This blog was written in October by Sophia Benko, Graduate Trainee Library Assistant at the IHR Wohl Library.

To celebrate having worked at the IHR library for a month, I would like to share my experiences of the Wohl Library and my journey here.

Having moved around the world a lot as a child, I always found libraries to be peaceful places for study that were comfortingly familiar while retaining their own peculiarities. One had a (delightful) cat, one had mould, one was in an entirely windowless building, one had a librarian with highly eccentric hair… but they were always a place to escape to and were always filled with history books.

I began working in libraries at the age of 16 but had not seriously considered becoming a librarian until I began volunteering at my college library at St. Anne’s College, Oxford. The University of Oxford has over 100 libraries, and seeing the vastness and diversity of these libraries truly opened my eyes to the possibilities of working in this field. Therefore, when I had a classic midlife crisis about my future in my final year of university, I decided to follow my heart and become a librarian. The librarians at St. Anne’s were brilliant at helping me and pointing me in the right direction and, ultimately, I ended up applying for the Graduate Trainee position here at the Institute of Historical Research.

St. Anne’s College Library, University of Oxford

After a wonderful interview—I had never seen a library so dedicated to primary sources, nor a building quite like Senate House—which I convinced myself went terribly, I was honoured to be offered a place here. I started at the beginning of September, and it has been wonderful.

I’ve taken great joy in expanding the library collections even further. I have a keen interest in the history of childhood, with my undergraduate dissertation having been on the community, agency, and sexuality of late Victorian girls through the periodical The Girl’s Own Paper. To my great delight, I am allowed to suggest all sorts of books for the library to buy and have particularly focused on diaries and oral histories connected to the history of childhood, especially in relation to gender, immigration, and war. In terms of library collections nationally, I’ve also had the opportunity to help organise History Day 2023, which will be held on Thursday, 23 November. It has been interesting seeing what goes in to organising such a large event, especially regarding communications. With well over 50 organisations having signed up to participate, I’m really looking forward to the day itself and to meeting other librarians from all over the United Kingdom!

As any reader of the Wohl Library will know, the library team here are brilliant—and they have been endlessly patient with all my questions! I’ve been learning all about how to run a library, from using scanning machines and Sierra (the programme that records all the books and journals in our collections as well as patron membership information), to all the work that goes into binding journals. I also really enjoyed the opportunity to meet the wider IHR team right at the beginning of my job, at the Staff Away Day on the 7 September.

I also enjoy the more day-to-day tasks. Library memberships expired on 30 September, so I’ve been dealing with the majority of the approximately 830 memberships that have been renewed so far (with more still coming in each hour!) While the act of renewing memberships is less exciting than buying new books, people are encouraged to give their reason for renewing their membership card each year. The responses have been lovely, from people praising the library for being a wonderful work environment as well as describing research interests that span the medieval to modern period, from microhistory to global history. Answering enquiries for the readers has also been very rewarding, as I’ve found myself researching things from John Snow and the Broad Street pump to diplomacy in World War II-era eastern Europe. The variety of this position is what makes it so rewarding (as does the large amounts of free cake!).

The past month has made me even more sure of my future as a librarian, and I look forward to applying for an MA in Library and Information Science soon. I am very grateful to the IHR for this wonderful experience, and I can’t wait to learn more about librarianship over the course of the next year. 

Sophia has a BA History from St. Anne’s College, University of Oxford 2020-2023, and would like to do a MA in Library and Information Science after completing her traineeship. Her interests include the history of sexuality, gender, and childhood, as well as the history of libraries and the book.