Over several weeks in December, library staff in Oxford were invited to take a tour of the Bodleian’s new Book Storage Facility, near Swindon. Quite a few of the trainees took this opportunity, including me, Cate and Lauren (pictured in our dazzling jackets).
The BSF opened for ‘ingestion’ (sounds gruesome, means filling up with books from the Bodleian and the Cheshire salt mines) on 7th November, and by the time I visited on 17th December it had taken in almost 900,000 books, leaving a mere 5,100,000 to go.
My tour group was shown the four enormous chambers full of towering shelves that will eventually be packed with boxes of books. Although we didn’t see a forklift truck rising 30 feet to place books on the highest shelves as some groups did, we were able to get a sense of the height as we were taken to the top of the map tower, a stack of rooms containing thousands of drawers ready to store the Bodleian’s map collection.
I was interested to hear about the process that takes place when a book is removed or shelved: a member of staff drives a forklift down an aisle, raises it to the right height, reaches into a shelf, removes one of six shoe-box-sized boxes, and scans four different barcodes to pinpoint the book and its location. This seems to be far less automated than some had envisioned. My landlord, a professor, asked me if the books were fetched by robots from sealed chambers with low oxygen levels, and sadly I had to disappoint him.
We also learned that the BSF intends to run a scan-on-demand service and provide a desk for library staff to work at after ingestion has finished, which would extend its function beyond just storing books. I am glad to have had the chance to visit it at this early stage, as it could be set to become iconic. We might one day find it spawns imitations in Britain as other major libraries run out of space.