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Cinq prières dans la cathédrale de Chartres par Charles Péguy

For several years the University Library has been the beneficiary of generous gifts from the the library of the Institut français du Royaume-Uni. A lovely little volume of Péguy’s poetry which arrived as part of the most recent donation from … Continue reading →

The Twilight of Twaddle: Hans Keller’s Wordless Functional Analysis

September 7th 1957 was to prove a watershed for music analysis. Onto the innocent listeners’ ears that evening courtesy of the BBC Third Programme, burst an entirely new concept: a way to make plain the unity lying behind the diversity … Continue reading →

Decorated paper wrappers in the University Library

Upper cover of 5000.c.65(2)

There are many beautiful books in the University Library, from illuminated medieval manuscripts to illustrated private press books of the nineteenth-century. In addition to the texts they contain books are also, sometimes, important as material objects and some are very beautiful on the outside; the high standing of their original (or later) owners can be reflected in the choice of binding material or in the nature of the decoration. Among the most spectacular styles of decoration in the early modern period are the geometrically-decorated leather volumes from Jean Grolier’s library, embroidered English bindings from the reign of Charles I and astonishingly detailed gilded books from the Restoration. Throughout much of this period the simplest and cheapest binding one could have was simple paper wrappers. These did not afford the physical protection of sturdy wooden or leather boards but, for a slim work or pamphlet, it was a sensible choice. Sometimes this was a temporary option before a more substantial binding, but often the wrappers remained in the long term. By the eighteenth century, even paper wrappers came to be decorated in a lavish manner, either with marbled patterns, painted designs or gilding. The Library has recently acquired one such example: a short sixteenth-century pamphlet in elaborate eighteenth-century decorated paper covers. The text, just six leaves long, is a set of verses by Grazio Maria Grazi (b. 1553) – apparently his first recorded literary production – inspired by a Florentine sculpture. The sculpture in question was Giambologna’s ‘Rape of a Sabine’ (rape in the sense of abduction), itself an episode of legendary Roman history traditionally dated to 750BC. The story goes that the male followers of Romulus, who had recently founded the city of Rome, had unsuccessful negotiations with the Sabines, the Italic tribe populating the area. The result was a ban on Sabine women marrying Romans, and a plan by the latter to abduct the Sabine women during the festival of Neptune.

Title page

The story was related by Livy and Plutarch, and served as the inspiration for centuries of artistic representation by masters including Poussin, Rubens and Picasso. Giambologna’s sculpture was carved from a single block of marble for Francesco I de Medici and put on public display in the Piazza del Signoria in Florence, where it remains today (see image below). In the introduction to the text, printed by Giorgio Marescotti in Florence in 1584, the sculpture is called “le belissime statue del ratto delle Sabine dell’Eccellente Giambologna”. Our copy – at the shelfmark 5000.c.65(2) – is one of just four recorded in the UK (the others being at the British Library, Warburg Library and Royal Academy of Arts). The printing is nicely done, with some fine historiated initials and a city scene – presumably Florence itself – at the head of p. 3.

At some point in the eighteenth century it was rebound in the stunning gilded wrappers seen above; the design of scrolling acanthus leaves was evidently printed onto the paper with an engraved roller or wooden block. The pattern has a green base (now visible as the gilding deteriorates), with gold (presumably gold leaf, but occasionally a form of gold dust) on top, which still shines and sparkles in the light. This special treatment of a pamphlet which was, by that time, perhaps two centuries old, points to the changing fortunes of books over the years. Something printed as an ephemeral pamphlet in the sixteenth century was, by the eighteenth century rare and desirable, and this is reflected in its spectacular rebinding.

Giambologna’s ‘Rape of a Sabine’ (Wikimedia Commons)


A new collection of Spanish history books for the UL

Cambridge University Library is pleased to announce the recent acquisition of several hundred books on Spain’s early modern history. The collection was generously donated by Dr. I.A.A. Thompson, historian of early-modern Spain and author of Crown and cortes: government, institutions … Continue reading →

Make and Create

It’s not often that librarians get to work under canvas but this year the UL took part in the Cambridge University Museums Make and Create Tent on Parker’s Piece as part of The Big Weekend.

The tent included stalls run by nine museums and collections from across the city – each offering visitors the chance to take part in a craft activity and learn more about the Summer at the Museums programme for younger visitors.

Making and creating concertina books (@Cambridge University Museums)

A concertina book to take home

Those who stopped by the University Library stall had the chance to make and decorate their own concertina book, carefully instructed by volunteers from the Conservation department and Reader Services Desk team. The design of the books was inspired by the fold-out full colour representation of the Duke of Wellington’s funeral procession, which is currently on display in the Milstein Exhibition Centre. Whilst the original measures more than 20 metres in length, those created in the tent were on a smaller scale – but much admired!

Over 500 people visited the Make and Create tent during the afternoon and 125 concertina books were created. All the volunteers enjoyed meeting the families and we hope lots of participants will be inspired to visit the Damned Serious Business exhibition over the summer holidays.


Cambridge Digital Library – latest update

This release sees the launch of our new Lewis-Gibson collection with an initial selection of the 1700 medieval Jewish manuscripts jointly purchased by Cambridge University Library and the Bodleian Libraries, Oxford in August 2013. The collection includes rare and unique items such as drafts of Maimonides’ literary works, large and handsome leaves from 11th and 12th century Bibles, early Christian Palestinian Aramaic palimpsests, and an eyewitness account of the Seljuk Turks’ 11th-century invasion of the Holy Land. See the previous entry on the Special Collections blog about the conservation of the Lewis-Gibson collection.

Our latest additions to the Royal Commonwealth Society Collection focus on the history of Ghana with a wonderful range of photographs taken between 1900 and 1970, digitised in memory of Michael Fuller. They include a 1910 panorama of Accra (Y30448A), an album on West African Railways (Y30448W), records of the Volta River Project and Tema Harbour (Y30448T), scenes of the cotton industry (Y30448U), Gold Coast castles, (Y30448J, Y30448N), soil erosion and farming (Y304E, Y3011U), Achimota College (Y30448H, Y30448J), the inauguration of the University of Ghana (Y30448F), No.218 Gold Coast Bomber Squadron (Y30448M), and the funeral of Asantehene in 1970 (Y30448R).


European literature in English translation : recent prizewinners

A recent blog post on Brazilian authors at the Paris book fair contrasted the numerous works of contemporary Brazilian literature in French with the far smaller number of titles which have appeared in English. It should be recognised, however, that … Continue reading →

Libraries past and future

As I near the end of my six months working here, it seems that the time since I started last January has vanished all too quickly. The maze of shelves, stacks, hidden corridors and collections that the UL and the … Continue reading →

St Antony’s International Review (STAIR)

New on ejournals@cambridge A-Z : St Antony’s International Review

From the IngentaConnect website for the journal:

“The St Antony’s International Review (STAIR) is the only peer-reviewed journal of international affairs at the University of Oxford. Set up by graduate students of St Antony’s College in 2005, the Review has carved out a distinctive niche as a cross-disciplinary outlet for research on the most pressing contemporary global issues, providing a forum in which emerging scholars can publish their work alongside established academics and policymakers. Past contributors include Robert O. Keohane, James N. Rosenau, and Alfred Stepan.”

Now available to the University of Cambridge electronically from volume 1 (2005) to present.

Access St Antony’s International Review (STAIR) via the ejournals@cambridge A-Z or at this link.



Tips for preparing and presenting online learning

This week we had a group of library staff contribute to a roundtable discussion about online training. We were lucky to have visiting Australian Tom Worthington* talk to the group. These are some notes from the wide-ranging discussion.

Online approaches

In face-to-face teaching, a unit in philosophy taught over a semester is very different to a single training session in how to find something in a library catalogue. However in practice in the online world they are the same.

Tom noted that five years ago he decided to stop giving lectures and only deliver courses online. It has taken that time for him to feel comfortable with the online delivery.

The electronic equivalent of the traditional lecture is you prepare a reading block, mail it to the students, give them exercises to do, they write it down and you give them comments. But there is an opportunity to do much more.

The ‘flipped classroom’ is an approach where the online component is first. However unless you give them a task they will come to the first day full of excuses. The convenor can give students blocks of exercises. At the face to face section you can have the informal discussion and help them with problems. That works well.

Text based courses can use video that someone else has recorded on the topic. The process is the students:

  • Read the summary of the course
  • Do the readings
  • Do the test
  • Then have a discussion online or in person together.

Asynchronous courses ask students to contribute to an online text based forum. The students might be asked to answer these two questions – find a paper or video on the topic, say why it is relevant. Post to the forum by the middle of the week, must reply to two other posts by two students by Friday. Then use peer assessment to mark each other’s work. It is good if their contribution is used in some way. Usually allocate 10-20% of the marks to their contribution to the marking of each other’s work. Students will go to remarkable lengths to get small number of marks. Needs to make sense to the long term goal of the student.

One way of presenting a course is to provide small ‘units’ of information which are not timed. At the end of a unit the student does a test and when they pass they move onto the next section.

Using traditional eLearning you would have at most 24 people in each group – you usually still have ‘loud’ people you have to tell to stop writing/talking.

Course structures

There are standards for learning materials. The University provides considerable resources for Learning Aims and Outcomes.

It helps to have rigid statements about what the course is about. These should include learning objectives, how the course is broken up eg: two components and three sub components. Without this structure the student does not know where they are up to. You need to show participants there is a plan.

Tom noted it is important to tell participants why the course will be useful to them and how it will be useful to them. It is very important to provide markers throughout the course. Where are we up to and what is this for? Eg: this will increase your chances of getting a paper published.

It is all in the preparation

Academic bravado is ‘I have a lecture in 5 minutes, I had better get something together’. With eLearning you have to design all the materials and exercises in advance before they start. Gather the materials together – but you always need to consider licenses. A repository – equivalent of an electronic book, videos and quizzes.

Don’t add things on the fly. Once it starts you need to keep things stable. You can take online material and deliver it in person easily. It is much harder to do it the other way.

Preparing online courses is very labour intensive and traditional universities do not provide for the preparation time. However the delivery is much quicker. If you are at the distance education university this is built into the system. But in a traditional university you only get paid for delivery. So first time you run a course, it is at a ‘loss’ but each time after that it is easier. So try to minimise the material beforehand.

The question about the inability to get feedback from people was raised. With online fixed courses you don’t have a way to improve the content for your students. Tom suggested observing the test results helps. The dropout rate is an indicator (and you can always ask people why they dropped out). You can look at what they have been accessing. There may be things they have not been looking at – it might be the link has broken. The flipped classroom will give people the chance to fix things.

Some concern was raised about reusing information. One person noted that ‘internalising the material requires creating it myself’. The group agreed it was important to ensure the information is stitched together well so there is a real narrative. Tom noted we do have standardised educational materials – they are called text books. You can still use text books in an online course. If we have standard published sources then we should use them.

Preventing cheating

If you just give students reading materials online then they will not read it. You need to give them tasks to do and monitor the results. Give them multiple choice using immediately marked systems. Them knowing there is a test at the end increases their education (even if they get all the answers wrong). Even if the test is not for credit, students will still cheat.

Ways to prevent people cheating at online tests:

  • Limited number of attempts
  • Questions are selected from a bank at random
  • Positions of the multiple-choice answers are randomised
  • If numeric answers, the system generates a random set of values so each student gets a different question

Note that young digital natives are still academically illiterate – they do not naturally know how to write things with proper referencing. They write assignments with broken jargon, not proper referencing and will copy things from Wikipedia. Tom said that he doesn’t call it ‘plagiarism’ in the first few weeks, they call it ‘poor referencing’.

Encouraging attendance

The conversation moved to the library training environment, where we often have an opportunity to see people only once face to face. Students need to get feedback on the quizzes – there might not be anything after that.

There is nothing telling the students they have to go to these sessions apart from them thinking it might be helpful. So how do we leverage off a one off teaching slot? In that one off session – eg: ‘How can you become an expert in 10 minutes’ – can we replicate that type of activity online in the same sort of way?

Suggestions for encouraging attendance included:

  • Doing this as part of something for someone they respect.
  • Provide students the materials in the live sessions eg: worksheets and reading and exercises, then collect them into a coherent ebook, step by step.
  • Give them a certificate at the end – shake their hands and give it to them.
Getting university buy-in

Tom suggested that it is a good idea to tap into the national standard for what a student needs to do in a particular area. Each department will have their own way of doing it.

He suggested going to the international standardised skills framework, finding the skill that is relevant, and using the text describing this to be part of the course outline. Accrediting bodies in some areas will be useful for this (for example Engineering). You can use the description from this body. Doing this makes it easier to get a course approved. The Executive of institutions will support that kind of course.

Online course technologies

Cambridge University uses the Moodle Virtual Learning Environment, which Tom noted is the equivalent of buying a Vauxhall – can buy lots of parts and find lots of people to fix it. It is not very exciting. But it is fine.

Moodle is not really built for creating an ePortfolio which shows evidence the students know how to use something. They collect material into your e-portfolio and then you present it. Use simple social media where you say “please work on this and discuss it”. This can shows evidence the student knows how to use something. One tool is the Mahara open source ePortfolio program.

Recording technology

Recording lectures is a challenge at Cambridge where there are not universal recording facilities in lecture theatres. But Tom noted that while sometimes having good technology can be useful – a document camera can show students how equations are done for example – using simple tools can work.

If you are giving a presentation, simply set a recording device on the desk. Students really like the recordings of a presentation. Tom noted that when recording something to go online is it much easier to give a presentation to a live audience rather than to an empty room. Note it is important to consider the legal issues of recording people – when they approach you to speak privately about something you need to turn the microphone off. It is also important to remember to repeat questions asked by the audience into the microphone.

Recording helps international students. They listen to the recording a minimum of six times. If use echo360 active learning program you can see how many views each part of the course is being looked at.

People are prepared to listen for 6-20 minutes. When putting recordings online you can have a talking head or show the powerpoint slides. A good way of presenting a video recording is to show a talking head for the first few seconds to see a human, then flip to powerpoint slides then have the human again at the end. An alternative is to just use a static photograph. People will treat a smiley face as a person.

Tom noted that he has never been to a webinar session at university that worked properly. You spend half the time trying to get the technology to work. It is necessary to train people in the technology. Unless there is a need for a live session don’t do it. Digital native young people still have trouble with the technology.

Examples of good online teaching

Universities UK have Open Learn and the Australian equivalent is Open 2 Study. The way these are set up – you do a short course for free then you can enrol in the longer one for a cost. The courses all started at 12 weeks, and they are now four weeks. MIT have created Open EdX.

Other useful links:

* About the speaker

Tom Worthington, is an independent computer consultant and educator. He is an Adjunct lecturer in the Research School of Computer Science at the Australian National University and a member of the ANU Climate Change and Energy Change Institutes. Also Tom designs and teaches on-line courses for the the Australian Computer Society (ACS) Virtual College. He was previously an IT policy advisor at the Australian Department of Defence. Tom is a Past President, Honorary Life Member and Fellow of the ACS, as well as a voting member of the Association for Computing Machinery and a member of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers.

Published 23 July 2015
Written by Dr Danny Kingsley