Our Day Out: The Bodleian Storage Facility

By Sarah Arkle (English Faculty Library) and Hannah Hickman (History Faculty Library)

The trainees were recently packed onto a small coach and driven out to Swindon to visit the Bodleian Library’s storage facility (or the BSF, to those in the know). The BSF is an enormous warehouse, opened in 2010 to house some of the ever-expanding collections of the Bodleian Libraries. Our visit comprised of a talk about the history and operation of the facility, followed by a very impressive tour.

Boyd Rodger, the Logistics Manager, welcomed us warmly (and instantly won a place in our hearts by offering tea, coffee and biscuits). It was under his direction that the BSF project came together. Although to us the BSF certainly seemed a new and exciting way to approach library stores, Boyd contextualised it as the latest in a series of innovations that define the history of the Bodleian – a history marked by the crisis of expansion. Here’s a quick run-through:

  • 1300s: Church of St Mary is the first site to hold collections associated with the university
  • 1487: Duke Humfrey’s Library is built following a donation of manuscripts from the brother of Henry IV – too generous a gift to turn down, too large to be held in the church. DH was extended twice, in 1612 and 1637, to build the Arts End and Selden End
  • 1613-1620: Old Library built around DH
  • [1749: Radcliffe Camera is opened, intending to house independent science and medical library]
  • 1860: Radcliffe Camera taken over by the hungry, hungry Bodleian
  • 1908-1912: Underground storage built in Radcliffe Square, which is now the Gladstone Link reading room
  • 1937: Work begins on the New Library, but just as it reaches completion, war breaks out and the site is used as a military hospital
  • 1946: The New Library returns to the hands of the Bodleian and is opened to readers – it has recently been opened again, this time as the Weston Library, home of the Bodleian special collections and rare books
  • 1975: The first Bodleian storage outside of Oxford is built at Nuneham Courtenay, a small town eight miles away
  • 2003: Nuneham Courtenay site is full (is anyone surprised by this point?), so the Bodleian uses salt mines in Cheshire as a temporary location while plans for a mega-storage site are processed
  • 2010: BSF opens! Low use items are transferred from the various different storage sites
  • ????: BSF 2.0…

At first, the question of new storage sites only cropped up every century or so, but publishing rates (and the consequent acquisitions and legal deposits) have continued to soar since the nineteenth century. Boyd Rodger reckons that it is unlikely that digital media will have an impact any time soon – the growing scale of operations at the BSF indicates that print is in more demand than ever. The BSF was built with 20 years room for expansion based on its current needs… Fortunately, some clever bean thought about this and the Bodleian owns the entire 17 acre site with plenty of room to expand the warehouse in the future.


Entering the facility proper, we were greeted by the enormous backlog of returned materials needing to be scanned back – about a week’s worth of returns. It really helped us understand the sheer volume of work done at the BSF. We moved on into the warehouse itself. Our Law Bod trainee, Mandi said, “It really impressed me… in terms of scale (those shelves were so high! It actually hurt my neck to look all the way up),” which is certainly an accurate assessment. At 30 feet high they were an enormous sight to behold. I’m not even sure this picture does it justice.


But it wasn’t only the height that was impressive – it was also the depth of the warehouse. The shelves are incredibly long, to the extent that they look a bit like a set from a sci-fi or horror film. Although that doesn’t seem to put off our Codrington Library trainee, Micha, who said she’d “happily set up a tent between those shelves.” The place was indeed very atmospheric!


We had the storage system explained to us, as books are shelved in a different manner to a traditional library. Duncan, the Bodleian trainee, noted, “It didn’t really feel that tied to libraries,” as it very much gave the impression of being a smoothly operated logistics facility. Just describing it as a ‘storage facility’ I feel undermines how impressive the whole thing really is, especially when you consider that they pick up one book per minute on their selection rounds. Micha thought, “the efficiency was incredibly impressive…the amount of organisation that must go into the systems that allow you to retrieve one book a minute from an 8million book stack must be incredibly complex.” Furthermore, our Archives trainee, Marta, commented that, “it’s clearly quite an innovative solution and a state-of-the-art facility and it was nice to see that in Oxford which may seem a bit set in its ways sometimes.” Innovative indeed – I don’t think any of our cohort left the facility not feeling a little awestruck at the size and complexity of things!


We were taken up to the top of the shelves – 30 feet off the ground! – which made for some great photo opportunities when half of us were up there and half were on the ground.


One floor up…


Five floors up!

On the whole, the visit was great – not only was it a lot of fun to go on a trainee day trip, it was really interesting to get a better overview picture of the book delivery process. What we learned on the visit will definitely be helpful back at our various library sites, especially when dealing with reader enquiries about BSF books. It’s truly incredible that you can order a book the morning and by the afternoon, it will have been processed, picked by a member of staff, travelled an hour to Oxford, and made its way to the requested reading room – I think we all left with a real appreciation of the hard work of the BSF staff. Lydia, our Sackler trainee, pointed out that the “staff were incredibly friendly and welcoming,” and we would very much like to thank them for such an enjoyable visit!

Jamie, the trainee in the Sainsbury Library at the Said Business School summed up our feelings succinctly, when he said “I just thought it was really cool, especially the sheer volume of books” –  hardly a surprising reaction to letting a bunch of trainee librarians loose in a warehouse storing millions of items.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.