The John Rylands Research Institute was established in 2013 as a partnership between the University of Manchester Library and the Faculty of Humanities. It uses the Library’s Special Collections to explore human experience and culture across the globe over the last 5000 years in order to produce new and important research of the highest quality, generate learning, and deliver public engagement with research.
The story so far
- We were awarded 3 years’ financial support from the University’s Strategic Investment Research Fund (to supplement contributions from the Library and Faculty).
- We have a successful programme of grant capture (including from the AHRC, British Academy, Leverhulme Trust, Wellcome Trust) and philanthropic giving.
- We’ve created a dynamic and vibrant community of students and scholars working across the collections from Hebrew and Persian manuscripts and Greek papyri, to medical collections, modern literary archives and Bible collections with close and valued relationships with curators, conservators and imaging specialists.
- We have a lively programme of academic events which includes an annual conference (on papyri, Hebrew collections and modern literary archives to date); monthly seminars (such as print and materiality in the Early Modern World, and medieval and Early Modern Europe) and workshops/talks by visiting scholars (such as Professor Frederic Bauden).
- We have a range of public engagement activity including a high profile annual public lecture (by Professor Ann Blair, Professor Emile Schrijver, Professor Dame Marina Warner, and Professor Michael Wood to date); a monthly lunchtime talk for public audiences; and regular contributions from Institute researchers to exhibitions and displays at The John Rylands Library.
- We have a growing reputation and profile nationally and internationally, with high profile visiting scholars, press coverage of the Institute and the research discoveries it enables.
The secrets of our success:
- Buy-in and profile
- We gained the support of University’s Senior Leadership Team for the Institute. We wrote a compelling business case aligned to the University research strategy which clearly articulated the benefits the Institute would bring in terms of grant capture, philanthropic giving, interdisciplinary research activity, opportunities for researchers at all stages of their career, collaboration, and reputational gain nationally and internationally.
- We gained visibility by establishing the Institute as part of the University of Manchester Research Institute, which has responsibility for working in areas where we have achieved or aspire to world-leading status.
- The Institute featured strongly and prominently as a priority for the Library in its strategy (Leading, Challenging and Connecting, 2013-2017)
- We established strong leadership which embodied the partnership at the heart of the Institute, with an academic Director to lead on research and an Associate Director to lead on the collections and an expectation that they would work closely together.
- Shift in perspective: culture change
- We encouraged Library staff to focus on the audience and to stand in researchers’ shoes (rather than, for example, their usual curators’ shoes). Taking a less collections-centric approach meant thinking less about format and collection responsibilities, and more about the nature of the research question and how material (across formats and collections) could be used to address it.
- We encouraged academic staff to work with specialist Library staff (curators, imaging specialists, conservators) as trusted partners who help address research questions (rather than merely service providers) and add value to research projects. Demonstrating expertise and knowledge exchange was key.
- We encouraged Library and academic staff to think beyond traditional humanities research and ask what interdisciplinary approaches (under the digital humanities umbrella) and the application of scientific techniques (such as DNA profiling of parchment with the Faculty of Life Sciences) could bring.
- Encouraging engagement: dangling carrots (with a bit of stick)
Our approach was to provide what researchers most need (and clear expectations of what we require in return):
- Funding opportunities: seedcorn funding is offered to University of Manchester staff who wish to conduct initial and exploratory research into the collections; we offer funding for collaborative grants to University of Manchester staff who wish to gain insights from other researchers, specialists, disciplines, institutions or sectors to directly benefit academic research into the collections; and we offer early career fellowships which bring researchers at the start of their career to Manchester to carry out initial and exploratory research. All funding comes with a clear expectation that it will lead to larger, externally funded grant bids that would be held at The University of Manchester
- Guidance and support: we created two posts which are fundamental to the success of the Institute: a grant writer to help develop exploratory projects into successful grant applications, and an Institute manager to be responsible for day to day operation (they are the only full time member of Institute staff). The grant writer needed a sound understanding of Special Collections together with an excellent knowledge of arts and humanities research and associated funding opportunities, and the tact and assertiveness to steer researchers towards successful applications. The manager needed a sound understanding of Special Collections and arts and humanities research, excellent project management, finance and communication skills, and the ability to work across a complex organisation.
- Space and access to expertise: researchers are provided with workspace in the Library, ready access to curatorial, imaging and conservation expertise, and enhanced access to the collections – all of which are greatly valued.
It’s still early days for the John Rylands Research Institute but we’re off to a very strong start and the signs are good for continued growth and further success. We are making excellent progress in realising our vision for the Institute to stimulate research of the highest quality, support and develop excellent researchers, and have an impact beyond academia which yields social and cultural benefits – there’s more to come though, watch this space!