Archival adventures – my year with the Dennis Brutus collection

Blog post by Jemima Jarman, library graduate trainee 2014-15

Over the last year, I have been working at Brunel Library as a Graduate Trainee Librarian, learning about the library profession and all its related disciplines from the professionals themselves. It has truly been a rich and rewarding experience. I have been involved in the day to day running of the library, both front facing and behind the scenes and have had the opportunity to work on a wide variety of projects.

A significant portion of my time here has been spent in Special Collections, learning the basics of archival standards, collection management and rare book preservation from Katie Flanagan. This particular aspect of the Graduate Traineeship has been especially gratifying; as I have had the opportunity of seeing a large project through from beginning to end.

When I first learnt that I was to work with an entire uncatalogued collection and was to be trusted with creating detailed finding aids and descriptions, I felt a little overwhelmed and totally unqualified to do so! I didn’t even know where to start, and in the early stages I had to re-start several times. Katie was encouraging, helpful and supportive. She provided me with all the guidance I needed while also giving me the chance to work independently, to experiment and figure things out for myself. Having the opportunity to work in this way meant that once the project was complete, I felt more of a genuine sense of achievement.

The collection I was allocated to work on was that of Dennis Brutus, a South African human rights activist, sports campaigner against apartheid, and poet. I have to be honest; I didn’t feel an initial spark of interest when first looking through the materials. I have no interest in sport (rollerderby excepted) and I saw A LOT of cuttings from the sport pages of newspapers and information on the Olympics in the 70’s etc.

My mind soon changed however, the more I saw of the materials and the more I got to know about Dennis Brutus’ life, work, and passions. He was a fascinating man who never seemed to tire of pioneering and accomplishing incredible things. I learnt a lot about the social history and politics of South Africa, about the extent to which racial segregation pervaded every aspect of life for its citizens and the real dangers faced for those who fought to change it.

My experiences of working with the Dennis Brutus collection have been really positive. I have learnt a lot about the nature of special collections which will aid me professionally as I pursue a career in librarianship and academically, as a researcher. Collections which look like they may be of no interest or relevance can house so many hidden treasures. It is our job as librarians and archivists to raise awareness and draw attention to how broad the scope and relevance of these collections can be; and when conducting research ourselves, to keep open minded as to where potential sources may be found.

The Dennis Brutus collection-level description and finding aids are now on their way to be being published on ArchivesHub; and as I prepare to leave Brunel Library, it is my hope that this fascinating collection will be well used by future students in the years to come. The collection finding aid, and a finding aid arranged by subject are available on the collection webpage.

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