Reflections on the Oxford-Cambridge College Libraries’ Conference

On Monday, some of the trainees had the opportunity to step in to the alternate universe that is Cambridge. The structural similarity of Oxford and Cambridge means that a lot of useful comparison and discussion can occur amongst the universities’ college libraries. Even within a group of ostensibly similar institutions, the conference really highlighted how different each college library is, in terms of number of staff, scope of the collection, integration in to wider college life, service to external readership—hearing the excellent papers and speaking with library staff throughout the day demonstrated the enormous energy and passion with which all the college libraries meet, exceed, and expand expectations on a daily basis.

Below are reflections on some of the many fascinating aspects of the day!

Katherine Steiner (Law Library):

One of the talks was by Amelie Roper, Charlotte Byrne and Steven Archer on ‘Unlocking the Old Library at Christ’s College, Cambridge’. They told the story of challenging their college’s expectations about the Old Library, built in the 19th-century and housing many unique and precious items in a 25,000-strong collection dating from the 11th-century onwards, a few of which were donated by the College’s re-founder Lady Margaret de Beaufort. Amelie, Charlotte and Steven explained that the Old Library was previously accessible only upon request, but now they have opened it to the public three afternoons a week, and are holding exhibitions and outreach events there on a regular basis. As well as the obvious benefits of increased numbers of people seeing the treasures of Christ’s (their statistics record the considerable footfall), they have really helped to integrate the Old Library’s history

into the life of the college again, so that now guest lectures and college events are planning receptions held in the Old Library. This in turn makes it more likely that the college will respect the uniqueness of the collection, and perhaps find some money for further exploration of it (much of it is in Arab

Tiny books at Christ'sic and other non-Latin scripts). I was very interested to hear about the interweaving of college and library, as well as the exciting ideas for exhibitions (including non-book items), the team at Christ’s’ foray into social media (they have a blog specifically about the Old Library, and a twitter and facebook page), and their great online guide to the Old Library.

Later in the day, I was lucky enough to be taken on a tour of the library itself, which did not disappoint. The Working library (built in 1974 and home to undergraduate texts, reading room space, computers etc) holds about 80,000 volumes on 3 floors, as well as a real skeleton. Among some of the items on display in the Old Library were notebooks by alumnus William Paley (known for his version of the design argument for the existence of God), a beautiful 15th-century illuminated copy of Euclid’s Elements in Latin, and some of Charles Darwin’s correspondence. Seeing some of these books and papers made me even more appreciative of the staff’s efforts in opening the place to the public – it is definitely worth a visit!

Olivia Cross (Oxford Union):

Being the trainee at the Oxford Union Library, it was fascinating to be given a tour of the Cambridge Union. The Librarian showed me and my two colleagues around the building and we soon noticed similarities and differences to our own beloved Union! The Cambridge Union similarly functions as a private members club, it houses many student debates and invites famous speakers to give talks to its members. Like the Oxford Union, it is an organization that is headed by students. Many of the rooms in the Union are very similar to ours, including the bar, snooker room and the debating chamber. One difference is that the Cambridge Union is in fact a registered charity. The best part of the tour (apart from the hot mug of coffee in their comfortable café bar!), was definitely being able to see the Keynes Library. Although it is a lot smaller than our Library, it is a lovely working space and provides many useful texts for its members. We were told that the South Wing of the Library was severely damaged by a bomb during the Second World War. You could even see holes in some of the books where pieces of shrapnel had pierced the spines and the covers! This tour was a brilliant experience and made the Oxford-Cambridge College Librarians Conference extra special.

Niall Sheekey (St. Hilda’s):

I was particularly interested in the presentation on RFID implementation. Having worked on a large-scale project in a University library previously, I was interested to see how a college library would go about this. As the machines are quite noisy when programming and printing tags it can be quite disturbing for students studying, making the timing of the implementation an important issue. In Birmingham we were able to do much of this in the staff area in the basement or a lesser used area of the library. Colleges are perhaps more hamstrung by perhaps having only one or two reading rooms and obviously shorter staffed. The options included to close the library for a period of three weeks in the summer and use a team of student workers to process the entire collection. This was done in two teams of four, one in the morning and one in the afternoon. My own experience tells me that this is a monotonous, laborious task which requires a high level of accuracy and concentration so attempting to do this in 7/8 hour shifts is not recommended.

RFID technology is relatively new and impressive and students were surprised by the ease of use. If looking to move to self-issue, 24 hour access or extended opening hours it is a more preferable option than the traditional magnetic strip, which is going out of date. The RFID tag can combine catalogue information as well as security settings. Some other advantages over this system included the decrease in false alarms that the old desensitising self-issue system caused, making student use easier and saving staff time from investigating these. However, if moving from this system to RFID tags it is important to deactivate old tags as they still might register if brought into other libraries. Stocktaking can also be performed without removing books from the shelf with the aid of a hand-held scanner that can read the tags by being waved across the spines (“Magic,” according to some students). Advanced settings can even tell if the books are in order!

Some other suggestions/considerations included running demos with a mixture of students, academics, IT and other staff to ensure that the machines are user-friendly. If planning RFID implementation it is important to consider the installation and long-term costs, such as annual maintenance. It was noted that the attractiveness of the system and the benefits for students and staff should justify the budget for such a project.

The trip to Gonville and Caius was very pleasant and we had the chance to view the gorgeous Lower Library containing a display of early printed books, manuscripts and oddly a log book of the wagers placed between college members  over the years– Examples, whether there were more than 50 members in college at that time or that England would be at peace within a month (dated December 1914!).  The Upper Library containing the undergraduate collection was just as spectacular, combining beautiful arched double-height ceilings and cathedralesque windows illuminating the long, narrow reading room with the added bonus of sockets at every desk, which beautiful old libraries are unfortunately not always able to provide.

All in all, we returned from “the other place” unscathed and got to interact and network with our fellow trainees and other library staff.


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