A roaring success: the inaugural Cambridge Dissertation Fair!

“You can learn about archives you may not have known exist!”

This comment on a feedback form handed in at the inaugural Cambridge Special Collections Dissertation Fair last week encapsulates our main reason for holding the Fair.  Cambridge holds an extraordinary breadth and depth of archives across Colleges, the University Library, Museums, Special Repositories and the County Archives Service.  We knew that many students aren’t fully aware of what is here – or that they can use these rich resources.  A further complication, of course, is that there is an intimidation factor for those who have not accessed archives before.  Our primary aim in organising the fair was to put information about as many of these archives as possible in front of students in a friendly and non-intimidating way.

The organisers were from St John’s College, Churchill Archives Centre, Jesus College and the Department of Archives and Modern Manuscripts at the UL.  We worked together last year to develop and deliver three successful  Archive Research Skills workshops (aka Don’t let the Cardigans put you off!) for both postgraduate and undergraduate students.  The workshops provided us with useful information about the gap in knowledge around archives and locating collections.  We decided to go ahead and organise a Dissertation Fair with representatives from archives, libraries and musems (heavily influenced by Oxford’s successful annual event) in the autumn.  The Fair took place on Friday 2 November at St John’s College and was – objectively! – a stunning success.

Beforehand we thought that as long as we saw at least 30 students, that would be reasonable.  We’d been given some excellent advice from colleagues at other Universities but as we knew we had a lot to learn we were fairly modest in our expectations.  However, students began to turn up at 10.01 and streamed in throughout the day.  Final numbers were 137 – a number that wildly exceeded what we’d thought.  We handed out goody bags from the start but these sadly ran out soon after lunch.  Students seemed to be thrilled with them and I think it made the event extra special.  We attracted undergraduates (including some freshers) and postgraduates from Cambridge University, Anglia Ruskin University and the Institute of Continuing Education.

Students with their goody bags! (image courtesy of St John’s College)

What exceeded my expectations was the amount of time that the attendees stayed.  They chatted to people on various stalls for ages, even if the material held at that institution wasn’t directly relevant to them.  A good proportion looked carefully at most or all of the stalls.  It showed us what a wonderful appetite there is for learning about archives and special collections if it’s presented in a non-threatening environment, which is sadly how search-rooms are often perceived.  What I think also helped with the student experience was that so many of the stalls looked beautiful.  We at the UL were very jealous of the Museums’ fabulous banners and delightfully laid out stalls.  Next year we will definitely try to compete a little!

We were pleased to have 58 feedback forms returned on the day (helped by offering 2 book tokens in a prize draws).  57 were positive and the (minor!) criticism on the 58th was that it was too like a Library Fair….  There are too many fantastic and positive comments to record here but the highlights for me are the following:


  • 48 out of 57 comments said that the Fair had made a difference to their plans for research/dissertation/thesis
  • The greatest source of information about the Fair was via departmental emails and posters.
  • Words and phrases that were repeated a number of times in the feedback include:

Discover/find out

Wonderful things

More confident

Huge help

Broaden your outlook




Everyone was friendly/lovely/helpful

Practical advice

Got me thinking

I want to pass on a gigantic vote of thanks to our academic colleagues.  They have been so supportive and enthusiastic and made a huge contribution to the Fair’s success by spreading the word.  Eight academics gave up their time to come to the Fair and answer general questions from students.  The students seemed to relish the opportunity to talk to them and several told us that they felt encouraged and more confident in choosing a topic.

Finally.  We are determined that we will capture the energy, excitement, sense of discovery, encouragement, and camaraderie exhibited on the day and use them as strong foundations on which to build.  There was no doubt from about 15 minutes after we opened that there will be another Fair next year.  We also want to use several learning points to improve our visibility to potential users in Cambridge and beyond.  Excitingly, we’re already hearing about an upsurge in numbers of students using several of the institutions!

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