In South Marston, just on the edge of Swindon, there’s an unremarkable-looking, medium-sized warehouse that contains a sizeable chunk of the world’s knowledge. Unlikely location as it might seem to those imagining the Bodleian and other famous libraries as crenelated holdfasts of forgotten tomes, it is in fact here, among the prefab walls and steel girders, that most of its collections are housed. The Book Storage Facility – soon to make good its new name as the Collection Storage Facility (CSF) – has for twelve years now been keeping safe more than 10 million titles, together with maps and other miscellaneous objects, on more than 150 miles of shelving. 30-ish aisles of more than 10 metres high filled with books ordered by size alone (!) are navigated by large picker-like assist vehicles that echo hollowly in the cavernous space. Despite the seemingly random placement, any book can be procured within a minute: if you order up your CSF materials in any Bodleian library by 10.30 am, you are guaranteed they will be available the same afternoon. At the same time, the CSF team works through an enormous mass of scan requests, often more than a hundred a day (more than a 1000 in the first week of Covid!). It was at this massive information management operation that we trainees got a look last week, and boy, were we impressed.
There was a time, as our wonderful CSF guide told us, when Bodleian book transit meant a horse-drawn dray going between different Oxford locations, the horse reportedly refusing to pass by the King’s Arms pub without a drink (one might think the driver had something to do with this, though). Today, vans go out twice daily from the CSF, where storage is optimised for efficiency. Books are sized (from A to E), sorted and packed onto short acid-free cardboard trays (assembled on site) in the large workroom. Then, they’re shelved several rows thick in the 70-metre long aisles of one of the four temperature- and humidity-controlled storage rooms (outfitted – for obvious reasons – with a massive sprinkler system: wet books, as we learned, can be repaired – charred books can’t). Because all items and trays are barcoded, the electronic request system is able to immediately show staff the most efficient way to fetch any item. It is people, though, who have had to input all these books onto that system: when the facility opened in 2010 (at a cost of more than 20 million pounds), 7.5 million items had to be ‘ingested’ into the facility in one go. These had been gathered together from previous storage locations, including the ‘New Bodleian’ (Weston) library and Gladstone Link, the former Nuneham Courtenay storage facility, and even deep storage in Cheshire salt mines! As a continuation of this mammoth operation (which took a mere 15 months!), two days a week new material still arrives from the Special Collections and Legal Deposit teams: indeed, once again, and in what is a stable motif in the history of the Bodleian, space is becoming a precious commodity, especially for the largest-size material! The planned new storage chambers will surely be very welcome.
The CSF, it should be stressed, does not just contain academic books: its materials are as varied as you could imagine. There’s university paperwork. There’s Mills and Boon. There are boxes of free toys that came with magazines. There are up to 2 million maps stored across multiple floors filled with planchests, some of which we got to have a look at (the relief map of Britain was a firm favourite!). There is archive material. There are busts. There are death masks. And all this mass of material is managed fulltime by only 23 people: that is, as our guide pointed out, almost half a million books per person. If that is not impressive, I’m not sure what is.
We all loved it. This visit was a privilege, and a joy, not least because of the warm welcome we received (thanks to the CSF staff!). Looking down from a platform over a vista of high shelving, a picker bleeping unseen in a distant aisle, and, when the door opens, a flash of Iggy Pop playing in the background, it’s actually a rather emotional sight: here they are, all of these books that writers poured their heart and time into, being kept safe for the future, in a warehouse in Swindon.