Literary Studies Collections

Leila Kassir
Subject Librarian for Literary Studies 
Britain, the USA & Commonwealth, and Latin American and Caribbean Literature

Leila moved to work academic libraries about 20 years ago after years of working in bookselling and publishing services. During her time at the LSE Library, she was able to acquire an MA qualification in Library Studies part-time at UCL. She then moved to the London College of Communication (part of the University of the Arts London). During her 10 years there, she was the subject librarian for printing, publishing and design, ran information skills sessions, taught on critical skills modules, was the access and inclusion lead, and managed the special collections.

Literary Studies is such a big field and while I can see you share the collection management you still have a huge area of expertise. But which one of them interests you the most?

I have been working in my role at Senate House Library for the last 5 years. The job is an ideal mix for me of working closely with literature (which I studied at BA and MA by Research levels) and working with a large community of students, researchers and other readers via research support, collection management and promotion, research skills training, and exhibition curation, amongst much else.

I manage the library’s British, North American, Anglophone Caribbean, Latin American and Commonwealth literature collections. They contain several areas which are of personal interest to me, and which match to some degree the literature I enjoy reading and researching. One of these is women’s so-called ‘middlebrow’ novels, particularly those published during the first half of the 20th century. I was particularly happy, when a few years ago Elizabeth Maslen donated some of her collection of novels, with an emphasis on the works of Storm Jameson. Academic work in this area is a growing field.

I also have a very long-standing interest and involvement in small presses and self-publishing, particularly of works which have a political or community-originated edge to them. The library contains a large number of such works, including a wealth of literary texts such as poems written by women during the 1984-1985 miners’ strike, and books from 1970s/1980s projects such as the Black Ink Collective, which supported young Black writers. Many of these texts are located in one of our Special Collections, the Ron Heisler Collection.

What is the most rewarding aspect of your job?

I hope this doesn’t sound trite, but I enjoy the combination of working closely with the collections and directly with the readers; not all library jobs provide this mix, so I feel fortunate that my current job does. I have a good balance in my role between the practical, technical, physical, and theoretical library work (such as collections management and research) and the front-facing work of supporting library readers either in groups or one-to-one on projects, undertaking research and with library skills training. Helping readers connect with print and electronic resources which enable them to further their research (or other) interests is always a good feeling.

Do you have any tips on navigating the collection?

The Literary Studies collections are broad-ranging in many ways. They are also dispersed across the fourth to sixth floors of Senate House Library and our offsite stores and exist online.

For targeted access to the collections, particularly when you are starting a research project and beginning, for instance, a literature review, the first place to start is with the online library catalogue, where you can search for subject keywords in addition to titles and authors. Not only will an initial catalogue search show you where the print books are located within the library but it will also provide links to the many e-books we subscribe to. You can also search full text e-journal articles from the catalogue and link to the numerous electronic resources, including many containing digitised primary source material.

If you have time, are able to access the physical space, and enjoy serendipitous encounters with printed books then browsing the shelves can be rewarding. The English Literature and US Literature collections are organised chronologically, while the Latin American and Anglophone Caribbean collections are arranged geographically. Our most recent print book purchases on all areas of literature are held on the fourth floor in the Periodicals Reading Room.

Equally, please don’t hesitate to contact me directly and we can discuss the best ways of accessing resources for your topic. My email address is leila.kassir@london.ac.uk

Students come from various backgrounds and have very different research foci. Is there a theme, topic, or item that is most used by students?

One of the pleasures of working with research library collections is their variety, and this is the same for the research projects students undertake, and there is not one topic that dominates. There are, however, observable themes in recently published academic works. These themes include the Anthropocene and eco-criticism, animal studies and literature and queer theory and literature (including studies of specific authors). During the last couple of years, the most borrowed (print) books from the collections I manage include Nicola Humble’s The feminine middlebrow novel, 1920s-1950s: class, domesticity, and bohemianism, and Modernism, technology, and the body: a cultural study by Tim Armstrong.

How can researchers utilise the collection when applying approaches and methods like interdisciplinary research and intersectionality?

Although the library’s print collections are arranged by discipline, searching on the library catalogue using keywords lends itself to interdisciplinary research. As an example, a quick search on “queer theory” returns many results, the first page of which contains books held in Sociology, French, English, and Film & Media. Similarly, this same search across our e-journals content returns a range of diverse subject-based periodicals.

Some of the library’s collections, both print and online, which support intersectional research in literature include the Jonathan Cutbill Collection containing c.30,000 LGBTQ+ works including many novels; the aforementioned Ron Heisler Collection; the Anglophone Caribbean and Commonwealth literature collections; and our Black Histories and Studies and LGBTQ+ Studies e-resources.

One tip: don’t be put off if an e-resource does not explicitly state it contains works about ‘literature’. For example, the resource Archives of Gender and Sexuality contains many LGBTQ+ magazines that published literary reviews, which are not only interesting but great for providing context and an understanding of how works were received on publication.

Are there any marginalised or underrepresented voices that come to mind that the collection holdings can bring out and move more into focus?

The Library is currently undertaking a collections review, which is a broad heading to describe a wide range of activities, part of which is work on a number of ‘case studies’ to do just as your question describes. The case study I am working on relates to our Anglophone Caribbean literature holdings, some of which I have mentioned earlier. This is an ongoing project, and I am currently reviewing our holdings against bibliographies. I have also begun highlighting and promoting, via blogs and events, some of the themes that are emerging, such as the stories told through literature produced by community publishers and writing workshops.

Are there any hidden treasures in the collection and what is your personal collection highlight?

Lots! There are, however, a number of definitions of ‘treasure’. We have many rare literary works, first editions and signed copies of texts, one example being the copy of Oscar Wilde’s Salomé: drama en un acte, which Wilde inscribed to Aubrey Beardsley.

I am drawn to works that tell potentially expansive stories in modest ways. I like works such as the late Michael Smith’s It a come book of poems, which Race Today published in 1986 and which preserves in print some of Smith’s political dub poetry. We have one of only five copies held in UK academic or deposit libraries of Una Marson’s 1937 self-published The moth and the star, which contains poems written during her first visit to London. I also love the traces of book history that exist on some of our literary texts, such as the Boots Book-Lovers’ Library slip that is still inserted within Winifred Holtby’s Truth is not sober.

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