This is Part III of our four-part series on our interview with Richard Ovenden.
For more background information on who Richard Ovenden is and how he came to be Bodley’s Librarian please see Part I.
For information about how libraries and the Bodleian itself aim to tackle issues of accessibility, please see Part II.
For a look at how various libraries are able to collaborate and serve their individual communities, please see Part IV.
We’ve previously discussed Richard’s own career in librarianship and the impact of mentors and varied experience on his career trajectory. We’ve also talked about issues of diversity in librarianship and how the Bodleian aims to address these. This week, we will be addressing the duty and future of libraries and archives especially with regards to the digital age. We’ll look at the threat posed by wealthy individuals to libraries, information and public knowledge, and the importance of archiving and preserving information found online.
We spoke with Richard Ovenden about the problems created by social media, which allows individuals to share, edit or delete a wealth of information at just the tap of a button. Indeed, Richard raised the example of Donald Trump: “he didn’t need a whole army of PR people, he just needed a phone and a Twitter account to dominate global politics through that media. Richard highlighted the extent of Trump’s engagement with social media, and his ability to edit or remove information from public knowledge: “He tweeted 26 thousand times in his presidency, but he deleted 1300 tweets shortly after sending them – or someone in his office did”. Richard Ovenden compares Trump’s actions with Elon Musk, a more recent example of a figure able to change a platform of public knowledge “at a stroke” when “he took over Twitter” last year. As a result, developing archival strategies to capture and preserve the digital history left by “prominent individuals in public life” on social media, websites and other online platforms “in case it disappears”, is “the kind of thing we need to engage in across libraries” as “part of our democratic function”, according to Richard Ovenden. Richard emphasises that “we have to do more in the digital sphere, particularly as more knowledge is created in digital formats”.
“We have to do more in the digital sphere, particularly as more knowledge is created in digital formats”
One group aiming to preserve information shared online, Richard points out, is “an activist archivist group” who “set up an automatic screenshotting for all of his [Trump’s] Twitter history to capture all of his deleted tweets and pass them to the National Archives for the Trump presidency”. Richard explains that the Bodleian is aiming to do something similar: “At this very moment, we’re figuring out an archival strategy for the Twitter profiles of the Bodleian Library, various University Twitter feeds, prominent people in the University who use Twitter as a platform for communication [and] various prominent individuals in public life”. Last October, the trainees had the opportunity to attend the UK Web Archive Conference with talks about the Archive of Tomorrow Project, the Queen Elizabeth Platinum Jubilee Collection, the Climate Change Collection and many more, exploring ways in which online information has successfully been picked, collected and preserved by members of libraries and archives across the UK. Attending the UKWA Conference, coupled with listening to Richard Ovenden speak about archival strategies, has highlighted the positive effects of libraries and archives working together on preserving information found online.
However, whilst it was important to Richard that we dispel the myth of libraries as nothing more than big old buildings full of books, “we can’t not do all the stuff in the physical world that we’re already doing.” The need for the physical space still exists, “look at people walking into the Bodleian … it’s incredibly busy”. The buildings themselves are still being used as “a place for convening – a knowledge space. So, we need to do both of these things and that’s one of our biggest challenges.” Unfortunately for libraries “it’s not an either-or situation.” Resources need to be expended both on maintaining our physical presence and expanding our digital one.
But with all these demands pulling on their resources, it doesn’t surprise anyone to learn that Richard believes “libraries are under threat”. The danger is that the gap that libraries are currently doing their best to try and fill in the digital sphere is being taken up by “big tech companies”. Richard’s fear is that the “knowledge sphere becomes increasingly commercialised – and public knowledge is the product of that commercial entity”. Not only are technology companies increasingly making profits off of public knowledge, they’re additionally taking potential revenue away from key public services like libraries. Richard argues for an “attack on the profits of the big tech companies to come back to the library sphere”. As far as he’s concerned, “some of that [money] needs to be ploughed back into the true knowledge sphere: libraries and archives”
Not all this is the fault of big tech companies, however, librarians themselves share some of the blame. “Libraries tend to be very good at their customer relations … But we’ve been less good I think at working with our clients, and we have just tended to take things on the chin”. This willingness to pull-through means that as a sector, libraries have sometimes been overlooked, particularly since “other parts of the society have been much more aggressive about defending their patch.” Of course, fighting for proper funding is never easy, “it’s very difficult, particularly at times … when the budgets are under pressure.” When asked which key areas Richard feels we need to be most vocal in as an industry, the answer is quick: “Library funding. Public libraries. School libraries.” However, he has got plans in place at the Bodleian to ensure that our collections will be available for generations to come, regardless of the willingness of other people to recognise the importance of libraries. We need to be “trying to diversify our audience and diversify our income streams – like drinking coffee and eating cake,” he gives a playful nod to the hot drinks and sweet treats sitting on the table in front of us, “the profits of which get ploughed back to the Bodleian bottom-line.”
But even with these new income streams in place, work still needs to be done on ensuring libraries maintain their relevance. Richard believes there are a “senior echelon of decision makers” who “benefitted from libraries when they were young but then have stopped and then moved and accessed things online and don’t think that libraries are important.” This issue is not unique to high-level decision-makers. “Even in this University when I talk to certain colleagues … some think ‘Oh, well I haven’t walked into a library for 20 years, I get everything online’ as if that has got nothing to do with the Bodleian.” Unfortunately, as Richard points out, “some of that misconception is actually our fault because we have not done enough advocacy in the past decades. Particularly, with communities [such as] the lab-based sciences … where the library has come to them rather than them going to the library.” Whilst this is fantastic in terms of providing an excellent service to our users, we are seeing ramifications in the way that libraries are perceived as a dying industry, when in fact we’re an industry in the midst of radical change. Richard describes this birth of the digital information age as “the revolution that happened 25 years ago”. However, he notes that “our predecessors at that time did not do enough to build those connections with those communities.” So today, those who benefit most from our services are often those who are least aware of them.
“We need to be more assertive. Perhaps even aggressive, about the work that we do and the difference that we make”
The issue with this lies not only in funding, but also in a fundamental understanding of the way libraries work. “[A]s school libraries become defunded, the danger is that we end up with universities with plenty of students who have no experience being in libraries. Particularly, actually, middle-class students whose parents can afford books and things.” Whereas previously this might have been one of the demographics where you’d expect to see a high level of understanding of libraries and the services they provide, today things look very different. But although the issues facing libraries today are myriad and complex, Richard sees one clear solution that comes up time and again. “We need to be more assertive. Perhaps even aggressive, about the work that we do and the difference that we make.” He believes the onus is on us as librarians to provide the rallying cry and make people aware of the value of our services. “We need to be more self-confident about the role that we play in society,” and “we need to engage more in the policy sphere, in the political sphere to argue the case. And to form allies and to be more public about it.” This advocacy needs to be done, “at all levels of society – both age and class and so on.” Without greater societal support libraries won’t be able to emerge out the other side of the digital age and continue their important work of preserving and protecting knowledge for generations to come.