In an age where even ancient texts and artefacts are becoming instantly accessible to researchers via online images, should university libraries accept that only mites and spiders are likely to continue frequenting their special collections?
Not according to Peter Pormann, founding director of the University of Manchester’s John Rylands Research Institute, housed at the university’s historic John Rylands Library. He notes that when organisations such as Google scan documents and books, they prefer “clean copies”, which lack “all the annotations and richness” of real books.
However, Pormann is anything but traditional in his approach to boosting the use and cataloguing of Manchester’s “outstanding” special collections, which range from 5,000-year-old clay tablets to email archives. He describes his institute – officially launched last October after an 18-month pilot phase – as an “arts lab”. Its pioneering matchmaking between scholars, curators and scientists, he says, could lead to a “paradigm shift in how people view at least some of the research going on in the arts”.
One of the projects the institute is already hosting involves sequencing the DNA in parchments to learn more about the provenance of the books. Another proposed initiative involves applying approaches from computational and corpus linguistics to the analysis of ancient texts. And the Arts and Humanities Research Council recently approved a £1 million grant to use “multispectral” imaging techniques from the life sciences to study the erased “undertext” of a Syriac palimpsest; further work on palimpsests is also being planned in collaboration with Manchester’s Photon Science Institute.
The scientists involved are typically sought out by the institute, rather than approaching it, but Pormann says they find it “incredibly interesting” to apply their expertise to a whole new field.
Pormann also sees science as the inspiration for his approach to funding. While many humanities researchers rely on internal funding streams or confine grant applications to the AHRC, he says, scientists are used to making multiple applications to different funders, treating rejected proposals as a “learning experience” and “rejigging” applications before resubmitting them elsewhere.
He also takes a very strategic approach to applications, handing out small amounts of “seedcorn” funding to academics in the hope that their initial findings can leverage further external grants.
These methods have yielded dividends: the institute has already raised £1.7 million from a wide range of funders, including the Wellcome and Leverhulme trusts, charities and private donors, as well as the AHRC. It also has eight applications pending for British Academy early career fellowships.
Meanwhile, its headcount has grown from just one (Pormann himself) to 15 (including four postdoctoral researchers and three PhD students), with another 10 “supporting us in various ways” and at least five more due to arrive by September.
Pormann is also keen to set up joint fellowships with other institutions in order to tap into their expertise to enhance the cataloguing of Manchester’s special collections.
If the institute continues on this trajectory, Pormann is confident that it will greatly “over-fulfil” the requirement to be self-sustaining by 2018, when the £2.2 million launch funding provided by the university library, the Faculty of Humanities and the office of the vice-chancellor runs out. By that time, he hopes to have between 50 and 60 people in post.
Aside from sheer persistence and the employment of a specialist grant writer, Pormann believes that it is the institute’s innovative approach to research itself that is proving so beguiling to funders. Although he does not insist on involving scientists in every project, he strongly advocates a team approach, which, while not unknown in the arts and humanities, his institute “takes to the next level”.
“We make sure researchers who want to work on something in our special collections are embedded in a team and get a curatorial buddy,” he explains. “The curators who know the collections intimately can show researchers things they didn’t know. That marriage has already worked incredibly well on a number of occasions.”
However, while he reserves the right to try to convince lone scholars to “join us”, Pormann insists that the special collections’ doors will remain open even to those who resist his blandishments.
“There will probably always be a place for intellectuals who read books on their own and think deep thoughts,” he says.
“I have done some of that myself. But what I really enjoy is working with colleagues. Often it is fun and you can just do so much more.”
£1.7m already raised by the institute from funding councils, charities and private donors
University of St Andrews
Alcohol-free student accommodation is being offered by the University of St Andrews. Thought to be the first of their kind in Scotland, the flats are aimed at students whose religious beliefs or medical conditions do not allow drinking. No one will be placed in such accommodation who has not asked for it, said the students’ union.
University of South Wales
A programme that allows former servicemen and women to gain academic credit for their experience in the armed forces has won an award. The University of South Wales received a silver award under the Defence Employer Recognition Scheme for courses enabling ex-service personnel to earn up to a third of an undergraduate or master’s degree based on the training and knowledge they acquired while serving. Since its launch in November, more than 70 people have applied for a place on the scheme.
University of Bath
Pharmacy students at an English university are developing apps to help each other revise tricky modules. As part of the initiative at the University of Bath, students use a tool called the App Factory to create a smartphone app using PowerPoint presentations. Modules can be downloaded via the App Centre. The apps can include animations and content, and are reviewed by an academic for quality control before being made accessible to students.
Royal Holloway, University of London
A season of forgotten TV plays will be screened in London this month after academics unearthed several dramas thought to have been lost. The programme, running at the BFI Southbank, includes BBC Two’s 1965 staging of J. B. Priestley’s Johnson Over Jordan starring Ralph Richardson, and Pat Hooker’s The Golden Road, which first aired on ITV in 1973 and is believed to be British TV’s first lesbian drama written by a woman. The season has been curated by Lez Cooke and Billy Smart of Royal Holloway, University of London’s department of media arts.
Manchester Metropolitan University
Warning students about the dangers of large-scale house parties and how they make students more vulnerable to crime is the aim of a video produced by a students’ union. The film was written, directed and performed by Manchester Metropolitan University students, local residents and community police officers, and is intended to raise awareness of long-standing problems in student areas of the city. Characters in the film include a thief saying “it was so easy to walk straight in and find phones and laptops”.
University of Sheffield
Human evolution is continuing despite the modern era’s low mortality and fertility rates, university research has suggested. Using genealogical records collected by Finnish churches since the beginning of the 18th century, a team from the University of Sheffield found that the genetic influence on timing of reproduction and family size is actually higher in recent times, possibly because people are more inclined than in the past to choose a partner on the basis of their genetic predispositions rather than social or other factors.
University of Northampton
The School of Health at the University of Northampton has signed an agreement of cooperation and exchange with the New York College of Podiatric Medicine in New York City, which will facilitate joint research projects and the exchange of academic staff. Plans for a joint research bid in the area of forensic podiatry are already in motion. Carol Phillips, deputy dean for Northampton’s School of Health, said the agreement “enables us to continue and strengthen our international partnerships through research activities, outputs and staff and student exchange”.
St George’s, University of London
Medical students in the UK will be able to study in the US thanks a new joint degree programme. Students from St George’s, University of London will have the chance to spend the final two years of their medical degree at an American hospital, following the signing of an agreement with Sidney Kimmel Medical College, part of Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia. Other students and staff at both health specialist universities will also benefit from exchange and research opportunities.
Register to continue
Get a month's unlimited access to THE content online. Just register and complete your career summary.
Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:
- Sign up for the editor's highlights
- Receive World University Rankings news first
- Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
- Participate in reader discussions and post comments
Or subscribe for unlimited access to:
- Unlimited access to news, views, insights & reviews
- Digital editions
- Digital access to THE’s university and college rankings analysis
Already registered or a current subscriber? Sign in now