A day working in Room 206 (Rare Books)

In the recent post about noise levels in libraries, much of the discussion has focused on what libraries are for. The consensus seems to be that libraries are for the readers: they are institutions intended to facilitate the research conducted by a varied demographic. In such a conception, customer care is the first and highest priority of the staff. That such a view should be unchallenged is demonstrative of the fact that nearly all of the trainees spend most (in some cases, all) of their time either dealing directly with customers (answering enquiries, lending material etc.) or helping to render the library a more reader-friendly environment (for instance, changing shelfmarks and labels or opening and updating Facebook pages).

The problem is, however, that this view does not represent the full gamut of librarianship. In some instances, the reader and their purposes have to be subordinated to other priorities. Dealing with rare or antiquarian books is one of those instances. Here the books themselves are the most important thing: their care is the Librarian’s objective. Indeed, the book itself assumes an entirely different character in the job of the Rare Books Librarian. No longer is the book secondary to the knowledge it contains but instead becomes an object of value in its own right, regardless of its specific contents and their use to the reader. Books become cultural artifacts, as opposed to tools in the quest for knowledge. Libraries become museums, dedicated to the careful storage and preservation of the book. Bibliography, conservation and literary history become the key areas of study for the librarian, rather than information management and customer service.

So too do relations with the reader shift, becoming far more troubled: they adopt some aspects of being a struggle for control. The reader wishes to use the book for his or her particular purposes but the Rare Books Librarian has to defend the book from any usage that may damage it or render it liable to theft. So the kind of reader permitted to view the book needs to be restricted to only the most trusted, the most qualified, the most experienced. Even those who meet such stringent criteria need to conduct their research in a place specified by the Librarian: it cannot be dispatched to other libraries or other reading places.  If possible, the item should be handled by the reader only when being supervised by a qualified member of staff. The things that such reader can do with the book must also be severely curtailed: photocopying, scanning or photographing the material is forbidden. The needs of the individual researcher are thus pushed into a subsidiary position: the librarian exists not to indulge the whims of the reader but to defend the book from harm and preserve it for posterity.  It is no surprise, therefore, that some patrons become frustrated with what they perceive as the contumacious behaviour of the staff handling the rare books they need to continue their research. However, they need to understand that, where antiquarian books are concerned, the customer is not always right nor even very important to the entire process.  In an age of consumerism and egoism, such unflattering principles can be difficult to accept but it is ultimately for their own good: if such books are not preserved and kept safe, they may not survive to see another century. They will be lost to future researchers.

One of the tasks that I was given earlier this week demonstrate these principles splendidly. I was asked to move several hundred pre-1800 books from the Nicolson classification scheme to the protected area on J-Floor of the New Bodleian Stack in preparation for their reclassification. Why was this done? As is well known, the New Bodleian Library is going to be demolished and rebuilt. Those books on J-Floor will remain under the direct supervision of Special Collections. However, books in the Nicolson classification scheme will be removed, photocopied and sent to the Social Science Library where they could ultimately be lent out.  This is bad enough for the 27,000 pre-1900 items present but it would be utterly disastrous for the 700 pre-1800 Nicolson books. They would not receive the proper care nor could access to them be regulated. Theft and intentional damage would become far easier. Thus it is necessary to move them and reclassify them so that they do receive the protection they require.

Of course, it is not always possible to defend the books: the outside world will inevitably find a way to invade the closed  and orderly edifices we erect and maintain. This was proved to me earlier on Tuesday when we had a leak reported in K-Floor that had been caused by the heavy rains. The water was dripping in an area where many pre-1900 books were stored. The entire Room 206 team were dispatched to remove those books that were in harm’s way and place them in a safer and, hopefully, drier area of K-Floor. Some books unfortunately were wet enough to warrant a speedy dispatch to the conservation team but most were unharmed.

That we cannot always win should not discourage the Rare Books Librarian from maintaining his or her focus on caring for the book: as Brecht once said “Those who try may fail but those who do not try have already failed.” This is one area of librarianship where the reader must be held resolutely at arm’s length: their satisfaction is not the ultimately objective of this kind of library work.

One comment on “A day working in Room 206 (Rare Books)

  1. Very interesting post, James; thank you for writing it. Admittedly, working with antiquarian books is not my favourite part of the traineeship – but I am allergic to them!

    However, your post made me think that there is an interesting parallel between the work of Rare Books Librarians and those in Reader Services currently caught in the middle of the Shush Debate. Both are committed, ultimately, to the idea of the potential user. Committed to the point that they have to make tough decisions that can be unpopular with – even infuriate – individual or ‘egoistic’ users. Depending on the library’s remit, this potential user could be one of two hundred students fighting over five copies of ‘EU Law: texts, cases, and materials’, an idle browser, a group of MBA students looking for a space to work on their presentation, or a researcher one hundred years in the future.

    Indeed, the preservation project at the Oxford Union is targeted at a very particular (currently, due to budget constraints, very hypothetical!) library user: a future Rare Books Librarian or Book Conservationist. My former supervisor was always keen to undermine the division between library staff and readers. A division that’s implicit, I think, in the terms ‘reader’ and ‘customer’. Working in a place such as the Union, where members are involved in the running of the library, has made me appreciate how fuzzy this distinction can be.

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