Neil Robinson in the MCC Library at Lord’s. Photo Credit: Arunabha Sengupta
Neil Robinson in the MCC Library at Lord’s. Photo Credit: Arunabha Sengupta

You have to navigate a rather complicated array of corridors, staircases, and at least one open cupboard full of Lord’s Tour Guide blazers to get there. But once you enter the MCC Library, you find yourself in the midst of world’s largest and most comprehensive collection of books and publications dedicated to cricket. For the last nine years, Neil Robinson has been working there as Library and Research Manager, in a role he defines as ‘part librarian, part historian’. Arunabha Sengupta met up with him in his office at the MCC Library of Lord’s Cricket Ground.

Cricket Country (CC):  Did you always aspire to be a librarian at Lord’s?

Neil Robinson (NR): Well, to be honest when I started retraining as a librarian at the Robert Gordon University in Aberdeen, I just wanted to work as a librarian. It was not that I did not want to work at Lord’s, I just had no idea it would be a realistic ambition.

During the work placement after our course, the placement office gave us a form to fill in with five spaces on it. We could make five choices and hope that one of them would come off. I thought I could afford to throw away one place on an impossible dream. I put Lord’s as number one and the next four… I can’t at all remember what the other four were. But, they seemed to me at that moment as more realistic choices.

However, Adam Chadwick had just then taken over as curator of collections here. He came from fine-arts background rather than a books background. He was aware that this was a significant library which perhaps had not been cared for as well as it might have been. He wanted someone to come and take a look at it and see what recommendations could be made.

So, I spent a month down here looking at duplications; what we could do with duplicate copies; which is still resolving itself 11 years later. We are getting rid of a lot of our duplicate copies by selling them, to try and maximise the efficient use of the space we had.

CC: Your first job as a librarian was not really cricket-related …

NR: That’s right. After my post-graduate diploma in library management, I did a couple of years the public libraries in Northamptonshire before coming down here to Lord’s. However, as mentioned, I had already had some work experience in Lord’s in the library as a part of my course at Aberdeen. The staff here knew me and Adam the curator had worked with me. So, officially it was a bit of an advantage when the opportunity of a full time job here came up.

At Northamptonshire it was a regular public library. I worked in the Information and Community Services for the western part of Northamptonshire. I was in charge of providing reference material for all of the ten libraries in our district. Community Services was about making sure that the local libraries reflected the need of the community. For example, if there was a particular part of the county with a large Polish immigrant population, we made sure that there was a significant number of Polish language stock in the library.

One of the most important things I worked on at that time was the reorganisation of the mobile library service. I had to assess the needs of a lot of small villages in west Northamptonshire, and try and make sure that the mobile library would visit the village at the most appropriate time. For example, a perfect time for a visit was when the school buses were dropping off their kids to be picked up by the parents.

CC: What would you say has been the most significant change you have been part of since you joined the MCC library?

NR: The most significant change that I have been involved with is the professionalisation of the services that we offer. When I came, we had a library catalogue on an MS Access database. It was able to tell us what titles we had but wasn’t able to tell us the number of copies we had or which copy was donated by which individual and that sort of detail.  For example, we knew there was a copy of this book donated by Mrs Stone in 1963, but we couldn’t identify which copy it was. So, it wasn’t really a lot of use.

So first of all we needed to acquire a proper library management system for the library catalogue. At that point we were also looking to catalogue the museum collection which again did not have a computerised catalogue at all, as well as the archive. We wanted something that could catalogue that sort of material.

A small working group was put together which included me, Adam the curator and the head of IT. We looked at various systems and what they could offer us. Eventually we chose a system called Adlib, and we have been working with it ever since.The principal reason for choosing Adlib is that it treated library material as library material, museum material as museum material and archive as archive. It offered professional cataloguing for each element of our system, which meant that if we had museum professionals and archive professionals on board, they would immediately have a system they knew how to work with.

We’ve completed the cataloguing of the library collection. That means where we have information; we have been able to identify copies; and link them with that information. We have a much better idea of what copies we have and where they all are and what condition they are in.  That means we can now start aligning the information in a little more detail.

We can look at indexing, key-wording — that’s always going to be a job that will take forever. You can never have a catalogue that reflects absolutely everything in a book, particularly in a sports library where there are often books that are a little bit of everything.  They are often partly autobiography, partly opinion, partly essays about the game, any number of subjects under the sun, and without reading every page of the book it is very difficult to get that all down in a catalogue.

But we have made huge progress in being able to make out what is in our books.  So we are able to direct people with particular research requirements towards the relevant contents. We might not necessarily be able to point to the principal contents, but can certainly guide them to something which is going to be of use.

I think the other thing is simply reorganising of the shelves. We had a classification system in place when I arrived, unique to this library but hadn’t really been updated since it had been created in the late 1940s by the first curator, Diana Rait Kerr. It was a remarkable piece of work. She had no training in librarianship, but she read a book on it and created her own classification system. Most of us have to go through several years of training to do that. She was the curator from the end of the Second World War till 1968 and did a wonderful job.

However, it did need updating. There were too many subjects of modern cricket writing not adequately reflected which meant there were certain parts of the library which became dumping grounds for books we didn’t know how to classify. So, I needed to introduce a lot more subject subdivisions.

We also relabelled the spines of all the books. Which meant it was easier to spot a book on the shelves, easier for users to identify the section they were interested in. We found people coming in to the library just for general browsing, not necessarily coming to us in advance with research requests. They find it much easier to locate what they are looking for, because the books are better organised and it is visually easy to see where you want to go.

Apart from this, five years ago we started the MCC magazine, which is the output that comes from the research that goes on in the library and museum.  We get external writers writing all sorts of stuff, but wherever particularly interesting work has been done in the library, museum or archive, we have used the magazine as an outlet for that sort of activity.

As an example, I did an article on the colours of MCC, the scarlet and gold, how difficult it has been to maintain consistent representation of those colours. I did that just by going through the details of correspondence with various tie manufacturers and so on. So sometimes, when you are doing some research perhaps for the club’s own purposes, it can lead to a more public output.

We have an online catalogue now, to get our message out there, to let people know that we exist and what we offer.

CC: You have stated that your work is part librarian and part historian. What does this historian bit involve?

NR: We get enquiries from people who need guidance on various subjects. I have to have a basic grasp on the particular subjects. I can’t be a specialist in any particular area, I would have to keep too many things in my head otherwise; but it would be very difficult to do my job if I did not have a reasonable grasp of history of the game.

I thought I had a reasonable grasp of the history of the game when I started nine years ago, but then I quickly realised that I had an awful lot to learn. I think I will always be learning, and I guess any historian in any subject always has to learn.

I don’t think I will ever achieve the status of a historian like FS Ashley-Cooper whose whole life really was research into cricket and its history. I am not sure I will have sufficient time aside from my duties here as a librarian to delve into the history of cricket quite in that way. However, by making that statement I really wanted to reflect that you can’t do this job just as a professional librarian. You have to have an enthusiasm for the subject you are dealing with and knowledge of the subject.

CC: Approximately how many queries do you have to deal with?

NR: Every year we get 800 queries. Majority of them probably come from the United Kingdom. We get quite a lot of it from the club because we are a source of information for the club. We also get a lot from the MCC members because they know we are here to provide information. We are increasingly getting enquiries from the academic community, students doing dissertations and so on.

They can find out a lot from the online catalogue, but when they are starting out on their research they come to us quite often for a little bit of guidance on how their subject can be developed. They start with the basic idea and we tell them which aspect of it will be interesting to develop on. We offer that kind of guidance.
But we also get enquiries from all over the world: sometimes about cricket memorabilia, sometimes about the history of the Lord’s, MCC, and the history of the game.

We get lots of genealogical enquiries as well these days. People come across census records and find some ancestor listed as a professional cricketer or coach or umpire, and they come to us to find out whether we have any records. Sometimes it can be a bit disappointing because of the levels of the game where you can be a professional but perhaps not high enough to be in the records beyond the local area. But, at other times, you have tremendous fun by telling someone that his ancestor had been a national team captain.

There had been a young Australian who came to us a few years ago and found out that his ancestor was Dave Gregory, the captain of the first official Australian side to tour here in 1878.

CC: Can you recount an example of an off-beat query?

NR: I deal with so many queries that it becomes difficult to recall individual ones. Over the weekend, I think it was on a Sunday, we had a letter from a gentleman who was going through his father’s possessions and found a signed postcard. The picture was the photograph of a cricket team on a ship, and he wanted to know whether we could shed any light on it.

I was able to tell him that this was actually the West Indian team that toured Australia in 1930-31, and that was obviously taken on the outward journey as all 16 players were present — while on the return journey one of them had gone via a different route to Rhodesia. That is the sort of nice query that you can resolve because there is enough information out there. It can be frustrating if you can’t make any progress.

CC: Does the younger generation show interest in the library?

NR: I’d think fewer from the schools do so. Once they get into the University we do get queries from them, from those try to match their interests with their studies. We do occasionally get queries from school students who are say working on a famous cricketer, WG Grace for example. They will just send us a general enquiry about what information we can provide. We do our best to give them enough to work with instead of overloading them with information, perhaps guide them to places where they can find the information they need.

In terms of engaging with school students it helps to have the museum working with us. The function of the library in that case is to provide information about the museum displays. When you read the labels attached to particular items, it is actually we who write them — a little bit of information, perhaps unusual stories associated with the different objects.

There are a lot more children who visit the museum than the library and it is one of the key ways of engaging the younger people. They have come here to Lord’s. They like watching the game as it is played. The museum is the place for them to know that there is a lot more to the game than what’s going on in the present day. By trying to engage them that way, I think we can get them into the library in the future.

CC: You do a bit of writing as well.

NR: Well, I’ve self-published a couple of things. I did a book on the 2005 Ashes when I was writing for an Australian website. I had also written a book about a walk I did across Europe. Earlier I self-published a book about the state of English cricket in the late 1990s when it was going through one of the worst crisis.

The past year or so I’ve been writing about the summer of 1988 when England went through four captains in a season and it is being published in a few weeks. That’s perhaps one of the areas where I have had to do research aside from my work. It is quite hard. If you speak to any writer who has a nine-to-five job, he will tell you writing on top of that is quite a strain. I am glad that it has come to fruition.

CC: What would you say are the unique things in the collection, something that is found only here?

NR: The key unique thing we have here is the only full known set of Britcher’s scores. Samuel Britcher was a scorer here at Lord’s; his annual was the first ever cricket annual, the predecessor of all the Wisdens everyone loves to collect. And it was produced in such small quantities in some cases only three or four copies are known to exist.  Unless someone is being very quiet about what may be in their private collection, I think we have the only full set in the world.

Happily we have been able to conserve those items, recently thanks to a generous bequest from Mr Fitzgerald. They have been beautifully re-stitched and preserved in cloth boxes; they are really set to be with us in perfect condition for hopefully another 200 or 250 years.
Being able to not just have such rare items in our collection, but also to preserve them and care for them to make them available to future generations is something I take greatest pride in.

I am the custodian of this place. All the books are in my care. Some of them are valuable, some of them are less valuable, but who knows what will be valuable 500 years from now? So, it’s very much in the forefront of my mind that I have to look after this library and make sure that when I do eventually pass on its care, it is in the best condition.

CC: Are there plans of digitising the collection?

NR: To a certain extent, yes.  That does depend on budget, however. It is not always really the cheapest endeavour. We have recently collaborated with the Association of Cricket Statisticians to digitise the entire set of the magazine Cricket: A Weekly Record of the Game, which will be going online later this year, available for a small subscription. We were happy to provide our set for them to use. It is not often that a public facility has magazines from 1882.

Our main focus at the moment still remains cataloguing. Even though the library is now catalogued, there is still information that we can provide for the museum collection and the MCC archive. The knowledge that the library contains can be used to help with those collections. So, we are really looking at this stage at our own collections, and what we can find out about them. Then when we are done with this stage I think digitisation will be the next step.

We have worked on producing facsimiles of some of the rare books in the past. For all the Britcher’s scores for example, facsimiles have been produced of them some 11 years ago. Other works by William Denison for example were done slightly more recently. But as far as getting digitised copies available which people will be able to look at online, that is a bit further down the line. It’s certainly something we’ll be looking to do in the future.

CC: Can people photocopy material when they come for research?

NR: Subject to copyright, we do allow photocopies. Obviously there is a lot of modern material that is still copyrighted and the archive material is also under copyright. Normally we allow certain amount of copying depending on the condition of the item. Obviously pressing something against the copier or a scanner is not very good if the binding is damaged.

After all we are custodians of the material. But in general, yes, we are happy to allow people to photocopy, and also take photographs with digital cameras which tend to be a little less invasive. Copying carries a small fee, while photographing using a digital camera is free. Again, all that is subject to copyright.

In general we are happy for people to use our facilities for research purposes, and if that involves copying a certain amount of material it is fine. There is the photography section in the library as well, from where authors often want to use photographs for their books. We can offer photos, again for a small fee, for publication.

We used to have a relationship with a press agency called Sports And General from 1920s to the 1970s.They had exclusive rights for match-day photography. So we acquired a lot of prints of photographs they had taken, but did not acquire the copyright. That means we can use the prints for in-house non-commercial purposes, but cannot supply them to third parties. That is a little frustrating in some ways, because we have this huge resource and we can’t fully use it. Nevertheless, we have this collection for the researchers to look at, and if they want to use it they can contact the agency.

CC: Do the researchers have to book their slots in advance?

NR: Generally we ask for 24 hours which gives us time to check whether there are too many people booked at the same time. Normally we can fit people the very next day. We have to be aware that we don’t have external researchers on the match days. MCC and Middlesex members and their guests can come on match days as well, as can people like ECB officials and their guests and staff from visiting boards. Accredited Press can come too: on match days they tend to stick to the press box, but during the run up to the Test matches they often come in here to do some background research.

CC: Do the cricketers come here at all?

NR: For the current cricketers, it’s very rare. If they do come up, it is because this is supposed to be a quiet place to have an interview with a media representative. Last year we had a couple of England players interviewed here. As a rule they don’t come here very often.

One current cricketer we have had using the library is the Middlesex and England batsman Sam Robson, just after he joined the club. The players tend to be here to play. They come here only when they have moved on to a media career, when one suddenly realises there is a lot more to the game than what goes on in the middle. Someone like Michael Atherton is, for example, fairly regular. It is good to see that they appreciate the facilities that we offer.

CC: Do you have relationships with specialised cricket book publishers?

NR: We try to be as comprehensive as we can be as a library. We can’t acquire everything that is published worldwide. We don’t have the space or the budget. We also don’t have the information. But because so much cricket publishing is done on a limited scale, like Boundary Books and Ken Piesse, we do rely upon relationships with them to know what’s coming up.

I am friends with Ken Piesse on Facebook. We know small publishers out there like Boundary Books, Chris Saunders and John McKenzie. We do our best to acquire small publisher material. It is often more difficult to find the little club histories, pamphlets celebrating the 150th anniversary of the establishment of the club and so on.

People or clubs who write these histories don’t necessarily understand that the material will be of interest to a lot of people. We are very grateful to any publisher if they send a copy of new works, particularly so if the material is not widely distributed. History of a club is part of the history of the game, and we should have it here, not only at the highest level but also at the grassroots.

CC: You also worked on small clubs in the Taking the Field project.

NR: Taking the Field was a great project we started off with the University of Glamorgan four or five years ago. It was about collecting the rural history of grass-root cricket. Not just conducting interviews, but also putting those interviews together with photographs and other images, so that together you could create a story and have the whole history on the online environment.

We worked with several clubs across the country and also in Sri Lanka. One of the associates we had working with us, Emma Peplow, went out to Sri Lanka for a few weeks and looked at clubs in Colombo. It was a fantastic way of comparing how clubs in various communities developed.

We have had a lot of social change in this country for the past 50-60 years.  We’ve had industrial change, mass immigration, and change in the social make up of communities; the life of a small urban cricket club can be very different from the life of a small rural cricket club. This is a way we can reflect those changes at the grassroots, learn not just about the history of the club but also about the history of the community, about how that development of the cricket club reflected the recent history of the particular community.

It all grew out of a project that Glamorgan County Cricket Club had done called TaleEnders and I saw a presentation on this, a clip from one of their stories. This particular one was about a small cricket club in Wales. This particular story was about a lady who had been providing tea for the cricket club since her childhood, since the Second World War. She was looking at a photograph of some of the tea ladies of the past, and she said, “Oh, that is Mrs Brown, her family had a small farm here… that is Mrs Davies, her family used to have a small farm …” All those women seemed to come from small farms.

I couldn’t help thinking how many of those small communities were still there. What is the background of the women who now provide tea, or even play or coach at the club? Have they grown up in that village or have they come in from outside? It occurred to me that you could use the cricket club as a sort of a view finder for the history of that particular community.

The project ran for two years with the help of a government agency called Knowledge Transfer Partnerships. It was also partly funded by MCC. We got plenty of clubs, but then the funding ran out. It is really difficult to re-energise the entire project. Emma also left and now she is doing a wonderful job with the history of the Parliament. The material is all there, you can look it up in the website takingthefield.com.  It’s unfortunate that we have not been able to take it further. We are still exploring possibilities of partnerships with Universities to take this forward.

CC: People like Peter Osborne (author of Wounded Tiger) have mentioned your name in the acknowledgement section of their books.

NR: Oh yes, Peter was really kind with that.

CC: How does it feel to be acknowledged by authors?

NR: It’s personally very pleasing for us and the archive. It’s nice to have that personal acknowledgement because it gives you the feeling that you have been of help. It’s also important in validating the work we do. We are part of the club’s business that is never going to be a money-earner, and the club very generously provides money so that we can look after our facilities, purchase new books, so that we can function and provide our services. But it is not going to get back that money, except in acquisition of assets which we are not going to sell.

So, being able to point to generous acknowledgements, people who have appreciated the help that we have given is a way the club can see we have done a good job. It’s not very easy to measure the work of a library except perhaps through visitors, which can depend on all sorts of things like the weather in a place like this.

So, it’s always very pleasing from the library’s rationale to have these acknowledgements, it’s the raison d’être of the library, being a significant part of Lord’s, in providing the service, interesting people in the history of the game. Because it helps to promote Lord’s itself as the home of cricket and the home of cricket’s heritage.

I think the club and the ground recognise that heritage is not just something we do; it’s an essential part of what we are, and the library can help feed into that.

(Read about Neil Robinson’s forthcoming book The Long Shot Summer at https://www.amberley-books.com/current-month/long-shot-summer-the-year-of-four-england-cricket-captains-1988.html)

(Arunabha Sengupta is a cricket historian and Chief Cricket Writer at CricketCountry. He writes about the history and the romance of the game, punctuated often by opinions about modern day cricket, while his post-graduate degree in statistics peeps through in occasional analytical pieces. The author of three novels, he can be followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/senantix)