a valuable and remarkable collection of largely rare books. The rewards of working with congenial companions, in overwhelmingly beautiful surroundings, with such an amazing collection of books, and, crucially, no deadlines or statistics to achieve, have been enough to keep me at Harewood ever since.

During the pandemic we unfortunately had to suspend activity for a while, but I am glad to say that we are now back at Harewood, though we have to work on different days and in different locations. We shall no longer be working as the tightly-knit group we were before, but we shall do our best. I don’t mind working on my own, but I do enjoy being in the libraries, surrounded by beautiful furniture and books and able to chat from time to time with staff, volunteers and visitors.

We do still get asked why we are not wearing white gloves when we handle such precious books, but we tell them that experts consider that bare hands are safer and more sensitive than gloves and thus do less harm.

“I began having ‘Wow’ moments, when a hand written document from a member of the Royal Family or famous people writing to the various Earls dropped from the pages.”

Retired Dentist 

This retired dentist decided there was more to life than teeth. And so, having helped Special Needs children to read and then joining the Leeds University Library as a mover and shelving assistant for six years ending in Special Collections working with important documents, I discovered that Harewood House needed volunteers. I spent two years talking to visitors about the house and its history, all the time looking enviously at the library books and wishing I could get involved with them. Then, lo and behold, I was invited to join the team. My first job, which lasted six years, was to list all the books in the Bazaar Room and the shelves outside the offices and in adjacent rooms.

In came boxes and boxes of books spanning the various ages of the house, from religious volumes to children’s books and novels galore. There are also many years of hand-written weather books of Harewood. I began having ‘Wow’ moments. These were when a hand written document from some member of the Royal Family or famous people writing to the various earls dropped from the pages. I spent the next nine years creating catalogue cards for each volume with author, title, publisher, date of publication and a number. About 3,600 of these books have been entered on the data base and are being archived in detail.

Volunteering for Real World Experience

This #VolunteersWeek, Megan takes us through a day in the life of a Bird Garden Volunteer and how volunteering at Harewood is contributing towards her qualifications. 

My name is Megan and I’m one of the Bird Garden volunteers, I have always had a huge love for animals and I’m currently studying to gain a CMZAAV qualification (Certificate in the Management of Zoo and Aquarium animals) which requires that I volunteer to gain real world experience. I feel incredibly lucky that I’m able to do this at Harewood and work with some of the most amazing animals. My personal favourites are the Humboldt penguins which I’ve learnt to identify, such as Beaky who many of us have a huge soft spot for. Many of my course studies are based on the animals in the collection such as researching their behaviours to further understand them, including how we care, protect and save them. I’m currently working on a project observing Brown Lory behaviours to understand how much they interact with visitors.

A day in the bird garden starts off with preparing the food for all the 50 species of birds – this means a lot of dishes! Once the food is prepped its time to feed and check they are all looking healthy, we do this by just keeping an eye out for any unusual behaviour. Once everyone’s fed, a lot of my time is spent tending to the bird enclosures, often weeding and cleaning. The best part for me is scrubbing down the penguin pools, it’s quite a smelly job but I love it!

Harewood is a fantastic place to volunteer, there is nothing better than being in the great outdoors with nature surrounding you. I am always happy to see visitors enjoying themselves and embracing a passion I hold so closely.

‘I am more confident and feel part of a family at Harewood’

“…volunteering has really made a massive difference to my life…”

Sam has volunteered in the gardens at Harewood for six years. “I wanted to share my story as volunteering has really made a massive difference to my life, I am more confident and feel part of a family at Harewood.”. Twelve years ago Sam suffered a head injury which left him with long term mental and physical health problems. Sam listened to a Monty Don Audiobook which discusses the healing power of gardens and gardening. Often in pain as a result of his injury, these words are really meaningful to Sam. Working in the fresh air, surrounded by stunning scenery and nature, Sam can be himself.

He also takes great pleasure in interacting with the visitors, sharing stories of the work he is involved with. Hearing visitors say how much they love visiting the Walled Garden makes his day and motivates Sam to continue to play his part in supporting the Grounds and Garden Staff and Volunteer Team.

This year Sam and his fellow volunteers have been working in the Walled Garden on the “no dig project”. Initially creating pathways and raising beds, then covering them with carboard or biodegradable carpet underlay, to minimise digging, suppress weeds and retain moisture.

Sam is a keen photographer and maintains a weekly photo diary to help him recall the work he does. His diary now runs to 1100 pages!

Preparing for Winter and Beyond. Sustainability in Harewood’s Gardens.

Photo credit Trevor Nicholson

Harewood’s Head Gardener Trevor Nicholson takes us through new processes and methods being implemented across the Gardens, as Harewood looks to the future and more sustainable ways of caring for its Gardens and Grounds. 

As autumn gives way to winter, the Grounds and Gardens teams have been very busy, ably assisted by our loyal and enthusiastic band of volunteers. For the grounds team this means the removal of a huge quantity of fallen leaves from Harewood’s verdant lawns. The collected leaf litter is a valuable source of leaf mould for the gardens.

Having made the decision a few months earlier to change the way we grow our vegetables in the Walled Garden to something approaching the ‘no-dig’ system, every leaf – in fact, every scrap of green garden waste – has become significantly more precious to us as a renewable source of organic matter to be re-purposed as a growing medium.

Although we’ve been making compost for many years, the real difference is in the way we now apply it – and why. Call it what you will: ‘no dig’, ‘no till’, ‘reduced tillage’ etc, there are numerous labels; but they all mean pretty much the same thing: put away the spade and stop turning over and chopping up the garden soil year after year!

Photo credit Trevor Nicholson

Regularly digging over and breaking up the soil impacts on the soil ecosystem by disturbing complex ‘food webs’ – interrelations between a multitude of soil organisms and mycorrhizal fungi, which live symbiotically with plants. Leaving the soil undisturbed and placing organic matter onto the surface not only prevents stored carbon from the soil being released into the atmosphere through digging, it also provides optimum conditions to enable the community of soil organisms to flourish.

The beneficial effect of these soil organisms includes increasing the fertility of the soil and improving its structure. One of the most important environmental benefits of adopting this method of surface ‘mulching’ is the retention of soil moisture, which not only saves water, but also reduces soil erosion and helps prevent the silting up of rivers and drainage systems.

Another added benefit to the gardener of applying organic matter to the soil as a surface ‘mulch’ is the control of weeds. This method need not be confined to the vegetable garden. We are experimenting in some areas of the Himalayan Garden with the use of waste cardboard re-purposed as a biodegradable ground cover, which is being placed between plants and topped off with sieved leaf mould.

The composting of our green garden waste and the recycling of biodegradable materials really underpins much of what we are doing in the gardens – now and in the future – as we set our focus on working in ever more sustainable ways and having environmentally considered methods at the forefront of our  thinking.

A volunteer researcher with a mission for equality

Me as a baby visiting Harewood House.

This photograph was taken during the first of my many visits to Harewood House.

We explored its opulent rooms and marvelled at the extravagant furniture, oblivious to the origins of the Lascelles’ wealth. My enthusiasm for history began as a child in primary school. I could not wait to read the informative display boards at the historical sites I visited, but I rarely found myself represented in these displays – and this was the case for Harewood House.

My school rarely taught us about the contributions of Black and Asian people, and therefore I did not expect any different from public history. The curriculum trained both myself and others to see the colonial histories of India and the Caribbean as detached to British history – despite their involvement in the British Empire. To a young me, I was never truly British. It was only when I was a teenager that I learned about Harewood House’s historical connections to Caribbean slavery. And it was only when I was an undergraduate student that I understood that these slaves were just as entitled to be recognised as part of Harewood House’s history as the lords and ladies on its walls.

A friend encouraged me to write to Harewood House to express my disappointment at the lack of informative material about the Lascelles’ involvement in slavery. In addition to having sections in the visitor guide at Harewood and online, the Trust published the remnants of the Lascelles’ West Indian papers at the Borthwick Institute at the University of York, which has allowed members of the public to access these crucial documents. I am a history undergraduate student at the university, and the work I conducted for my dissertation introduced me to the rich possibilities of this Harewood archive.

The team at Harewood invited me to the house multiple times and I eventually became a volunteer researcher. It is important to include an historian of Black heritage, because quite often we are the subjects, not the researchers of history. Local Black communities also need to be involved in the representation of this history – a history that still has repercussions for Black populations around the world. My aim is to ensure that the next Black child who visits Harewood House sees themselves represented, and sees their ancestors credited in a house they helped build but could never visit. And for visitors to understand that although slavery took place thousands of miles away, this is their history – this is British history too.

Olivia Wyatt, Volunteer Researcher, Harewood House Trust.

Editor’s Notes: Since engaging further with the Harewood House Trust, Olivia has learnt about Carnival Messiah, which was performed at Harewood in 2007 as part of the abolition of slavery bi-centenary, and the ongoing work with the Geraldine Connor Foundation.