A most peculiar year

As 2020 draws to an end, it seems an appropriate time, to look back on the last year, which was nothing less than extraordinary. Next week we have a VIP guest post; and then MusiCB3, along with its team of writers, will be sitting with its feet up in front of the fire sipping mulled wine and roasting chestnuts, until the New Year.

From both a personal and work perspective 2020 was a year like no other.

The view from the Ferris Wheel in the Prater

It was a jolly start to the year for me with a trip to Vienna. The last time I had visited was a hot summer in 1988. This was a very different experience. Staying just across the road from the Prater (which I had missed on the last holiday), there was the delight of the Christmas Market, and a chance to finally get into one of the cars on the Ferris Wheel, and do my very best Orson Welles’ impersonation.

Stephansdom for Epiphany was also a wonderful experience. The Nelson Mass (its original title Missa in Angustiis, or Mass for Troubled Times was to be surprisingly prophetic) with a choir firmly muffled up against the cold was followed by the visit of the Three Kings to the cathedral, alongside an over-excited camel, who waved enthusiastically to friends in the congregation. The cold was dispersed, across the square from the cathedral, with a blissful hot chocolate with rum, and clouds of whipped cream (schlagobers) to warm up afterwards.

Back home, life continued much as usual at the UL. Readers made plans to visit, while we were planning how to celebrate the big Beethoven 250 anniversary. A trip to London and my first visit to St. John’s Smith Square, led to me deciding that this was to be the year in which I would finally go to more concerts. Little did I know…

By the middle of March, Europe was locking down rapidly, and it looked as though the UK would soon follow. The week leading up to the 23rd was an extraordinary week at work. We arrived on Monday not really thinking that anything was going to change. By Monday afternoon events were moving rapidly, one team member was sent home, and on Tuesday, our volunteers and I were told to go home and work from there till further notice. My abiding memory of the last hour I was at the UL was a phone call from a reader cancelling their planned visit for the following week. As they said goodbye, they asked me to take care of myself. It’s the sort of casual thing you say all the time, and most of the time you don’t really mean it, but this was so heartfelt, I put the phone down, and promptly burst into tears. That little comment meant such a lot in a difficult time.

Beautiful Spring weather at the start of Lockdown I

The next few days passed in a bit of a blur, with Kate, Justin, and Sarah doing sterling work in the last few days of the UL, before we went into Lockdown 1, meanwhile I was now at home, preparing to move in with a friend for the duration, and trying to sort out the technology. The fact that the weather was incredibly beautiful that week, made the whole situation seem even more surreal.

It was then a frantic race to get online, to work out how things worked (what’s Zoom? how do you do that?). I will always remember the delight of seeing my team members again at our very first team meeting the following week, when we compared notes on the last week of “normal life” and discussed plans for the future.

We soon discovered that there was a surprising amount that we could do from home. We could answer many reader enquiries, we could investigate getting more online resources. We struggled with VPN but found we could access our files – a boon especially when dealing with archival enquiries, and of course we could stay in communication with each other and our readers.

A particularly memorable moment for me was our Black Bear concert at the end of May, when colleagues got together from different areas of the country to record a track for the Black Bear round. It wasn’t perfect, but it was a testament to technology and determination in difficult times.

First day back in the Anderson Room.

By August the UL was starting to re-open, and several members of the Music team were among the earliest back in the building. It was such a relief to finally be able to get our hands on the physical material again. Meanwhile those who were still working from home were busier than ever adding items from reading lists onto Leganto, while those in the building dealt with a steadily increasing list of enquiries, and photocopying demands. It was all rather odd, as although in many ways it felt like business as usual, it was very different.

The start of term was unlike any other. Usually in September the Music Collections staff at the UL and the Pen spend a lot of time together planning tours around their respective establishments, and working on introductions to the collections and the catalogues. The tour planning around the UL takes a bit of choreographing. After a few years of trial and error, we have worked out that we can run three tours at the same time following slightly different routes, packing all the newly arrived music undergrads into a day’s worth of touring. If we do it absolutely correctly, no tour party will meet another until we arrive back at the top of the stairs above the entrance hall to say goodbye. The first year we managed to do this successfully, we were ridiculously proud of ourselves. No longer would we lose a reader en route, who had inadvertently joined another tour party (this has occasionally happened with a bemused reader wondering why they’ve had an identical tour twice with different librarians). This year however there would be no chance to show our skills at the librarians’ version of Strictly Come Dancing.

So no in person tours, but we did try to do some video tours of the department. Kate and I had an unexpectedly hilarious time directing each other around, I don’t think either of us are going to be competing with Steven Spielberg – “Right, no your right, not mine. Left, oh, sorry that was my left.” We also did a number of Zoom talks, from guides to the collections, and finding your way around the maze that is music catalogues, to the oddities of music copyright and the new Trial Higher Education Printed Music Licence. For those who have access to Moodle, most of these videos (though not Kate and my version of It’ll be alright on the night) are on there.

Just before Lockdown The Return I managed a short holiday in Suffolk, staying in the cottage which featured in John Constable’s The Haywain (you can see Willy Lott’s cottage past and present below). Concerts had resumed at Snape Maltings, with reduced audiences and no intervals. This was a revelation. I do hope that, certainly in the case of chamber concerts, the no interval tradition continues. The whole evening flowed much more smoothly, and it was a truly immersive experience. Of course it wouldn’t work in all cases, a no interval performance of Parsifal might be asking a little too much of the audience!

I was very lucky with the timing of the holiday, as the following week, we were into the Lockdown II. The second time around was nowhere near as bad as the first. We had all learned a lot during that first time round. It wasn’t such a leap into the unknown. We were more prepared technologically, and although it wasn’t without its frustrations, we were still able to access the library and our resources albeit in a more limited way. This has been such a help. It’s also been an enormous help that the Pendlebury was able to stay open. Having Helen and Robert on site has meant that we can deal with problems together, and that’s been very helpful. This even extended to allowing me to squat at the Pendlebury for Zoom meetings with Powerpoints, something that my home internet connection just couldn’t cope with.

In Lockdown Two I was busier personally. I decided that I had to do something to take my mind off the situation, so as well as taking part in a course on Gregorian chant live-streaming from a crypt in Oxford, I joined a lockdown choir, performing Mozart’s Requiem in Virtual Vienna. It was almost full circle to the start of the year, though not something I would have foreseen in January.

Despite being a scary year, and a lonely one for many, there have been positives. As a team it has brought us closer together. I think we know each other a lot better than we did this time last year. We’ve discovered a lot about technology, both positives and negatives. And we’ve realised how much is possible even in the most difficult of situations. The team has been lucky in that it has stayed healthy and generally happy, and for that we’re all very thankful.

Who knows what 2021 will bring? Whatever happens, I suspect that nothing will be quite as extraordinary as 2020, that most peculiar and unexpected of years.


About mj263

Music Collections Supervisor at Cambridge University Library. Wide musical interests. Often to be found stuck in a composer's archive, or enthusing about antiquarian music.
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