In conversation with…

In this November feature we meet Jenny Lelkes, Assistant Academic Support Librarian at London College of Fashion (University of the Arts London). Jenny supports embroidery, knitwear, printed textiles, pattern cutting and garment construction students as well as working with special collections. We talk zines, murderous Egyptian mummies and when books and fashion collide.


How did you come to art librarianship?

My family joke that I wanted to become a librarian after watching Rachel Weisz play the somewhat clumsy librarian of the Cairo Museum of antiquities in The Mummy. I imagine that every time they explain to someone what I do; they have in their heads the scene where Weisz’s character proclaims that she’s ‘proud to be a librarian’. Thankfully my journey into art librarianship has not involved murderous Egyptian mummies brought back from the dead, but an injection of the fabulous 1920s costumes into my work wardrobe would not be unwelcomed.

I originally came to librarianship through retail: my first library job involved working Sundays in The Booklover Store of Jubilee Library in Brighton. Shortly after starting in 2008 I was lucky enough to get a Saturday job as a Library Assistant in the very same library, which I did for four and a half years whilst studying Art History at the University of Sussex and then saving to do an MA in librarianship.

Whilst I was a student I also used my summer breaks to do some voluntary work in Special Collections, digitisation and conservation, both of which I’ve been interested in for many years now. This ranged from scanning images at the University of Sussex, transcribing 19th century petition letter at the National Archives, and doing conservation work at the National Trust and (formerly) East Sussex Record Office.

Then followed several years of temporary contracts and part-time work whilst studying part-time at UCL for a MA in Library and Information Studies. During this time I had various Library Assistant jobs including Queen Mary’s medical libraries in Whitechapel, Goldsmiths, University of London (splitting my time between the customer services and serials teams), UCL (with online reading lists and as a shelver) and the British Library (both above and below ground).

After finishing my MA in November 2014, I moved to a more senior role at Coventry University London Campus, a small business and management library. Being part of a small team meant that I wore many hats ranging from: staffing the joint issue and enquiry desk, acquisitions, assisting staff with library inductions, creating marketing materials and social media content, as well as doing admin work for the solo subject librarian, learning technologist and language skills team.

But business wasn’t for me so in July 2015 moved to University of the Arts London and have been at the London College of Fashion (LCF) ever since.

Talk us through a typical day for you at work:

I’m an Assistant Academic Support Librarian based at LCF and am responsible for course support and collection development for embroidery, knitwear, printed textiles, pattern cutting and garment construction courses, as well as an introductory fashion course for international further education students. I also have functional responsibilities within the Collections, Special Collections and Information Services teams.

Whilst answering emails and staffing either the information or enquiry desks are a standard part of my day, no two days are ever the same. One day I could be teaching students about the library’s online resources or object-based learning skills with Special Collections, meeting a student for a 1-2-1 appointment or attending meetings; another day I could be researching new acquisitions to support my courses or Special Collections, accepting and processing new donations or trend forecasts, processing interlibrary loan requests or writing a help sheet on a particular database the library subscribes to or a new local procedure.

As I work part time at LCF, I also work one day a week a Birkbeck as a temporary cataloguer. I love variety so these two jobs suit me perfectly, and I’m enjoying getting to grips with cataloguing in RDA.

Tell us about an inspiring or surprising item in your collection:

LCF Special Collections has a variety of rare and historical fashion books and periodicals, as well as more unique contemporary materials. One of the most inspiring is a small but growing collection of fashion zines that engages with and discusses the most pressing concerns within the fashion industry today. Themes and subject matter discussed ranges from: garments to cosmetics, celebrity culture, the sociology of fashion, gender studies, body image and identity.

Zines are self-published and outside the controls of traditional publishing meaning that, in both presentation and content, they are a highly creative and immediate platform that are inspiring for fashion students and artists and designers more broadly.

Being free from usual publishing constraints also means that there is a rich diversity of voices being heard that are usually underrepresented in more traditional fashion publications, which challenge you and inspire you in equal measure.

What would be your dream acquisition?

There are just too many beautiful books out there! But one at the top of my list would be Sally Alatalo’s Book jacket, which is a jacket that has been insulated with shredded pages from romance novels.

LCF Library Special Collections has a very small collection of artist’s books that in some way relate to fashion. Sally’s Book Jacket would be a great addition to our collection because it challenges our conceptions of what is a book and what a garment is, and this fluidity between function and form is something that I find fascinating.

What’s the strangest enquiry you’ve ever received?

Working in a fashion library means that you quickly learn that anything and everything will be a source of inspiration for students.

Which artist/designer would you most like to meet?

Claude Monet. I gravitate to colours and texture, and Monet’s late works particularly encapsulates both, in a way that captures and holds my attention like no other artist. I could look at his paintings of his waterlily garden at Giverney for hours and never get bored.

One great tip for people starting out in art librarianship?

Don’t be afraid to step outside of your comfort zone and try new things. Even if something doesn’t work as well as you’d have hoped, at least you won’t be thinking ‘what if…?’.

The best benefit about ARLIS/UK & Ireland? 

Community. As I only graduated in 2014 and have only been in my first professional post for just over a year, I still feel that I’m new to the world of art librarianship. Being part of a network of other professionals who work in a wide variety of creative industries has been invaluable as a new professional.


Alexandra Duncan, London College of Fashion (UAL)