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Volunteer reflections by Esther Cawte

esther portrait

Esther Cawte with publication on Sonia Gomes titled ‘I Rise’ in Stuart Hall Library, 2022

Our recent volunteer Esther Cawte reflects on her time volunteering in the Stuart Hall Library to learn more about art librarianship

I started volunteering at iniva as I was looking to gain pre-library school experience, and the opportunity at Stuart Hall Library looked to provide this within a specialist art library. Furthermore, with Stuart Hall Library’s unique, rare and international collection, I knew I would be challenged to think beyond my own perspective. Now that I have come to the end of my time here, I can say that the opportunity has not only given me the insight and hands-on experience of the library skills I had been seeking, but also the confidence to move forward in this sector.

Initially, a significant amount of my time was dedicated to abstracting articles from Art Review, which would then be added to the online catalogue. This was a chance to read about a broad range of artists, practices and ideas, and encapsulate them into summaries. I learnt that abstracting articles in this way is rather unique to Stuart Hall Library, who create their own abstracts for articles which fall within its users’ interests, broadly race, gender and class. So while writing each abstract, it’s a matter of illuminating themes and ideas which are most useful to the library’s users. This process takes time and resists any automated approach, but shows the care with which iniva approaches its collection. It was an enlightening insight into how a library can engage its users with its collection on a meaningful level, and make its collection more accessible.

A highlight of my volunteering was learning some basic cataloguing skills by adding the articles, which I had abstracted, onto the catalogue. As a complete beginner and with no prior training, the task could have seemed daunting; there were a lot of acronyms, codes and terminology which were all new to me. However, the Assistant Librarian Sae Matsuno guided me through it with careful instructions, templates and explanations. Taking it step-by-step, gave me the time and space to not only build my confidence but also to be conscientious at each step of the process. I was struck by the level of care and consideration which is taken at each stage of the cataloguing process, and then again how that care also expands to the practice of iniva in sharing their skills and expertise with their volunteers.

Although a calm space in some respects, there is something dynamic and probing about Stuart Hall Library – with the global span of the collection, the geographical layout of the exhibition books and artworks positioned through the rooms, you are drawn to move through and engage with the space. This experience has expanded my perspective of the potential of library spaces and demonstrated to me how libraries can be a place to question and challenge, as well as discover and learn.


Esther Cawte graduated in French and German from University College London and recently was the Visitor Experience Administrator at Tate. She has an interest in textiles and librarianship