Monday, 9 July 2012

Latin & rare books librarians

A while ago I was asked about resources to help with learning Latin, as a rare books librarian. And it got me thinking.

Do you actually need to know Latin to be a rare books librarian? 

My initial reaction was "Yes, but...", because surely it depends on your collection. If you look after a modern special collection, for instance, Latin is going to be much less useful than other skills. But over the course of a career, knowing Latin surely has to be a good thing as most pre-1800 rare-book collections are going to include a proportion of books in Latin?

The CILIP RBSCG has a document on skills for rare books librarians on their Careers page, which mentions the need to have language skills to help you manage and research your collection, and that increasingly users themselves may not know Latin so will need your help.

If your collection doesn't have any books in Latin, or very few of them, other skills are going to be more useful. Some rare books job adverts will make knowing Latin an essential or at least desirable element, but others won't. For instance, my current job had knowledge of Latin or a European language as desirable, but not essential. So, not having Latin won't necessarily stop you getting a job as a rare books librarian, but it might count against you if you're competing against other candidates who have Latin, and it might limit the jobs for which you can apply. And even if you're not looking for a job, it can make a massive difference to your everyday work too.

How does Latin help?

I have an A Level in Latin, and I have found it very useful in my career so far. You can "get by" in cataloguing without knowing Latin, and there are resources that can help, such as the Historic Libraries Forum guide.  Rare Books in Scotland have run workshops in the past on Latin for rare books librarians, and have a guide published here (link goes to pdf), which includes links to other resources, including information about place names and a word list.With many (most) collections, you're going to end up cataloguing a book in a language you don't know at some point, even if you do know Latin.

But, especially if you work with a collection that has many books in Latin and other European languages, knowing Latin is an enormous help. You don't just match a record on COPAC, hoping for the best, you can catalogue the book yourself. You can also interpret the book more easily, which helps with adding subject headings or assisting a reader who doesn't know the language. Even if the book you're looking at is in another European language you don't know, knowing Latin may give you a clue. You'll also miss out on the fun of cataloguing, and getting to know the book if you can't understand the language it's written in.

How do I learn Latin?

I was lucky. I went to a girls' state school which didn't teach Latin, but the boys' school up the road did, so I got to do my GCSE there. I did my A Level on my own, with a few hours support from a private tutor every week. That was really tough, as there is no one else there to bounce ideas and questions off when you're stuck with a particularly knotty bit of translation.

If you're at school now and it teaches Latin, take advantage of the opportunity! Unfortunately most state schools no longer teach it, and if you're reading this, you're most likely way past school-age anyway, so how else can you learn it?

I have heard the view expressed that making Latin a requirement in a job description is discriminatory, as it excludes people who didn't go to a private school. But I don't think this is true.  You don't need to learn Latin in school, for a start.

Learning for fun
If you just want to learn it for fun, or to add to your skills in a job you're already doing, then probably the cheapest way is to go it alone with a book and study guide. I used the Cambridge Latin Course for GCSE. I learnt Ancient Greek on a summer school which used Reading Greek, and there is a companion volume called Reading Latin, which is aimed at a student and adult audience. Learning on your own requires commitment though and it can be hard with no one to answer questions. The Cambridge Latin Course has a scheme for distance learners. You could also ask around or advertise for a tutor to help you (although expect to pay upwards of £15-20 an hour for a tutor). Maybe you could arrange a skills swap with someone who could help you in return for something you can do for them, such as babysitting?

Other options include doing an evening class via adult education through your local council, university or WEA. That way you'll meet other interested people and have a tutor to mark your work.
Summer schools are also fun, and offer an intensive way of getting to know the language with support available. I've seen some advertised (this isn't a complete list, do post in the comments if you know of more!).
London Summer School in Classics - this is the Greek course I did over 10 years ago. They also teach Latin, Syriac and Coptic.
Latin in a week at Gladstone's Library (you can also do Greek in a week, or Hebrew in a week!). What could be more fun than a week at a residential library? I spent a few nights here researching a theology essay years ago and it was wonderful.
Joint Association of Classical Teachers - list of summer schools.

Another fun option is to get involved with Minimus mouse Latin teaching. Minimus is aimed at primary school children and some schools run lunchtime or after school clubs to teach it.

Gaining a qualification

If you want to be able to put Latin on a job application, you might want to aim for a qualification to show your commitment and attainment. You may be able to access a GCSE or A Level course through a local college, although this may take place in daytime.
Some of the options I've suggested above, particularly distance learning, offer the opportunity to take a qualification at the end of them.
If you're still at university, you can often take a module or two outside the subject you're studying, so why not investigate taking a module in Latin?
The Open University has a module in Reading Classical Latin, and other languages. The Latin course is based around the Reading Latin book I mentioned above.

Good luck! And please leave me a comment if you have any more ideas of Latin learning resources to share.

After all, you never know when Latin is going to come in useful...

[Photo taken by me at Wallsend station on the Metro in Newcastle. This is the stop for Segedunum Roman fort.
The other pictures were taken by me at Chedworth Roman villa, near Cirencester. Well worth a visit. Look out for the snails.]


  1. I did GCSE Latin at my state school - they offered it as an extra class after school. It was really good fun, although not as grammatically rigorous as I would have liked - I only got a C since I didn't understand much about the grammar at all. Perhaps I should have worked harder!

    Having a smattering of Latin is generally useful in many jobs, and in life as well. Many books written more than 80-100 years ago assume the reader will have schoolboy Latin.

    Now my ancient language of choice is New Testament/Koine Greek. Even more fun! I'm tempted by Hebrew as well, although haven't had the chance to immerse myself in the alphabet system yet.

    1. You obviously need to sign up for Hebrew in a week at Gladstone's Library!

  2. Thanks Katie. I've been toying with the idea of taking a Latin course for the last couple of years. I think you might've finally persuaded me

  3. Really useful post, thanks!
    Another option for learning Latin is enrolling on a single module of an archives/library course which includes it. Dundee University offer a module called Latin for Archivists and Researchers, which you can take via distance learning. I did this and can thoroughly recommend it.
    They focus on medieval rather than classical Latin, and the kind of vocab you are likely to come across in texts of this period.
    There is a strong emphasis on ensuring you understand the grammatical principles which underpin the language, much less on memorising vocab. The goal is for you to understand enough to use a dictionary to translate accurately into English.
    I found it so intensive that there was no time to learn vocab and endings by heart. I'm now working through the Cambridge Latin Course stage by stage in order to feel more fluent, but the experience of the module means I feel confident doing so without the aid of a tutor.

    1. That sounds like a great idea. Thank you!

  4. Katie,

    Thanks for the post. I notice that you have emphasised classical Latin. You may have more experience working with pre-1800 rare books than me (I am an archivist), but I wondered what the balance of classical and Medieval Latin would be in these collections?

    Alison Harvey mentioned the Latin for Archivists course, run by CAIS, at Dundee, which focusses on the Medieval side of things. I am aware that archives/library studies at Aberystwyth runs a similar distance learning course. The National Archives runs online beginners' and advanced tutorials in Latin from 1086-1733. These courses are aimed at archivists because they refer more to the Latin used in legal and ecclesiastical documents of the period.

    For rare books librarians, I imagine that classical Latin would also be of use, because many of the books would contain the works of classical or early Christian writers. I would be interested in whether you think that rare books librarians would benefit from both medieval and classical Latin training.

    1. Thank you for the comment. Good point! I think it depends on the extent of your collections. Classical Latin is great for rare books, but if you look after manuscript collections too (I've worked places where that's the librarian's job, and other places where that's the archivist's) then, yes, medieval would be would be a great help. And thank you for the links to courses too.

  5. Erika Delbecque10 July 2012 at 20:40

    I did some Latin at secondary school, and I just completed the Continuing Classical Latin module of the Open University, so that I can show my knowledge and commitment to a potential employer once that elusive rare books job to apply for comes up! But I think everyone will get something out of learning Latin, whether it is for career-related purposes or not. I specialised in Ancient Greek at secondary school, and I can honestly say that it was the most useful subject I did - no other subject is so broad in scope. It trains your memory, provides insight into history, literature and language, and allows you to learn other foreign languages much more easily. I think it had a tremendous influence on my academic development and achievements.

    1. Thanks Erika! Yes, my husband claims that learning ancient languages makes working with computers much easier too - something about the logic and structure?!