In April a few of us trainees adventured to the beautiful city of Cambridge, also known as “The Other Place”, for a whirlwind tour of some of their libraries.
Our first stop was the Judge Business School, located in the former Addenbrooke’s Hospital building with colourful balconies and floating staircases (think Hogwarts meets Art Deco meets 1920s fairground). The Library is a small but welcoming user-friendly space catering for the needs of Judge Business School staff and students, with access to the specialised business databases Bloomberg and Eikon. My personal highlight has to be beanbags within the stacks. Or potentially the graffiti wall for readers to leave question drawings, messages of hope (or dread), for the librarians to respond to. Student wellbeing and enjoyment of the space was clearly a key consideration, with sections such as ‘Boost’ for wellbeing books and a less formal ‘Weird Ideas and Disruptive Thinking’ section.
Next we took the bus over to the West Hub, a sustainable three-storey development open to all departments at Cambridge University and members of the public. The library in this building, forming part of the Technology Libraries Team and Biological Sciences Libraries, is on the upper floor, which is naturally quieter than the lower floors thanks to the architectural design of the building. There are study spaces to suit everyone, comfortable booths and sofas, areas for group work and individual study pods. With huge floor to ceiling windows looking out onto what we’re assured will soon be lakes, gardens, and urban orchards, the building was incredibly bright and open. It was incredible to visit such a green and modern space, a completely different world to some of the medieval libraries in both Oxford and Cambridge. I have since declared that every library should have a tree growing inside.
Our last stop was the Cambridge University Library, the main research library of the university. One of the six UK legal deposit libraries, the UL is a huge, imposing 1930s structure, designed by the very same Giles Gilbert Scott who designed the Weston Library building here in Oxford, Battersea Power Station, and the red telephone box. The library houses nearly 10 million books, maps, manuscripts, and photographs, stored across 17 floors and more than 130 miles of shelving (which I can imagine is easy to get lost in). Unlike other legal deposit libraries, such as the Bodleian, much of the UL’s material is kept on open shelving for readers to borrow. We got a chance to look around some of the reading rooms and inspect one of the UL’s old card catalogues. It really is an impressive space, with a great view from the tower.
We finished the day with a walk around the market place and a quick pint by the river. It was great to see how some of the libraries in Cambridge function day-to-day and their different approaches to what a library should look like. I’m sure we all came away with lots to think about for our own libraries. We’re very grateful to the staff at the Judge Business School Library, the West Hub, and the UL for showing us around, as well as the Cambridge Libraries Graduate Trainees who joined us for some of the tours!
Some of the advice in this article stems from a training session we were given by Tom Dale and Jane Falconer in January 2023, many thanks go to them for their invaluable advice and support.
This article is intended to help and reassure those of you applying for the Oxford Graduate Trainees roles or any other entry level library position. If you’re applying for the Bodleian Traineeships then interviews are right around the corner, so we thought we’d offer up some tips and techniques that will help you feel confident and prepared when walking into the interview.
What not to worry about
First off, a few things to set your mind at ease. Below is a list of common concerns prospective trainees have raised – and the reason why you don’t need to worry! We’ve also tried to include advice for how to manage these concerns at interviews as well as links to introductions from previous trainees who were in the exact same position as you! These are only a small collection of our previous trainees and you may find others who have similar life experiences to you by browsing through our Former Trainees page.
I don’t have any library experience… You don’t need any library specific experience to succeed at interviews. Over the years there have been plenty of trainees who have never worked in a library before being accepted into a trainee position. You only need to show that you have the skills to meet the job description, you can pull evidence of these skills from any area of your life such as jobs in other sectors, clubs, or volunteer work.
I’ve never had a full-time job… The traineeship is a graduate position, so it doesn’t require you to have previous full-time work experience. Many trainees have been recruited directly after finishing their undergraduate degree, as before, so long as you can prove you meet the job description, you’re in with a chance! Don’t forget extra-curricular society roles are a great way to evidence skills like time management and working in a team.
I don’t live in Oxford… Not living in Oxford before or even during the traineeship won’t harm your chances, and you’ll probably find that most trainees weren’t Oxford locals before taking on the job. Luckily Oxford has incredible transport links including a station, bus, and park and ride service, as well as being pretty bike friendly so if you do end up needing to commute in every day, you’ll have a wealth of choices for how to do it. The job doesn’t require you to be located anywhere specifically, so long as you can make it into work!
I didn’t study at Oxford… You definitely don’t have to have been an Oxford student to work at the Bodleian. There might be a few bits of Oxford jargon for you to get used to once you start working, but no one will expect you to know these ahead of time, and if you’re not sure about some terminology used by the interviewers then please just ask! The interviewers want you to do the best that you can, so they should be trying to avoid using any terms you won’t understand.
My degree is in an unrelated discipline… Although it may seem as though every librarian has a degree in either History or English it’s very much not the case. Previous trainees have had degrees in a wide variety of subjects including maths or science related disciplines. What you studied in the past isn’t going to adversely impact your chances so long as you can meet all the criteria of the job specification.
I graduated a while ago… Whether you graduated 2 years ago or 20, so long as you have a bachelor’s degree you count as a graduate. As with many of these questions, the key is to use your life experience to show that you have the skills to meet the job specification. Those skills can be demonstrated through all kinds of activities so if you’ve had a break in your career you can look to things like volunteer positions and societies or clubs.
I’ve had a previous career outside of libraries… No matter what you’ve been up to before applying the key thing is to use your experience to your advantage and show your interviewers exactly why it makes you the best candidate for the role. Maybe you previously worked as a teacher and therefore have fantastic written and oral communication skills thanks to all the classes you’ve had to teach and learning materials you needed to produce?
Every interview is different but at least at the Bodleian, they should all follow a similar schedule.
First you will be given a tour of the library you’ve been invited to interview at. A current member of staff, sometimes even the current trainee will take you around the library and tell you around the building, explaining a little about what the job entails on a day-to-day basis. This is not part of the interview.
The person giving you the tour has nothing to do with the interview process and is often actively discouraged from talking about you to the members of the interview panel. Obviously, that’s not to say you can start hurling insults their way without expecting repercussions, but if you worry that you said something that’s lacking your usual level of wit and intellect or walked straight into a glass door (we’ve all been there), don’t worry – your interviewer will likely never find out!
Take this opportunity to calm your nerves and find out more about the library you might be working in. Don’t forget, an interview goes both ways, and you want to be sure you’ll be happy working in this environment, so don’t be afraid to ask questions!
Before the interview itself starts you will take a quick test. This is designed to test your ability to use finding aids or understand shelf marking systems and normally take around 20 minutes. There’s no way to find out the test questions ahead of time, and you’re not expected to already know anything you’re being tested on. The interviewers are purely looking at how you tackle searching for materials and whether you’re capable of adapting quickly to new ways of sorting and searching through information.
It’s best not to worry too much about this part of the day. The test is short and is not the main way you will be assessed.
The interview is normally conducted by a panel of about 3 people, sometimes more, sometimes less. They will all introduce themselves before the interview begins but don’t worry too much about learning all their names and career histories, instead focus on answering their questions to the best of your ability.
The interview itself should take around 30 minutes and will consist solely of your interviewing panel asking questions and you blowing them away with your carefully planned answers! There is no set time that it should take to properly answer a question, it really depends on what you need to say. So long as you feel you’ve adequately addressed the question and provided good evidence of your ability it doesn’t matter if the question takes 30 seconds to answer or 2 minutes! There should be a little time at the end for you to ask your own questions as well – again this is an opportunity to get a feel for the work environment and decide whether this is the right job for you!
Remember, no matter what the schedule of your individual interview is, the key thing is to keep yourself as calm as you can. Everyone involved in the process is human – and sometimes things don’t work out quite how you’d predicted, but if you can give off an aura of positive confidence (fake it until you make it is the name of the game) then you’ll give off a great impression no matter what might go awry!
What can I do to prepare?
The key element to passing any exam is to know the syllabus requirements, familiarise yourself with the types of questions you might be asked, then practice your answers. It’s the same with a job interview – in this case however, the syllabus is the job specification. You should do your best to read the job spec thoroughly, so you fully understand what is being asked of you.
Break it down
A fantastic way to ensure you know the job specification as well as you possibly can is to break it down into its component parts. Each criterion might list more than one skill that is required of you, so it’s good to make sure that you’re addressing the whole thing and not just part. A spreadsheet might be useful at this point to keep track of all the different skills you need to demonstrate. Once you have your list of skills, you should look at your previous experience (it doesn’t matter if this is professional or personal) and choose examples of times where you Demonstrate You Fit the Job Criteria to match each skill. You can record these on your spreadsheet too! One thing to note is that you don’t need library specific experience to meet these criteria. A lot of library work is reader services (helping readers) and experience in the service sector like shop work or hospitality roles can be a great way of demonstrating your sk.
Think like an interviewer
Once you have your skills and your examples, try to come up with interview questions for each skill. The questions you’re asked will be designed to help you show off your abilities and demonstrate that you fit the job criteria. Try to come up with as many different questions as you can so that you cover every single way you might be asked about a certain skill. Remember, some, maybe even most questions can cover more than one skill requirement at a time, so don’t just address them one by one, come up with some questions that combine related skills, especially if they’re listed together on the job specification.
Answer your own questions
Now you have a list of practice questions it’s time to do the dirty work. You need to come up with concise but comprehensive answers that fully cover everything asked of you. Focus on answering the question as it’s written, not the questions you wish the interviewers would ask. Maybe you have a great piece of work experience that you think would blow your interviewers socks off, but you should only bring it up if you can show them how it’s directly relevant to the question being asked.
Practice Practice Practice!
Once you’ve drafted up your answers to the practice questions you’ve come up with, it’s time to practice saying them aloud. Even better would be to get a friend to help by choosing random questions for you to answer. Remember – the goal here isn’t to memorise your answers, but to get yourself comfortable talking about your skills off-the-cuff. Feel free to adapt and improvise as you go, just make sure that you’re always demonstrating those key skill requirements and presenting yourself in the best possible light.
Do a dry run
If you have the time and means, then visiting the library that you’re interviewing at ahead of time is a great way to help you panic less on the day. Not all libraries are open to members of the public, but even just practicing making the journey so you’re not stressing over public transport links can be helpful – but this is by no means essential to having a good interview. Whether you can travel there in person or not it’s always good to familiarise yourself a little with the collections and style of the library. Is it a listed building with little room that mainly caters to academics, or a modern space with all the newest library amenities for students and members of the public? Small things like this might not seem overly important, but they could influence the approach you take in interview answers, and showing you have prior knowledge of the library itself can never hurt. You can find all this information and more about the many different Bodleian Libraries here: Find a library | Bodleian Libraries (ox.ac.uk)
The 2022-23 trainees would like to wish you all the best of luck for your future applications and interviews. No matter how things turn out, making it to the interview is a significant achievement so even if you don’t get this job, don’t let it deter you from applying to others. The key thing is to learn from your experience, gather as much feedback as possible and do your best next time around!
On Wednesday 26th October the 22-23 Trainees had their annual Book Storage Facility Tour. As this blog has seen a good 12 years of posts about the facility (we’ve been visiting since its grand opening in 2010) this year we thought we might do something a little different. Rather than wax lyrical on its 11m tall shelves (which would stretch 153 miles end to end) and its incredible collection of around 12 million items, we thought we’d start a little smaller and look at the life cycle of a single, solitary BSF book.
New books first arrive at the BSF through the Delivery Room and then progress onto the Processing Floor to undergo the process of ingestion. No, this has nothing to do with any bodily functions (thankfully), instead it’s the term we use to describe an item being welcomed into the Bodleian’s collections. For our book, this means first being given an all-important barcode. Barcodes are to Librarians what ear tags are to animal conservationists, we use them to track the movements of our respective objects of study. Without this barcode it would be impossible to find the item once it disappeared onto the near endless shelves of the BSF. Barcodes are assigned to books based on how they were acquired, barcodes starting with a number 7 are legal deposit items, and non-legal deposit books will start with either a 6 or 3.
Now that our book has a barcode attached to it, its height is measured, and it’s placed into a special paper box with other books of the same size. Our book gets only the best as this box is made of special acid-free paper sourced from Germany. The handle is also a specially made plastic, tested thoroughly to ensure that it won’t melt in a fire. The BSF has thousands of these incredible boxes across the site, and its one poor person’s task to take the flat nets and build them up into boxes. I’m told it’s one of the riskier jobs on the rota given the likelihood of vicious and painful paper cuts.
With our book safely nestled in its new home it’s time to go through some more scanning. Having already had a barcode stuck to its front cover and scanned into the system; the book now has its barcode scanned again to attach it to the barcode of the box it’s sitting in. It goes through this process not once, but twice, to ensure it’s not missed the first-time round. This method of grouping books into boxes based on their height rather than their contents may seem to be a textbook case of judging a book by its cover, but I can assure you that the BSF isn’t organising its books this way just to fit in with the latest BookTok trends. There is a logic to this madness.
Organising the books by height, as some storage-savvy librarians may already have guessed, is the most efficient way to
make use of the space. Rather than one shelf accommodating books ranging in size from the tiny ‘Old King Cole’ (clocking in at a miniscule 0.9mm) to the unwieldy ‘Birds of America’ (an impressive 1×0.72m in size), the shelves at the BSF maximise their use of space and ensure no large gaps are left from having to accommodate books of diverse sizes. A further benefit to mixing up the collections this way, is that should the unthinkable ever happen and disaster strike, causing damage to some of the books, you’re less likely to lose an entire curated collection all at once. Happily, this is not something the BSF has ever really had to worry about, as it has a stellar record on the safety and well-being of the books in its care (12 years and no major incidents!)
So, it is with great care that various boxes of books are loaded up onto one of the building’s many forklift/cherry-picker hybrids and chauffeured into their new position atop one of the many towering shelves inside the BSF. Our books travel in style as the machine they are transported on is carefully designed to assure a smooth ride between the very narrow aisles of the BSF. The floor is laced with a magnetic wire that guides the machine with pin-point accuracy between the shelves to ensure there are no unfortunate accidents á la Rachel Weisz in her ground-breaking role as Evelyn Carnahan in The Mummy. Once our book has arrived safely in its place it is scanned once more to connect it with the barcode number for its specific shelf, then it goes into a cosy hibernation, waiting quietly for a wandering reader to stumble across its SOLO (Search Oxford Libraries Online) record and make a request.
When this occurs, it’s time for our book to spring back to life. Its name will make a list of VIP books for collection, generated 6 times a day. If it makes that list before 10:30 it will likely be delivered the same day, any later and turnaround extends into the next day. Once the list has been picked, the book makes a return journey via cherry picker back to the Processing Floor where it is packaged into a special blue tote (fancy librarian name for a box)
labelled with the name of the library where our reader wishes to receive it. That tote is then loaded onto a van (which runs this route twice a day) and then starts this mass migration of books from Swindon into Oxford. The van deposits the books at Osney where they are sorted into two further vans with different routes. Regardless of which route they take, our books will arrive at the library in good time for the reader to access them for whatever essay, tutorial or exam they might be taking part in.
Before the reader can access the book however, they need to know it is there – that’s where we librarians come in. At the Radcliffe Camera and the Old Bodleian, we receive deliveries sometimes as often as twice a day, although for most other libraries the frequency is a little slower. When those deliveries arrive, we must safely guide the delivery van into place, then carry all the boxes back and forth (being careful not to mix books returning with books arriving). The totes are carefully packaged so as not to be too heavy to carry but many are still hefty, clocking in at roughly 10-15kg each when full. Once the delivery is unpackaged, we gently scan each book and check it is correctly tagged for its reader to find with a Self-Collect slip, and then shelve it accordingly.
Once its reading period is over, the librarians will remove it from the shelves and begin the whole migration process in reverse. Upon their arrival back at the BSF, the books are sorted according to their barcode numbers, packaged back into the correct boxes, and returned to hibernation to await their next adventure.
Another important aspect of the BSF book life cycle is scanning. For books that cannot undertake the twice daily migration another option is available, as the BSF has been offering a ‘Scan and Deliver’ service (clearly named for all the Adam and the Ants fans out there) since 2012. Once again, our book will be placed on a special list, picked from the shelves according to the barcodes listed for its location and taken to a special room inside the BSF designed entirely to accommodate the massive amounts of scanning that takes place. The BSF is the most efficient of all the libraries’ locations in terms of scanning, and they are proud to note that they average around 45,000 pages scanned a month. It’s no doubt then that the staff in charge of scanning at the BSF are highly skilled at handling these books.
When scanning commences, each item is carefully lifted from its place on the scanning shelf and laid to rest in a special BookEye scanner. These scanners are specially designed to work with the book’s physiology and allow it to be scanned without damaging its spine or any other vital organs such as pages or binding. The book is then pressed gently underneath a sheet of glass and a bright light runs across it, logging every curve and line of the text within. The pages of the book are delicately turned, and the process repeated for every required page. A skilled scanner can complete an entire chapter without distressing the book at all. Once all the requisite information is recorded the book is lovingly returned to its nest in the bowels of the BSF.
So far you can see that the books within the BSF are incredibly well cared for and face little in the way of existential threats. In fact, many of the natural predators of the book are managed by the BSF in such a way that they pose little to no threat at all.
One of the most prescient threats to the lives of our books is the risk of fire. Thankfully the BSF has ensured our books are safe from harm in that respect, they’re kept safe by massive 4-hour fire walls (and 2-hour fire doors) to minimise the risk of fire spreading from one book settlement to the next. There’s also an incredibly sensitive air sampling system connected to the building’s sprinklers and two massive tanks of water ready to extinguish any flame the moment it sputters to life. Despite its sensitivity, the sprinkler system has only ever had one false alarm in 12 years. The poor books caught in the ensuing deluge were diligently dried out by an outside firm and then returned happily to their respective nests in the store (although a few items still have visible watermarks from the incident).
Another potential danger to our books is pests. Many a librarian has known the horror of leafing through the pages of a book, only to find they have been nibbled on by a parasitic visitor. However, thankfully, conditions at the BSF are such that they discourage other forms of life from outstaying their welcome. The rooms are temperature controlled to a perfect 18°C and the lack of moisture and other food sources mean that any adventurous animals that might find their way in, such as woodlice or flies, often die off fairly quickly in an environment that is perfectly suited for nourishing books but hostile to pretty much everything else. This being said, pest control still makes a visit to the BSF every 5 weeks or so just to ensure no intrepid insects have braved the harsh conditions to gorge on the juicy pulp of book paper.
Thanks to these careful measures, the life expectancy for books at the BSF is long and it’s rare for books to die of unnatural causes under their care, so we can rest easy in the knowledge that the books under that big warehouse roof will have a long and happy life.
Back in June, the trainees were given the exciting opportunity to explore four libraries in London: the Reuben Library at the British Film Institute, the Natural History Museum Library and Archives, the Guardian Library and Archives, and the London Library. A huge thanks goes out to all of the library staff for guiding us round, answering our many questions, and giving us an insight into the wider librarianship sector. Continue reading to find out who we met, what we learned, and to see some pretty pictures we took along the way!
Reuben Library, British Film Institute
Josie Fairley Keast, Bodleian Law Library
The British Film Institute (BFI) can be quite tricky to find, tucked away in the side of the Southbank Centre. However, we all made it there eventually, and were met in the Reuben Library’s reading room by Sarah Currant (Senior Librarian for Reader and Mediatheque Services), who chatted to us about the library and how it works alongside other areas of the BFI. The library can currently be accessed for free, with no need for any sort of membership card – we were really impressed by this, as well as the decision to make the space less intimidating by installing a large window in place of the foyer wall. Working in Oxford, we tend to encounter a fair amount of ‘threshold fear’, so it’s always nice to see somewhere acknowledging this in their accessibility measures.
Sarah demonstrated the BFI database to us, which allows users to search the name of a film and be presented with a page summarising all the related items held by the library. This includes details of books and articles in the collection, as well digitisations of relevant ephemera. Historically the BFI maintained collections of press cuttings, usually based around specific films; many of these have now been digitised, along with copies of programme notes from every time a film is shown in one of the BFI theatres. The copyright procedures around this sounded similar to the Bodleian’s electronic legal deposit situation – although the BFI does not hold the copyright to everything it cares for, these materials can be accessed through the reading room computers (as opposed to being freely available outside of the library).
The BFI National Archive is one of the largest film collections in the world, covering both 120 years of British film history and the wider world of international cinema. Although the library itself is not directly involved in conservation work, Sarah told us a bit about some of the challenges of this particular area – for example, cellulose nitrate film, which was commonly used until the early 1950s, is both highly flammable and difficult to extinguish, as the nitrate part essentially provides the fire with its own oxygen supply. Individual reels were commonly stored separately, to prevent one fire from destroying the entire sequence! Official HSE advice for dealing with cellulose nitrate film recommends contacting a film archive such as the BFI, as this will be better equipped to deal with such specialised materials. With this in mind, it is unsurprising that the BFI frequently becomes the custodian of film collections on behalf of other institutions.
One thing we didn’t manage to see on the day was the BFI Mediatheque, a space which allows visitors to watch various films from the archive. The material on offer ranges from modern and classic films and television to the ‘Britain on Film’ historical collection and, incredibly, digitised versions of early cinema from the 1890s. It’s certainly a uniquely impressive collection, and it was fascinating to hear how the library – whose actual holdings aren’t so different to the books, journals, and digitised materials we encounter in our own libraries – works with the rest of the organisation on events and exhibitions to help make these materials accessible to a modern audience.
Natural History Museum Library and Archives
Juliet Brown, Old Bodleian Library
The Natural History Museum (NHM) is an iconic London tourist attraction, with visitors flocking to view the beautiful architecture, amazing animals and even a dinosaur skeleton if you’re lucky (see Dippy’s return). However, few are aware of the extensive library collection within, supporting the work of the museum scientists, postgraduate students and external researchers alike.
Arriving at the staff door, we made it past security and were greeted by Hellen Pethers, Researcher Services Librarian, who took us through the entrance and directly into a beautiful room marked ‘Library.’ This was previously one of five onsite reading rooms within the NHM, back when each room was dedicated to a specialist subject. Now, following the creation of a singular public reading room upstairs (for user convenience), this room is used solely by staff and for the storage of collections.
Hellen proceeded to tell us a little about the history of the Museum, from the initial collection work of Hans Sloane, through to the petition for a conglomerated collection by Sir Richard Owen. The latter’s work resulted in the construction and opening of the NHM in 1881, a beautiful building designed by Alfred Waterhouse and often referred to as a “cathedral to nature”, with its detailed engravings and terracotta designs paying homage to the natural world. The NHM has continued to expand, with new buildings and spaces created to further the study of natural history – emphasising the importance of the NHM building and its collections as a centre for research.
This is where the librarians come in, developing library collections to ensure that scientists and researchers have access to the relevant material and resources to support their research. This is a role that librarians have officially played within the Museum since the introduction of the first librarian, Bernard Woodward, in 1903. Woodward was given a huge remit, with a budget to collect all relevant materials, and he even introduced a classification system that is still used for specific collections today.
With the collection policy that no material should be removed from the library — so that scholars can track the progression of thought in a particular field – collections have expanded rapidly, now totalling over 1 million items. This includes a wide range of modern collections, e-journals, e-books, databases, rare books, manuscripts, art, and maps. Books are borrowable by staff, as well as the over 400 scientists associated with the museum, but the collections are also consulted by external members, who can access the reading room by appointment in specified opening hours.
Speaking of the public reading room, this was the next stop on our tour and an opportunity to see the public face of the NHM library. As readers request material in advance, many of the tables are pre-prepared with required resources and equipment, with the material ready to collect behind the enquiry desk. At the NHM, all library staff are scheduled to complete shifts on the enquiry desk, which Hellen explained is a great way to interact with readers and become familiar with the collections.
The final stage of our tour took us through the bookstacks and up into the Special Collections and Archives room, where we met Rosie Jones (Special Collections Librarian) and Emma Harrold (Museum Archivist) – the latter being a previous Bodleian trainee!
After discussing both of their routes into libraries/archives, Rosie treated us to a tour of a variety of material from the NHM special collections. This included:
A copy of Pliny’s Natural History Manuscript (Historia Naturalis) – the NHM’s oldest book!
A book with a recipe describing how to make pasta for nightingales (pictured).
A book of beautiful animal drawings (pictured).
A box of detailed wooden stamps (pictured).
Drawings created on Charles Darwin’s voyage around the world (pictured). These were quick sketches, with the intent to be finished and coloured at a later date. Unfortunately the original artist died on the journey, but other artists were able to complete his work, and engravings were created so the illustrations could be reproduced.
Following this, Emma took over to speak about the role of the NHM Archives, particularly the relation between preservation efforts and advertisement.
Documents concerning the formation of the NHM, personal papers of significant individuals associated with the building, and various other collections are kept by the NHM Archives in an effort to preserve the history of the museum – a vital part of Emma’s role in maintaining relevant and extensive records for researchers and NHM staff alike.
These collections span from Alfred Waterhouse’s original designs for the terracotta animals, through to photographs of Pole expeditions and photography competition winners from the 1980s. In recent years, certain pieces from the NHM archives have been used for advertisement of the NHM, with historic images and previous promotional posters reused for their latest campaign. This allowed the Museum to broadcast the range of collections whilst highlighting the vast history of the NHM – an incredibly effective campaign.
For more information about the NHM’s vast collection, you can check out their website and twitter below:
The Guardian Library isn’t what many would consider a traditional library, certainly not when compared to the historic academic libraries of Oxford. Situated within the Guardian headquarters in central London, this library primarily consists of the personal wealth of knowledge and significant research skills of the two librarians working in the building. For our tour we were met by Richard Nelsson, one such librarian, who led us through the bustling office space to a large meeting room, where he spoke to us about his role as Information Manager.
Although the current library team is extremely small, Richard was keen to show how libraries have played a significant role throughout the history of the Guardian. Before the internet, up-to-date information was still necessary to produce informative and accurate stories, but how were journalists meant to know everything published on a particular topic? This is where the librarians came in – a team responsible for sorting through all the papers published that day, cutting out individual articles and filing them in folders differentiated by topic. For example, a single article on the miners’ strikes may go into folders on trade unions, conservative party policy, and civil protest. This collection, informally titled a clippings library, would then allow journalists to access published information on a particular topic by locating the relevant folders.
With the growth of the internet, these folders have become less heavily relied on, and the role of librarians has adapted to suit the changing needs of the organisation. Richard emphasised that librarians are still vitally important to the research needs of journalists, as they manage various information sources (including online databases, e-subscriptions, and e-books) and perhaps most significantly, provide a tailored research service. This includes finding quotes, locating relevant people, providing background information, and checking facts and statistics. Richard stated that it can sometimes be challenging to narrow down a vague enquiry, but that the variety of information and requests make it a very exciting role – if occasionally high-pressured, as journalists tend to work to tight deadlines.
Following this talk we were introduced to Emma Aitken, one of the Guardian archivists, who spoke about her role within the organisation. This principally includes:
Research: Although the archives team functions under the umbrella of the Guardian Foundation, they work closely with the Guardian research team to provide images, films, audio recordings, and various other materials for the newspaper.
Enquiry work: particularly relating to photographs/images in the collection, though she also receives those concerning the social history (where ephemera might be used) and for fact checking purposes.
Collections management: managing the online catalogue, as well as the material kept in the two onsite stores (the first for paper, objects, and materials; the second exclusively for photographs).
Technical tasks: transcribing material, completing digital preservation projects, as well as taking responsibility for binding and storing previous volumes of the newspaper (for preservation and conservation purposes).
Engagement: Managing the movement, display and loaning of material for exhibitions, as well as giving talks and presentations for interested parties (including school groups … and us!).
Following these presentations, we were first shown to the Archives workroom, where we saw a curated collection of material kept by the Guardian Archives. This included old copies of the Cross Street Journal, preserved video advertisements, old editions of the Guardian and Observer newspapers, correspondence from WP Crozier’s personal archive collection (Guardian editor 1932-44) and even pieces of the Edward Snowdon hard drive! The Guardian Archives collections can be accessed on their website or via their twitter.
Richard then proceeded to give us a tour of the office space, where we could see different departments hard at work. One trainee was particularly excited to view the audio department, where a podcast that she listens to was being recorded! Overall this was a brilliant opportunity to gain insight into an area of librarianship none of us had previously explored, and a lovely way to spend an afternoon.
Jemima Bennett, New College Library
Given the smart location of the London Library in St James’s Square, at least one of us was feeling slightly overwhelmed and underdressed for a tour of such a beautiful building. We’d been somewhat misinformed that it resembled a Victorian gentleman’s club, but how happily wrong we were!
Founded in 1841, the London Library (the largest lending library in Europe) is notable for its motivation to preserve the history of the library while simultaneously remaining contemporary, with a refreshing focus on diversifying its membership and collections. The library collects in a range of areas but mainly caters to writers. Collections tend to focus on the arts (the library’s website (londonlibrary.co.uk) lists these as History, Cultural Expression, and Thought & Life), with an emphasis on books you might not easily find in a high street bookshop. It has an impressive list of former members – we climbed a staircase whose walls were star-studded with portraits of great cultural figures, from Virginia Woolf, to Edward Burne-Jones, to Bram Stoker, all previously members of the library.
Other highlights include:
a bookcase of miniature books. This collection consisted of around 350 books printed between the sixteenth and twentieth centuries, all under five inches tall – some were under three!
An unexpected thrill of library-scale adrenaline in the back stacks. Nineteenth-century ventilation and lighting technology meant that, for all seven floors of the stacks, the floors are grated – you can look through them all the way down to the basement…
The classification system. Librarians always love a classification system, but this one was particularly fun. Created at the end of the nineteenth century by the London Library’s librarian, Sir Charles Theodore Hagberg Wright, this classification system was designed to fit the range of books that the library owned at the time, and has changed very little since. As a result, alongside the more usual headings of ‘Literature’ or ‘History’, you can also find ‘Science and Miscellaneous’. And further, within each category, subject headings are ordered only alphabetically. This is particularly joyous in Science and Miscellaneous, where books on crystallography sit in happy incongruity next to books on cycling.
The Reading Room. Even by Oxford standards, this was beautiful – a lovely, quiet, peaceful, book-lined space.
Entering the London Library is like entering The Archetypal Library, with over 17 miles of brightly coloured books on shelves, including some printed in the eighteenth century, labyrinthine bookstacks, and hidden nooks and crannies all over the building. In keeping with the whole feel of the library, the building retains many fascinating historical features: we saw some World War II reminders to ‘Turn Off The Lights’ stencilled onto the walls. The atmosphere is almost other-worldly. We all came away from the visit with a sense of having had a thoroughly enjoyable and enlightening afternoon, thanks in no small part to our wonderful tour guide Yvette Dickerson, one of the Member Services team.
Here’s a fun fact you might not know – since 1949, the Bodleian Library has maintained a range of presses for the purposes of teaching practical printing. On 23rd February, we were given a much-anticipated peek behind the Schola Musicae door in the Old Schools Quad, home of the Bodleian’s letterpress workshop. As library trainees, the focus of our session was early book printing, giving us an insight into the various processes that would have gone into producing the early printed books that some of us are lucky enough to work with as part of our libraries’ special collections. For purposes of numbers, we were split into two groups; one taking a morning session with Alex Franklin and the other an afternoon session with Richard Lawrence.
Over the three-hour session, we were introduced to three types of printing (letterpress, intaglio and planographic).
The star of the show was the letterpress printing and we got the opportunity to create our own prints. Firstly, we had an overview of the principles of printing and how letterpress printing works, then we got to have a go ourselves!
Arranging the Type
Each set, or ‘font,’ of type is kept in a specially-compartmentalised trays (upper and lower cases), with a layout designed to make it easier to reach for the most commonly-used letters. Having divided up our chosen text, we were each stationed at a font and given a small composing stick to set our type in. Piecing a sentence together from reversed letters takes some getting used to — it’s easy to miss a spelling error or upside-down letter until the proofs have been printed. We worked from left-to-right, using the handy nicks in each piece of type to make sure every piece was pointing the right way.
There is a lot to consider regarding the size of the font and the length of the lines on the pages, the size of the margins… many of the calculations were in fractions of an inch and made our minds boggle! 1/2 inch equals 72 points (the same as font sizes on computers); therefore 1 point equals 1/72 inch. You can see from the image below that our composing sticks had been set to 22 inches, as the 12 point font we were using would fit into it without any gaps remaining — or so we hoped!
Since any wiggle room could allow the type to shift or come loose during printing, we also used metal spacers to fill in the gaps between words and the ends of the lines, using a variety of pieces to keep everything in place as tightly as possible. Alex told us that a group of English MSt students recently visited to set extracts from M. NourbeSe Philip’s Zong in type as a way of considering the text’s interweaving of blank spaces on the page and silenced voices in history. As we learned through setting our own phrases, those empty sections require just as much time and attention as the letters themselves. Richard also discussed the influence of the printer on how a manuscript becomes a printed book. For instance, Mary Shelley’s manuscript of Frankenstein has very little punctuation; this would have been added by the typesetters and printers. What does this mean for interpreting a text?
Once we had finished composing our lines of type, they were secured within a printing frame (forme) by an assortment of wooden blocks (furniture). Since these also have to be tightly fitted (lest we end up with type all over the floor en route to the press), this included pieces that could be expanded or loosened with a small key (quoins). Finally, our type was all set and ready to be used for printing.
Using the Presses
The workshop had many examples of presses that are used for education and for the study of printing and the history of the book. We had a brief demonstration of early printing on a reproduction sixteenth-century printing press, based upon a drawing by Albrecht Dürer. For our printing, we used a Harrild & Sons Albion Press of 1877, originally from Leonard Baskin’s Gehenna Press.
The first step in using the press was preparing our ink. Thick, tacky, and oil-based, it resembled shoe polish or treacle when first scooped out of the container. Although historical methods would call for round leather ink balls, we used a plastic roller to spread it out in an even layer, ensuring the full surface of the roller had been covered. The reason being that the leather ink balls aren’t very economical with ink when you are only printing up a small amount because much of the ink is absorbed by the leather.
Once the block had been inked and the paper positioned and protected from stray ink by a paper fisket, the whole bed was rolled under the flat weight (platen). A quick pull of the operating handle pressed the paper firmly against the inked block, and then it was time for the moment of truth! Examining our proof copies gave us a chance to catch typos and adjust block placements before setting up the printmaking production line in earnest.
Both groups had submitted some initial ideas for their prints in advance. The morning group presented a motley assortment of flowers, cats, and Vasily Grossman, and the afternoon group opted for some classic Tolkien quotes and imagery. Alex took the morning group’s ideas and used them to produce a risograph image incorporating pictures from the Bodleian’s Fox Talbot collection, which we then printed over with lines from Tom Lovatt-Williams’ poem ‘Oxford,’ while the afternoon group paired one of the quotes with a pre-made block of the Oxford skyline.
The workshop holds a variety of presses, and some of us also had the chance to try our hand at using a 19th-century star-wheel etching press for some intaglio printing.
While relief printing involves inking the raised parts of the block, intaglio is almost the opposite: the design is engraved into the plate, and, once the plate has been inked and wiped clean, the image is produced by the ink that remains in these lines.
The plate and paper are tucked beneath layers of blankets, which are then pushed through a set of heavy rollers by turning the wheel. That extra weight helps press the fibres of the paper into the texture of the plate, increasing the accuracy of the print. Dampening the paper helps this process. The result is a fine-lined image, perhaps with some shadowing from residual ink on the surface of the plate.
This section raised some questions about the replicable nature of printing – if someone was to make a print from an original etching by a renowned artist such as Rembrandt, would they then have produced a Rembrandt? Our general consensus was no: even the most historically accurate reproduction would still lack the inimitable individual touch applied through processes such as adjusting placements or applying and wiping away ink.
Richard also showed the afternoon group a stone used for lithography, a form of planographic printmaking which uses water- and ink-repelling substances on a flat printing surface to create the final image.
We all really enjoyed the session, and some of us hope to take up Alex and Richard’s offer to return to the workshop at some point in the future.
We were recommended the following books by our workshop leaders, for those who have been bitten by the printing bug and want to find out more:
On Wednesday 3rd November, the Graduate Trainees were treated to a special tour of the Weston Library, where the Bodleian Libraries maintains their conservation lab and special collections materials.
By Lucy Davies
My favourite Wednesday training session so far has been the visit to the Weston Library for a tour of the Conservation Studio and Special Collections. This trip really sparked an interest in book and paper conservation for me so I hope this blog post describing our experiences can do the afternoon justice.
According to the Bodleian Conservation and Collection Care team, their role is “to stabilize bindings, bound manuscripts and early-printed books with minimal interference to their original structures and features”. Part of their role also involves maintaining and caring for the open-shelf references books and lending items in the Bodleian libraries. Their responsibilities are extensive and there are a number of roles in the team, including Book Conservators, Paper Conservators, and Preventive Conservators. The Bodleian’s is the second largest conservation team in the UK!
When we first arrived, head of preventive conservation Alex Walker talked to us about storing library materials correctly. Alex’s job is to train the Bodleian Libraries staff to care for their collections and to oversee preventive conservation projects. Her role includes managing and avoiding pest damage to the Bodleian’s collections, and she discussed with us the kind of damage that silverfish and woodworms can inflict specifically. As former students, we were all too familiar with a silverfish infestation, but had never witnessed the damage they could inflict on paper. Interestingly, silverfish graze along the surface of the paper, whereas bookworms burrow through from cover to cover – the more you know!
She showed us examples of damaged materials and explained how everything from temperature, location, humidity, and the material of a storage box can drastically affect the condition of books and manuscripts. The damage was quite extensive and highlighted for me the importance of preventive conservation and pest control in libraries, not something that had been at the forefront of my mind whilst working at the SSL.
Once our skin was crawling at the thought of various insects, it was then over to Julia Bearman to show us the work she has been undertaking on the consolidation of paintings within a Mughal album. She showed us how she takes photographs of the work before beginning and then carefully marks on the photos every change or repair, however miniscule, so that everything done to the object is recorded. It is a slow and careful process that clearly requires patience. Additionally, Julia explained to us that the aim was not to make the book of paintings appear new again, as that could be misleading and unhelpful to those undertaking research. Instead, her aim is to stabilise it and preserve it enough to travel to exhibitions or not need further conservation work in the near future.
What was most interesting to me was that Julia explained she undertakes research for months before even touching a new project, which I thought was incredible, and highlights how much work goes into a conservation project before even picking up any tools. She speaks to other conservators and academics to gain an understanding of the object’s history, the materials it is made of, and what the aim for the conservation project should be.
Finally, it was over to Andrew Honey who showed us how his role is to conserve and rebind books. Again, he outlined how the aim is not to make the book look like it was never damaged but to use minimally invasive techniques to stabilise the book. This is because invasive techniques or the use of certain materials can cause further damage down the line. Interestingly, leather is no longer used to repair broken leather book spines, but rather cloth is used, as this is safer for fragile materials.
He also showed us a book from Henry VIII’s personal library, which blew all of our minds to see, I think. It was covered in velvet as apparently even Henry’s books were not safe from his gaudy fashion tastes. It was fascinating to see it right there in front of us and to learn about how the Bodleian is conserving it so it can survive for future generations to learn from.
The tour of the conservation studio could have lasted days and we still wouldn’t have seen everything, but I learnt so much in the couple of hours that we spent there and am very grateful to the staff for taking time out of their day to share their expertise and experiences with us.
By Sophie Lay
After our time in the Conservation Studio, we took a much needed tea/coffee break in the café. From here, we met the Weston’s own Chris Fletcher: Keeper of Special Collections at the Bodleian.
Chris then proceeded to take us on a tour of the Weston Library. We travelled through a series of complexly inter-connected corridors and stairwells which, in retrospect, I cannot piece together at all. The building is a maze, but a delightful one full of treasures – perhaps leave a trail of breadcrumbs if you go exploring! The building weaves together classic and modern architecture, combining oil paintings and sweeping doorways with sleek exhibition spaces and glass viewing platforms.
The tour began with a glance into one of the reading rooms (the Rare Books and Manuscripts Reading Room, to be precise), an architectural delight with exposed stonework, skylights, and a gate-like entrance. From here, we travelled up to the roof terrace. The terrace is not a public space, as it backs onto a reading room so requires quiet, but fret not – we couldn’t possibly miss the opportunity to get a photo or two.
Chris then took us down to the Archive Room. Inside, two archivists were hard at work up to their elbows in material. We only saw glimpses of the pieces down there, but they covered a broad spectrum of subjects from OXFAM to the Conservative Party to Joanna Trollope. Chris assured us that in libraries, a dedicated archiving space of the size available at the Weston is a rare and special thing.
Then came the closed stacks, nestled out of public view and often discussed in whispers and covert glances. Of course, these spaces are highly secretive, so there is very little I’m allowed to tell you in a blog post. I can especially neither confirm nor deny the rumours of underground tunnels connecting the Weston stacks to the Radcliffe Camera and the secret wine cellars of the Sheldonian Theatre, Merton College, and All Souls College.
The next highlight for me was the Centre for Digital Scholarship. What had once started out as a few computers that researchers could use to view their rare books in close detail became rapidly swept up in the wash of digital advancement. The centre now exists as a hub for using cutting-edge and innovative digital tools to support multi-disciplinary academic pursuits as well as engaging with the wider public. They run workshops, seminars, and events – some invitation-only, and some open to the public. You can find out more information about that here, including the Digital Humanities School. What is particularly fascinating to me is how this work applies to librarianship, with digitisation projects already underway and the popularity of electronic resources rising among academics of all levels.
The final destination for our tour was the Bahari Room, where Chris showed us some of the rare items that the Bodleian is currently working on or has recently acquired. The talk was detailed and I could not possibly give away all of Chris’ trade secrets, but here are a few key points of our discussion:
In buying special collections, time is of the essence. Pieces that are up for sale get snapped up incredibly quickly, so you have to act fast. Chris told us that he has received catalogues and picked up the phone to purchase items within minutes of delivery – only to find them already gone.
Some of us took the opportunity to talk to Chris about how institutional collectors navigate cultural heritage and the question of repatriation: who owns an artefact? Where did it come from originally? Through what processes and hands did it end up in the collection? These questions are key in collections work.
Collaboration and mutual respect are important within and between academic institutions. Sometimes multiple bodies team up to purchase certain collections that can be mutually owned. And sometimes, you have to know when another institution has a more vested interest than yours in purchasing a particular item. It pays to back off and let someone else win sometimes (though not always!)
The training session ended as most do, with fond goodbyes and a trip to the pub for the willing. I’ll spare you the details of that, and instead, leave you with a sneak preview of the rare artefacts shown to us by Chris Fletcher…
Rare Collections Material: According to Chris, this was the first bible bound by a woman.
On Wednesday the 27th of October, the 2021/22 cohort of trainees were given the opportunity to visit the Bodleian Libraries Book Storage Facility (BSF), on the outskirts of Swindon.
Why is the BSF necessary? A brief history of legal deposit:
The Bodleian Library is one of six copyright libraries in the UK, which entitles the Library to receive a copy of any material published in the UK, under the Legal Deposit Libraries Act (2003).
This elite status was first obtained by Sir Thomas Bodley, who was responsible for re-establishing the University Library in 1602.
Sir Thomas Bodley wanted to ensure that the library (now Duke Humfrey’s Reading Room) would thrive, continuing to be endowed with items. In 1610, he obtained an agreement with the Stationers’ Company, which ensured that the Bodleian Library could claim a copy of everything printed under royal licence.
As such, the collections belonging to the Bodleian Libraries have expanded significantly and exponentially over the last 400 years, with the current total standing at approximately 13 million items.
At the beginning of this century, concerns began to grow regarding the limited storage capacity in Oxford, and discussions for an offsite storage facility began.
The BSF was officially opened in 2010, costing £26 million and housing 7 million books, maps, manuscripts, newspapers, periodicals and various other items that were slowly overwhelming the Bodleian’s dwindling capacity. The move took 15 months, with an average of 23,000 items being delivered, processed and shelved per day! The original idea was to store low usage items, drawing together collections from a variety of Bodleian storage facilities, including: the Underground Bookstore (now the Gladstone Link), the New Bodleian Library (now the Weston Library) and even some legal papers kept in salt mines in Cheshire!
Since 2010, the BSF has continued to grow. The collection now stands at roughly 9.5 million items, held on 153 miles of shelving and configured to accommodate various sizes of items. However being offsite doesn’t mean the books are inaccessible. The BSF team provide an essential service to readers through their book delivery service, which allows readers to access material held offsite, requested material being delivered to specific Bodleian reading rooms once a day, 5 days a week*. This allows readers to gain access to an incredible amount of physical material quickly and easily, which significantly benefits study.
*COVID scheduling still applies
Naturally, we were all very excited to visit the BSF, but in particular the trip was of interest to me as the Old Bodleian trainee. The Old Bod receives approximately 80% of the books ordered from the BSF, so I was determined to gain a greater understanding of the processes that allow items to be found, picked, processed and delivered to our library.
Arrival, Introductions and Lots of Tea:
The journey from Oxford to Swindon takes about 50 minutes, which is the route the delivery van takes twice a day to deliver and collect the books from our libraries.
Upon arrival, we were greeted by Lindsay (Bodleian Storage and Logistics) and Chris (Collection Co-ordinator), who provided us with lots of tea and biscuits, before we were given an introductory presentation about the BSF. This included some brilliant information about the formation of the facility, and the ongoing projects that are being managed at the BSF. For example, libraries at different academic institutions have been able to store vast amounts of their collections whilst they renovate/remodel their own buildings.
The Processing Floor:
Upon the conclusion of the presentation, we were shown directly into the processing room, which was actually the size of a small warehouse! This is where the majority of the work is carried out, accompanied by a rotating playlist of music chosen by the staff. On this occasion, we were treated to some 80s hits as we were led into the delivery room.
The delivery room takes up the last part of the warehouse, and it is where the vans are loaded and unloaded with book deliveries. The room provides shelter, so that the books are never impacted by the weather.
Next, is the area where books are collected, processed and packaged – ready to be sent out to the various libraries for collection. Seven times a day, a list of requested items is printed, automatically organised into an order that allows the drivers to navigate the most effective route through the aisles. The books are then collected by staff, who package them into distinct trays to be processed. At this station, the books are scanned in to the computer and their end destination is listed. This information allows staff to know where the item is heading, which will dictate where the item needs to be stored before packaging. Just before delivery, these books are then boxed up, weighed to ensure that no box is too heavy for an individual to lift, and moved to the delivery room ready to be loaded.
At the other end of the processing room is the returns desk. Here books are unboxed, scanned back into the BSF and placed on two distinct benches: legal deposit and non-legal deposit. Books are separated by size, and placed into rows according to their aisle location. These rows are also divided into grids. The grids help to manage the returns process, as they are the exact same size as the boxes that the books are packaged back into, in order to be returned to the shelves.
Stock Check Station
The final area that we were shown in the processing room was the stock check station. Here we were met by Lisa (Business Process and Project Manager), explained the importance of this station. In order to ensure that information about the books is correct and current, items are brought through from the stacks and scanned into the computer. This ensures that books can be easily located and readers can request items with ease, as items are accounted for at all times.
The Main Floor:
Following the tour of the processing floor, we were joined by Teresa (Team Leader at the BSF) and led up to a set of large doors, ready to be shown the internal workings of the main warehouse. As the doors slide up, the stacks were revealed – which at eleven metres high was a rather impressive and intimidating sight!
The main floor is made up of 4 sections: two legal deposit and two non-legal deposit.
The warehouse is kept at approximately 50% humidity and temperature controlled at 18 degrees, with discreet fans to ensure any dust is removed, which all helps to preserve the books in the best condition. In addition to this, there are 15,000 sprinkler heads dotted around the facility, which are fuelled by two huge water tanks – in case of emergency. Although it seems drastic – and slightly horrifying – to think of books being doused with water, there are not many alternatives. Additionally, as Lindsay pointed out, there is a 1 in 6 million chance of a sprinkler being set off in error, and “it is easier to repair a book damaged by water, than a book destroyed by fire”.
Books in the stack are organised by three barcodes, which are located:
On the shelf on which the book is located
On the box in which the book is located
On the book itself.
This system allows for books to be easily moved to different locations in the stack, which is necessary when reorganising (for instance if books are heading back to be stored permanently in libraries, or are in high demand so convenience dictates a more accessible location).
This organisational structure allows books to be located in approximately a minute, which is very impressive, however the randomised order of books seems an alien concept to us as library trainees – where are all the shelfmarks?
Books are collected by staff, using machines that are a cross between a forklift and a cherry-picker. Staff will manoeuvre to the beginning of the relevant aisle, before they are magnetically connected to a metal guide on the floor, which allows them to navigate in precise straight lines through the narrow aisles. Once they reach the correct column of shelves, they are able to raise the platform to the correct shelf height and slide out the necessary archive tray. The books in the tray are naturally sorted according to popularity, as the high demand items are usually returned to the front of the tray.
Maps, Masks and Miscellaneous Items
Alongside the incredibly impressive shelves, the BSF stores a vast collection of additional items that don’t fit neatly into archive trays. These items are divided across 5 levels: 4 levels of plan-chests (thin drawers designed to hold the 1.5 million maps stored at the BSF – see below), and 1 level of additional shelving. The latter holds a variety of papers, artefacts and pieces of art from across the libraries. We were shown around 2 levels, which included viewing:
A beautifully illustrated map of 1800s London, sketched from the view of a hot air balloon
A horrifying death mask, courtesy of the Ashmolean museum
An abnormally large book, created by gluing regular A4 sized pages onto A1 sized pages
The Scanning Room:
We concluded the visit with a look inside the scanning room, in which a dedicated team of two work through scanning requests from readers. This became an essential service for readers during the pandemic, as the scanning facilities allowed students to continue accessing resources remotely, when they were unable to enter the physical libraries. This service continues to be popular to this day, with the BSF team completing over 1000 individual page scans per day!
We were all really thankful for the time that Lindsay, Lisa, Teresa and Chris took to make us feel welcome, and for their kindness in showing us around the BSF. Overall this was a brilliant trip and an unmissable opportunity to look behind the doors of the Bodleian Libraries largest storage facility.
Working from home for the foreseeable future, locked-down librarians are wistfully recalling the rustling of pages, the gentle bustle of readers, and that unmistakable eau de bibliothèque. Whilst the Bodleian is working hard at ‘keeping the University reading‘, and we’re all getting used to Teams and Zoom, a VPN’s no substitute for being among the books. So, while we’re all yearning for more library in our lives, what better time to revisit our 2019 trip to the Bodleian Storage Facility — which holds more books than anyone can imagine.
Some quick facts:
The BSF opened in 2010, with an initial capacity of 8.4 million items
It sits on a 17-acre site just outside of Swindon
The BSF replaced the New Bodleian (now the Weston Library) as the main storage site
Following reconfiguration, the BSF now holds over 12 million items
A book delivery service to departmental libraries operates twice a day on weekdays
In October 2015, the BSF fulfilled its one millionth book request
The Grand Tour
Our visit began with a talk by Boyd Rodger, the (then) Logistics Manager of the BSF. Boyd gave us a run-down of the BSF and the book delivery service. The BSF differs from a library in a few important ways. Items at the BSF are organised only by size, which should scandalise any librarian. You won’t find any readers here, either, and you can’t browse the BSF’s shelves in any conventional sense — but you can order any book from the BSF to arrive the following weekday, or that afternoon if you got your order in before 10am. Every item is barcoded, so requests placed via SOLO are logged by the BSF’s computer system, which tells staff where to find books and the optimal order in which to pick them. Once gathered, requests are boxed in the processing area and loaded onto vans for delivery. At their destination libraries, deliveries are scanned in and returns loaded back onto the van. Efficiency is key, because book delivery is a vital part of Reader Services at the Bodleian Library. Boyd told us that e-books aren’t threatening to close libraries — in fact, the Bodleian is buying more physical books than ever.
So how do you store 12.5 million books — and not only books, but maps, manuscripts, microfilms, periodicals and newspapers too? By 2009, the New Bodleian (which had 11 floors of space) as well as facilities at Nuneham Courtenay and a salt mine in Cheshire (yes, really) were at capacity. Costing approximately £25 million, and involving the biggest book-move in the Bodleian’s history (6.5 million items!), the BSF needed some serious storage. As we entered the main warehouse, it became clear that they really pulled it off.
The BSF is huge. Its shelves are 11 metres high and over 70 metres long. Before the automatic lights kick in, the narrow aisles seem to converge into darkness. We wore high-visibility jackets to alert staff driving the book-retrieval vehicles to our presence. A cross between a cherry-picker and a forklift, these vehicles are configured to fit exactly between the shelves, allowing staff to retrieve an impressive average of one book per minute. Although I personally wouldn’t like to be 11 metres up in the air, Boyd assured us it’s a very safe operation!
During downtime, staff at the BSF conduct stock-takes and look for ways to consolidate and optimise the available space. For us trainees, Boyd’s most important lesson was that future-ready libraries must be logistically and spatially adaptable:
Low-use books kept in storage might suddenly become grow in demand and require relocation ‘on-site’, or vice-versa;
Renovation or building work might require temporary storage (in fact, the BSF currently holds several thousand volumes from Cambridge), so could your facility accommodate for that?
Existing space can always be reconfigured to meet new challenges and needs;
Since an off-site facility means books always moving around, could it also offer research facilities? Some libraries are considering specialised reading rooms to avoid transit for fragile or valuable material.
Perhaps most importantly, as the current crisis forces libraries everywhere to re-imagine services, the BSF’s dual role in storage and logistics brings it to the fore of the Bodleian Libraries’ updated Scan & Deliver service. Pre-lockdown, photocopies of material in storage were useful for scholars who could not visit a library; in our cautious post-lockdown world, it’s clear that the ability to provide resources remotely will be vital.
All of this is a far cry from what the librarians of yore imagined. As a trainee at the Weston Library, I was aware of the building’s history as the old stack, and of the early-century conveyor belt that famously transported books underneath Broad Street to the Old Bodleian. I wondered how books were kept before it was built, and the archives obliged…
A Brief History of Space
In 1908, the incumbent Bodley’s Librarian, E. W. B. Nicholson, made a public plea to save the Proscholium from a grim fate as a glorified bike shed. The idea is barely conceivable to us now: the Proscholium, refurbished in 2009, has become a central hub for students and tourists alike. But in Nicholson’s day the Library was short on space, and every available nook was in danger of being turned into storage. The acquisition of the entire Old Bodleian quadrangle by 1859 (which had, according to Thomas Bodley’s vision, housed examination and teaching rooms) and the Radcliffe Camera in 1860 couldn’t match the rapid growth of the collections. In 1909, work began on the Underground Bookstore beneath the Radcliffe Camera (which now houses the Gladstone Link), the Library’s first purpose-built storage solution. At the time, it was the largest bookstore of its kind in the world. The Oxford Chronicle for 29th November 1912 recorded the opening speech of Nicholson’s successor, Falconer Madan, who even at that moment was conceptualising more storage:
‘Then will be the time for the engineers to set to work burrowing on the other side of the Camera, so that another quarter of a century’s growth may be provided for by a second subterranean chamber’.
The prophetic Madan foresaw that ‘within fifty years every college and institution will have a receptacle for its stores beneath its front quadrangle’ — in recent years, St John’s, Magdalen, and the Queen’s College have all completed very similar projects. What’s also interesting about Madan’s speech is the admission that even the Bookstore represented borrowed time. Sure enough, within that quarter of a century, designs were drawn up for another new storage facility that would provide some respite for the Bodleian’s beleaguered librarians and cataloguers. Giles Gilbert Scott’s design for the New Bodleian won him the contract, but here are a few proposals from the archives that didn’t make the cut:
One particularly dreadful design would have seen the Old Bodleian’s Quadrangle roofed over and the resulting central compartment turned into stacks. Although in concept this isn’t too far removed from the New Bodleian, I’m sure we’re all glad it was rejected…!
In 1602, Thomas Bodley could not ‘rest as yet satisfied’ with the small number of books in his new Library, but predicted correctly that an influx of donations could only influence more. Centuries on, and the Bodleian has benefited from enormous donations, greatly increased buying power, and the strengthening of its historical legal deposit. It’s anticipated that the Bodleian Storage Facility will get an extension within the near future, as more and more items pour in. A modern history of the Bodleian, then, is one of exponential growth — 220,000 printed books in 1849; one million books in 1914; some 12 million today — and a far cry from the modest 2,500 tomes that once comprised Duke Humfrey’s Library.
On 20th November 2019, the graduate trainees attended a session on E Developments at the University of Oxford’s Libraries. The first talk was given by Sally Rumsey, Head of Scholarly Communication and Data Management. She covered open access regarding academic research, which was featured in a blog post last week. The second talk was given by Michael Popham, and was all about digital developments at the Bodleian libraries.
When I first told my family and friends that I had got a job as a trainee in an academic library for a year, most of them were very supportive and happy for me. Others, not so. The most frequent comments I received was…
‘Do we still need physical books when everything is online?’
As ignorant as that comment seems, the people that said it did have a point. If you have a browse on Solo or any other academic catalogue, many resources have been digitized and are available electronically. My former university’s library advertised its resources available online with posters describing how their collections of physical books was ‘only the tip of the iceberg’. Their E resources appeared to be vast and unlimited in comparison to their smaller, physical book collections.
The physical books are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to academic libraries!
Michael Popham, head of Digital Collections and Preservation, opened his talk discussing how digital libraries are the future. The Bodleian already has a Digital Library. At the moment, the library is purely online, where it pulls all digital collections into one discovery platform. However, Michael suggested how a digital library could become a physical space. It is interesting to think of how this space would look. Would a digital library be a place to study with a few more PCs than a regular library? Michael suggested that the word ‘digital’ implies that the library would be expected to be open 24/7. Anything digital, after all, should be instantly usable and accessible even on Christmas Day! A digital library would contain services and tools to support discovery, access, and reuse of digital content.
So if digital libraries are the future, will we now see less of the printed book? Maybe, but not at such a fast rate as one would expect. There are many issues with digitization and for the Bodleian Libraries, the main problem is that digitization lacks consistency. This is because the university currently relies on grants and funding, in order for projects to go ahead. Books which are earmarked for projects tend to be strongly visual in nature, as digital collections are driven by what the team receives funding for. According to Michael, the funding bodies and even the team behind the digitization process often have an agenda which affects how the digitized books are presented. There could be more of a focus to digitize certain aspects of manuscripts and subconsciously ignoring other areas of interest. These issues are difficult to address, as accessing funds is integral to enable a digitization project.
The Bodleian was the first outside of the US to join the Google Books Partner Scholarship. It was a huge project which aimed to digitize the library’s vast collection of non-copyright material. Google digitized books at an incredible rate. Overall, 300’000 works were digitized, including board games, binding designs, museum objects, CDs, and tapes! However, there were many cases of books which had not been moved or opened in over 150 years, being unable to fit on their previous shelves. During the digitization process, these books had expanded, leading to a huge pile up when it came to reshelving. Books involved in digitization projects are often older and rare manuscripts, so they require further special handling and conditions which affect the cost of projects. In order to digitise such material, the Bodleian uses special scanning machines. The cradle of these machines uses a vacuum which gently sucks the pages down. These machines are certainly cool, but are not without their high financial cost.
Digitization isn’t just for old manuscripts either. The Bodleian Electronic Archives and Manuscripts (BEAM) is a digital repository service which manages born-digital archive and manuscripts. The service was established as the Bodleian was receiving an ever-increasing amount of digital material. This material can come in the form of whole computers, disks and other types of external media. This brings the future of digitization into a new light. How do we process information which is already digital? The files stored on devices may appear in older file formats with no equivalent paper form. BEAM’s existence is integral as it allows the Bodleian to adapt to the digital age. Electronic legal depositories are important as in 2003, the revised Copyright Act of 2003 recognised that much of the nation’s published output in digital form was being lost. The Legal Deposit Libraries (Non-print) Regulations 2013 was passed to address this. Any digital publication is covered under the Regulations including CD-Roms, works published online that are issued from a UK domain, and items on microfilm. The British Library and the National Libraries of Wales and Scotland collect the material on behalf of all Legal Deposit Libraries. Bodleian readers can access these resources using the British Library’s digital system. Restrictions do apply, as these resources will often display an amber dot next to it on Solo. This indicates that the digital resource can only be accessed on a Bodleian terminal. These restrictions are often annoying for readers who may have to patiently wait their turn to view a resource, as the system will only allow one viewing at a time. However, preservation of digital material is essential to prevent future loss.
Preserving digital material is essential
So is digital preservation the future for the Bodleian? It certainly seems so, but the scale of digitization is not as rapid as one may think. There are 13.2 million printed items at the Bodleian libraries, with only half a million digitized. Overall, that is only 3-4% of all collections. Rare manuscripts are being digitized, but that does not mean they are instantly thrown away! They are reshelved and preserved for future generations to enjoy. So, the printed book isn’t going anywhere. The digital age also poses new problems for digitization, in that digital resources can easily disappear if technology does not exist to access them.
E Developments at the Bodleian appear to be concentrated on adapting to the rise of the internet, either by ensuring that good quality research is freely available and that manuscripts and digital records continue to be digitally preserved. One may say that the concept of libraries is being reinvented. Information does not need to exist physically in order for there to be a need to organise, maintain, and preserve it. Libraries are no longer necessarily physical spaces, they can be virtual ones which are easily and freely accessible. And that certainly makes for an exciting future. Many thanks to Michael Popham; this post is based on his original and fascinating talk.
For More Information:
To see the Digital Bodleian for yourself: https://digital.bodleian.ox.ac.uk/
For more information on BEAM: https://www.bodleian.ox.ac.uk/beam
Outside our organised training programme, we graduate trainees also have access to the wide variety of staff development courses on offer. At the beginning of November, a few of us opted to go on a training session on Copyright law and issues. This full day of training was a great insight into the complexities of copyright law, covering what copyright is, the legislation surrounding it and various licenses that cover copyright. We (Rhiannon P and Rhiannon H) were tasked with writing this blog post, and we decided to not only give an overview of what we learnt, but how we are using the training in our day-to-day work at the Bodleian Law Library and the Old Bodleian, respectively.
The first thing that was made clear to us was that copyright is an incredibly multifaceted and complicated subject, especially in the context of academia. This was not an exaggeration as this full day of training felt as if it was only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to what you can and cannot do according to copyright law. However, I did feel that when I applied the training to the work I do in the Law Bod, which is mostly scanning and uploading chapters or articles online to Weblearn or ORLO for students, it was a perfectly reasonable introduction.
Copyright is one of five Intellectual Property Rights, with the other four being patents, trademarks, designs and confidence, and is governed as such. Most intellectual property has some copyright belonging to someone, but depending on the context depends on who owns the copyright and how long the work stays in copyright for. For example, copyright does not cover facts or ideas, only what has been expressed in a material form. One piece of material may contain more than one copyright. For example, a piece of music may have one copyright attached to the music itself, and one attached to the lyrics, and these could belong to two separate people. On the topic of ownership: although this is the case more often than not, the author of the work may not always own the copyright. For example, if the author produced the work in their capacity as an employee, then their employer is the first owner of the copyright for that piece of work.
The training also introduced us to a subsection of UK copyright called Crown Copyright that has different requirements for the ownership, transference and the duration of copyright. The legislation summarises Crown Copyright as ‘where a work is made by Her Majesty or by an officer or servant of the Crown in the course of his duties’ (Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988 Chapter X ss 163). Luckily for us, we were provided on the training course with two handy charts depicting every possible outcome regarding the duration of copyright for both Crown and non-Crown copyrighted materials.
One of the main questions to ask when using copyrighted material is this: is the use you’ve made of the material be construed as fair to the copyright holder? Usually, using a substantial part of someone else’s work to make money or otherwise profit is considered unfair. However, when it comes to non-commercial usage, there are various exceptions and exemptions to the vast and complex system of rules. These come under the heading of ‘fair dealing’.
The most important of these fair dealing exceptions in an academic library context is the educational usage exemption. This is separate from a CLA (Copyright Licensing Agency) licence, and does not require reporting to an authority. It allows students to copy ‘a reasonable proportion’ of a text for educational purposes. This is usually interpreted to mean up to 5% of a text, or else one chapter or article, whichever is greater. Things get tricky with some items (and resources like databases), since 5% of a five page pamphlet or a single photograph probably can’t be considered ‘a reasonable proportion’ – but how much should be allowed, in that case?
Judging this can be difficult, but this course thankfully did provide some clarity on an issue that we have been dealing with at the Old Bodleian Library quite often: copying material from online databases. Databases have their own right which lasts for fifteen years, but the course confirmed that material contained within them can still be copied in the usual way using the educational exemption or the CLA licence.
‘A reasonable proportion’ of all the material held within a database is of course potentially a much larger amount of material than would normally be available to be copied, but it is safest to stick to the one chapter or article rule wherever possible! It is also important to remember that databases allow access only to members of the institution, so it may not be appropriate to offer scans to non-members. This information has really helped us on a day-to-day basis at the Old Bodleian, when dealing with requests from University and Library members to provide scans of material from online databases, such as a recent request for copies of letters from The Times digital archive.
As part of my work at the Law Bod, I often operate under the CLA licence that we hold and it was great to gain a more in depth knowledge of how this works. As a higher education institute, the University of Oxford also holds an HE licence from the Copyright Licencing Agency (or CLA) which alongside the legislation allows us to scan or copy up to 10% or a full chapter or article of any published edition. We also have to keep a record of the scans we make using this licence to show the CLA when they come knocking at our door to make sure we have complied with the licence. I know in the Law Bod we keep a spreadsheet of the scans we make and as far as I am aware, I have not yet forgotten to record a scan!
Ultimately, we all have a responsibility to make sure that we’re abiding by copyright law in our academic libraries, and not just because of potential legal repercussions! It’s especially important because the Bodleian is a Legal Deposit Library, which is entitled to a copy of every book published in the UK and Ireland, in order to preserve books for the future. It’s our job to protect the items in our collections, and that includes respecting the rights of authors and copyright holders, while also making sure that we can serve our readers and help them to get the most from the libraries. This course was a necessarily short, but lucid and practical, introduction to the many issues that arise in academic libraries regarding copyright.