Opening Doors: Accessibility and Diversity in Libraries

This is Part II 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 a discussion of the role of libraries moving forward into the digital age, please see Part III.
For a look at how various libraries are able to collaborate and serve their individual communities, please see Part IV.


Last time we spoke about Richard’s early career and how he was supported by mentors and colleagues as well as having a solid grounding in a variety of different libraries and library jobs. This time we focus more on one of the biggest issues facing librarianship as a career: accessibility.

Accessibility issues are a wide topic for discussion, encompassing not just physical accessibility of, in many cases, listed buildings, but also the accessibility of the profession to people who are members of certain marginalised groups. “If you look at the make-up of the Bodleian staff it doesn’t reflect society as a whole.” Richard acknowledges. For him part of this issue is “how can we change that when – the make-up, particularly when you go up the organisational structure it’s increasingly white.” And race isn’t the only issue, “there are other forms of diversity that are slightly better represented but still not adequately represented.” One of the more recent comprehensive surveys of the LARKIM (Libraries, Archives, Knowledge and Information Management) industry backs this up. It found that the lack of ethnic diversity within the profession is pronounced and whilst we are a female dominated profession, there is still a significant gender pay gap.

“This is one of the major issues for our industry at the moment.”

A statue of a man standing on a dais between two columns. There is pigeon mesh stretched in front of the statue and windows on either side.
The controversial statue of Cecil Rhodes which still stands atop Oriel College

For Richard Ovenden, accessibility is “one of the major issues for 
our  industry at the moment.” An issue that he acknowledges is not unique. “We share that across the museums and the cultural and scientific collections at Oxford. Particularly thinking about Oxford as an institution that has been … very implicated in empire and all of what that entails.”  It’s a legacy that will take more than a few years to undo, but the Bodleian is in the process of addressing at least some of the issues it caused. This impetus for change is coming from the very top. Richard mentions a “Bodleian strategy to address diversity and equality” and looking at the Bodleian Libraries Strategy for 2022-2027  you can see that the drive to improve diversity runs throughout the objectives laid out, as well as being explicitly stated as one of the core Guiding Principles in delivering the strategy.

Pre-dating this strategy, however, is an ongoing project called ‘We are our history’. The project involves several teams working on a variety of key issues related to improving diversity. One aspect of this is metadata, or the information we keep about the items in our collection. This can range from something as simple as the title and author of a work to descriptions of the item, its provenance or even how and when it was printed. With so much information to consider there are many ways in which we need to pay mind to the language we’re using and how we’re using it. As Richard puts it: “is our metadata fit for purpose, and how do we change that?

Another aspect that Richard mentions is “How do we diversify the collecting of books?” The Bodleian libraries are of course one of six legal deposit libraries in the UK, meaning that we are entitled to a copy of every book published here. But as Richard points out, “we’re one of the great libraries for the study of Sub-Saharan Africa – are we buying books from African publishers, are we supporting the book trade in Africa? Or are we just buying books because it’s easier and cheaper to do it from library suppliers in the UK?” Being aware of where we source our collections and the potential biases that might entail is crucial to ensuring we have a strong and diverse body of knowledge available to our readers.

A large black sign lists the exhibition title. Attached to it is a strip of Union Jack bunting that connect to one of the exhibits. There is a display case on the wall behind with books and labels and a small interactive screen tucked next to the entrance sign.
Part of the “These Things Matter” Exhibition at the Weston Library

But it’s important also to consider how we present that knowledge to the wider public, to “look at our exhibitions” as Richard explains. We’re sat with him in the main hall of the Weston library and he gestures behind him, “as you can see here at the moment”. Currently the newest exhibition at the Weston is ‘These Things Matter’, a fantastic collaboration between the Museum of Colour, the Bodleian, and Fusion Arts. The exhibition examines items from the Bodleian’s collection that illustrate the horrific legacy of colonialism and slavery, and invites seven artists to interpret and respond to the material in a variety of mediums, including sound, art installations and digital displays.

Beyond even the collections, however, we also need to think about our staff. Richard points out that biases can creep in “even in how we advertise our jobs”. He wants to strive for job postings that are “easy for people who might not have thought about working at the Bodleian – from communities who do not usually send their members to work in university libraries.” Unless we are able to employ a diverse staff, these projects become more difficult to carry out, and less impactful.

It’s got to be part of our everyday business”

Whilst all these initiatives under the ‘We are our history’ project are fundamental to addressing these issues of accessibility, Richard warns against becoming too complacent. “Funding has allowed us to get a project manager to help co-ordinate that but really, it’s for my senior colleagues in the library to take the responsibility for that. So, it can’t just stop when the funding for the project has run out. It’s got to be part of our everyday business.” Until we make accessibility and diversity as intrinsic to libraries as the books themselves we cannot really say we have made true progress. And as Richard rightly points out, “that project’s really looking most at race and ethnicity but there’s also gender, equality, sexuality, even disability to think about.” Libraries are meant to protect and preserve information to be accessed by everybody, and unless we consider the different needs of some of the myriad groups who, arguably have greater reason than many to make use of our services, we’re falling short of the basic requirements of the profession.

Opening Doors: The Journey to Bodley’s Librarian

OPENING DOORS WITH RICHARD OVENDEN BLOG SERIES:

Richard Ovenden is the Bodleian’s 25th Librarian and has been in this position since 2014. In addition to being Bodley’s Librarian, Richard holds several professional roles including Head of Gardens, Libraries & Museums, President of the Digital Preservation Coalition, Director of the Bodleian’s Centre for the Study of the Book, Board Member of the Council on Library and Information Resources as well as a Member of The Academic Advisory Board at Deutsches Literaturarchiv [1]. All in all, a very busy man!

Richard has delivered numerous talks about the delivery of e-content by libraries in the UK and the US, the role of libraries and archives, and the 2018 Tolkien: Maker of Middle Earth exhibition at the Weston [2]. He has also written a number of articles, essays, research reports, and is the author of ‘Burning the Books: A History of Knowledge Under Attack’ [3], which was shortlisted for the 2021 Wolfson History Prize.

Last year a few of us trainees had the very exciting opportunity to speak with Richard Ovenden at the Weston Café over tea (and delicious cakes). Throughout the next few weeks, we will be sharing what we discussed in a series of blog posts, beginning with Richard Ovenden’s journey to Bodley’s Librarian – his interest in librarianship and where it came from

[1] https://www.bodleian.ox.ac.uk/about/media/richard-ovenden-head-of-glam

[2] https://solo.bodleian.ox.ac.uk/permalink/f/n28kah/oxfaleph021143627

[3] https://www.balliol.ox.ac.uk/richard-ovenden-0


Opening Doors: The Journey to Bodley’s Librarian

This is Part I of our four-part series on our interview with Richard Ovenden.
For information about how libraries and the Bodleian itself aim to tackle issues of accessibility, please see Part II.
For a discussion of the role of libraries moving forward into the digital age, please see Part III.
For a look at how various libraries are able to collaborate and serve their individual communities, please see Part IV.


After settling down with our beverages and cakes, we asked Richard how his journey into libraries began.

A red brock building sits at the corner of two streets. It has large paned windows on three floors and the college crest carved in stone on the ground floor. Further terraced houses continue up a slight hill to the right along a tarmacked road with a few braches of a tree poking out from the far right. To the left a cobbled road continues down perpendicular to the other.
St Chad’s College Durham, where Richard Ovenden began his library career

For him, it started early, “being taken to my public library with my mum when I was about three. So, borrowing books from one of my public libraries, and then, when I was a teenager, going by myself and reading.” This kind of memory may be familiar to many, but over the years, Richard made the change from reader to staff member after becoming a student librarian at his college library in Durham. The role was fairly typical, “mainly tidying – nothing very exciting”. But it was in his second year there when an opportunity arose that seems to have lit a spark in the young Richard Ovenden. The construction of a new college bar meant that he was offered the chance to move the secondary sequence “which was basically a basement room full of mouldering books” and told that if he stayed over the summer holidays he would be paid for his trouble. As Richard recalls, “this was great. I was the first from my family to go to university so my parents thought this was great as I was being paid.

 

“For the first time, I could see myself doing a job.”

Whilst working on this book move, Richard came across some early books, “15th century things”. Not knowing what to do with them he went over to the University Library “to ask someone some advice – literally walking up to the enquiry desk”.  The staff there “pointed to this door that had a brass plaque on it, which said: ‘Keeper of Rare Books’, which I thought was quite cool. There was a wonderful holder of the office called Beth Rainey, and she was incredibly kind and generous and patient and helpful, and I thought – wow, this is really good. For the first time, I could see myself doing a job.” After this revelation, he then stayed on as a trainee librarian at Durham with three others. “We moved around different departments of the university library and then went to library school”. For Richard, the event that really shaped his future in libraries “was really that moment – becoming a student librarian and meeting lots of serious professional librarians.

After leaving the traineeship at Durham, Richard’s career progressed through a number of library jobs. Notably, at one point he became a member of what is now ‘The Rare Book and Special Collections Group of CILIP’ a title equally as impressive to impressionable young graduate trainees as the grand ‘Keeper of Rare Books’ must have been to Richard. But through all of his inspiring career moves, he credits his colleagues as being key mentors who were instrumental in his path towards becoming Bodley’s Librarian.

Whilst he was a member of the special collections group at CILIP, the chair of that same committee, Barry Bloomfield, “was a very senior figure in librarianship. He was just, again, very kind and helpful.” Another key figure in Richard’s early career was Ian Mowat, Chief Librarian at Edinburgh University Library. “He was a fantastic leader,” Richard reminisced. “Just working with him for four years, I learnt a huge amount. Not that he taught me but just watching him – I absorbed it.” After Ian Mowat died young, Richard felt the need to move on. “I couldn’t think of staying there and not working with him. So, I came to Oxford.” Whilst there Richard had the opportunity to work under his two predecessors in the role of Bodley’s Librarian. First was Reg Carr, who was instrumental in the integration of the departmental libraries at the Bodleian. Richard recalls that he “was also very involved in digital things and JISC – in the old days of JISC. So, he was great.” Then Richard’s direct predecessor Sarah Thomaswas a very different character, and I learnt a huge amount from her – I worked very closely with her. So, that was like a masterclass.

“The variety of libraries continues to be a source of joy and wonder.”

Part of the strength of Richard’s career history is not only in the calibre of colleagues he has had the pleasure of working with

A large Elizabethan house with grey stone walls and a red tiled roof sits in golden afternoon sunlight. The lawns surrounding the house are green and dotted with snowdrops.
Chawton House, containing a library focussed on early women writers thanks to its connection with Jane Austen

over the years, but also the sheer variety of roles he has undertaken. In Richard’s own words, “the older I get, and the more I look across the profession, I think the variety of libraries continues to be a source of joy and wonder.” Obviously he has a strong background in academic libraries, and he admits, “I’ve worked in university libraries most of my career” but as mentioned above he also has experience “in National Libraries and in parliamentary libraries” as well as being “involved in various ways with other special libraries as a trustee, like at the Chawton House Library which is for Rural Studies and has rural literature.

Richard’s opinion is that “it’s good to be involved with all those different aspects because there are commonalities between them all, but their variety is partly what makes life interesting.” Beyond just keeping the spice in life however, he also makes the point that “they all serve their communities differently,” a sentiment which rings true for many of us in the library world.

We finished our interview by asking Richard Ovenden if he had any final pieces of advice for those looking to pursue a career in Librarianship. Ever the generous boss, he gave us two: Firstly, “just try and visit and talk to as many libraries and archives as possible. Just seeing the work of a diverse range and talking to professionals of a diverse range is just really good.” And finally, “your network – your own network. My network has in the past and continues to sustain me in different ways. I utilise it to ask questions and see who I can get to come and speak and see who I can connect my new colleague with to help him or her and the problem that they’re trying to solve. So that network that you’re building now – think about it as you are doing it. Collect people’s business cards, capture their profiles in your contacts lists, follow them on social media, go on LinkedIn – it’s really, really important. Nurture it and curate it and stay in touch with each other.”

Our hope is that the advice and information provided by this blog will help those of you out there who are also interested in pursuing a career in Librarianship and can serve in some small way to kickstart your own network of information and contacts. Anyone who is interested in connecting with other people at the beginning of a career in Libraries should check out the ECLAIR (Early Career Library & Information Resource) Community.

 

Promoting an Exhibition

One of the exciting projects we can get involved in as trainees is preparing for and promoting library exhibitions, whether open to the public or exclusively to university staff and students. For LGBT+ History Month, New College Library will be putting on an exhibition on Queer Love & Literature in our collections on 25th February. We have a display case in the main library for small, longer-term exhibitions of about ten items, accessible to college members only. However, this is not suitable for large exhibitions like this one. We therefore book a room in college with enough space for long tables, which also allows us to open our exhibitions to the public. The downside is the room is not secure enough to leave any of our rare books and manuscripts overnight, therefore our large exhibitions are open for one day and one day only! This involves a lot of preparation to make sure we can set up and take down the exhibition as quickly and securely as possible on the day.

Exhibition in Lecture Room 4

 

However, without people coming to see our wonderful collections, all our preparation would be in vain. For this exhibition, we’ve used some successful promotion tactics from our previous exhibitions as well as some new ones to usher as many people as possible through our doors on the day. First of all is the fun bit, designing a poster for the exhibition on Canva, with a uniform logo we’re using on all of our social media channels. We then sent the design off to a print company to have it printed in A2, A3, and A4. We “launched” the news of our upcoming exhibition on the 19th January on our social media, and sent an email out to the OLIS, Oxford Libraries Information System, mail list. I also changed our Twitter and Facebook profile headers to advertisements for the exhibition. Thanks to my fellow trainees, I sent out some posters to go up in other libraries and increase awareness of the exhibition throughout the university. I also go on a wander around college putting up posters in common areas such as the café/bar and the JCR. I’m also trialling some QR codes, linked to the event page on our website, displayed around the library.  The LGBTQ+ Officers for the college’s JCR and MCR do a great job of organising their own events throughout the year such as queer drinks and LGBTQ+ formals, so we let them know about our exhibition so they can spread the word around college.

QR Codes around the Library
Designing the Exhibition Poster

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

As our exhibition is for LGBT+ History Month, a campaign founded by Schools OUT to increase the visibility of queer people’s histories and experiences, we added our event to their public calendar. However, we’ve found social media is the most effective method to reach a wider audience outside just New College and the University. On our Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook, we’ve been further teasing our exhibition by posting some of the items we’ll be displaying on the day with our exhibition banner underneath to make sure our followers don’t get sick of the same poster over and over again. I have scheduled a sneaky motion graphic to go out in the week before the exhibition, just to add a little spice. We also asked the Lodge to let us put a poster in an A-frame outside the college entrance on Holywell Street on the day to draw in any walk-ins and notify visitors where the exhibition actually is, as New College can be a bit of a maze. We’re quite lucky that our collections speak for themselves, including a 15th-century manuscript copy of Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, early printed books relating to King James VI and I, Oscar Wilde’s Ravenna inscribed by the author, and a first-edition copy of Virginia Woolf’s Orlando. There might be a few surprise additions on the day as we continue compiling the labels, but we’re hoping to show at least 30 items of queer literature.

@newcollegelibrary Instagram Feed
Motion Graphic

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We’re quite a small library and our exhibitions only last one day, so we don’t have the same resources and following to generate as much hype as some larger libraries’ incredible exhibitions, such as those at the British or Bodleian libraries, but we try our best! We’re also looking into putting on online exhibitions, so that our collections can be viewed digitally for longer, as it’s a shame they’re only on display for 6 hours at a time. This is the first of our exhibitions that we’ve put in this much work to promote, particularly on social media, so only time will tell if it works.

 

 

Database Spotlight: Not all those who wander (in the Ashmolean) are lost

Despite having visited it on many a rainy Sunday, I always seem to stumble across new rooms in the Ashmolean every time I go. Perhaps through a form of architectural respawning, or maybe just my poor sense of direction, many of the permanent exhibitions in the museum remain shrouded in mystery for me.

Picture of a staircase in the Ashmolean. Tall windows dimly light the area, silhouettes of statues stand in the alcoves.
Shot of some mysterious lighting in the Ashmolean to help prove my point.

 

I was scrolling through the databases available through SOLO while thinking about what I would write this post on. There were many that caught my eye – perhaps I could plunge into ‘Religion and Urbanity online’, or maybe enter the world of the Utrecht Psalter…tempting as these avenues were, when I spotted the Ashmolean online Catalogue, an idea began to form.

Perhaps this post would be my chance to get to the heart of the museum, once and for all. No more oohing and ahhing over the textile gallery (or the cakes in the cafe) on the lower ground floor. No more slumping in awe on the (rather too comfortable) velvet couches in the cast gallery right next to the entrance. This time I was going to overcome every eye-catching obstacle and make it all the way to the top floor. Using the database as my guide, I would make sure to select objects from  parts of the museum I’d never before stepped foot in.

 

The Database

The Ashmolean is the University of Oxford’s museum of art and archaeology and it holds a collection that spans over ten thousand years. In recent years, they have been working on digitizing their collection. The Digital Collection programme was established in 2015[1], and as of now, you can now browse or search 200,000 of the treasures of the Ashmolean online.

With this catalogue at my fingertips, I felt sure I held the key to the most enlightening yet efficient visit to any gallery ever before experienced.

 

The plan

My plan, as it stood, was simple:

  1. Choose the items I want to visit from the data base.
  2. Plan a route.
  3. Get cultured.

 

Familiarising myself with the database

Whether you’re looking for something specific or just there for a fun like I was, the online collection is a fantastic resource. You can search items based on object type, date, artist/maker, material…the list goes on.

In a moment of weakness, I was in the mood for some 17th century sculpture, so that was where my hunt began.

 

Screen shot of the Ashmolean database page. A grid with object type and date is showing.
Selecting preferences on the database

 

Once you select object type and date, you can filter your results in the ‘sort by’ drop down. Here is where you could select a specific artist, place, etc. if you so wished. I went for ‘random’, as beyond my predilection for something early modern, I was happy for the database to surprise me.

A feature I found helpful for my purposes was the database showing you whether an item is currently on display or not – if you can visit it in the museum, there with be a small eye icon next to the entry on the online catalogue.

Another great feature for those with a thirst for knowledge in all its forms is the ‘further reading’ section. Catalogues that feature the item you’re looking at will be linked to the page for your convenience. There’s also a ‘reference URL’ so you can easily save the page you’re looking at for later! Perhaps you wish to share this particularly handsome fellow with a pal over coffee (https://collections.ashmolean.org/object/95623), or muse over what Ethel might be thinking of on your commute home after a long day (https://collections.ashmolean.org/object/383401).

 

Choosing my victims

Once I had settled on date and object type, it was as simple as choosing the items that caught my eye. A mix of small and large, intriguing and classic slowly filled up the top bar of my laptop screen as I opened many a background tab.

After a rigorous selection process (click on the thing that looks cool – patent pending) these beauties made it onto my list:

Items:

  • One of a pair of Fowlers – 17th century bronze figure

https://collections.ashmolean.org/object/746352

 

  • Sword hilt – mid-17th century

https://collections.ashmolean.org/object/746315

 

  • Mystical ring – 16th – 17th century

https://collections.ashmolean.org/object/349813

 

  • And finally, as this is a library blog after all, a magnificent book case, literally named ‘The great Bookcase’. Mid 19th century

https://collections.ashmolean.org/object/351723

 

Items selected and museum locations jotted down, I was ready to embark on my mission.

You’ll note that some of these items are not quite sculpture – one is even a book case! My search was also bolstered by the Ashmolean podcast Museum Secrets and some of the fascinating items that are discussed in the bite-sized episodes. The database was a fantastic resource that allowed me to see instantly whether the objects that featured in the episodes were currently on show.

 

Visiting

Wall of busts at the Ashmolean
Wall of busts at the Ashmolean

With a plan of action, I felt close to unstoppable. With only my poor sense of direction hindering me, I set out on my mission to get cultured. Item list in hand, I was ready to boldly go where most Oxford inhabitants have gone before…the Ashmolean!

Despite having a slightly humbling few minutes of dithering at the bottom of the what I thought were the stairs to the second floor (but, alas, were not), having a list of the rooms I needed to visit made me feel like something of a consummate gallery-goer. I strode through great halls and corridors with a feeling of purpose, only ever so occasionally getting distracted by the odd shiny thing…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Items

Small bronze sculpture of a man crouching with a brace of birds on his belt
sculpted by Italian Renaissance sculptor, Giovanni Bologna

The first stop on my self-made tour was the second floor, gallery 46. Here I was searching for two of the items on my list: the bronze sculpture of a fowler, that is, someone who hunts wildfowl, and the sword-hilt.

I love the tiny details on this first piece! The clothing, the birds hanging from the belt, the barbs of each feather etched into the surface…also I am jealous of his stylish little hat.

What I first noticed first in this gallery, but also throughout my visit, was that going into a space and being on the hunt for specific objects really changed the energy of my experience. It was less of a passive dander, waiting to be impressed by something amazing, but a pointed search, engaging with each item in order to find what I was looking for.

It was also really cool to see the objects I’d looked at in isolation on the database in the context of some sculpture housemates. Looking at these sculptures in the Ashmolean, you see the object not against a plain background as when photographed for posterity, but amongst other bodies.

 

 

In my photographs of the ivory sword hilt you can spot the pair of Fowlers posing in the background. Different materials colour the back drop, the deep red gallery walls lending no small amount of drama.

 

My next stop was the ring display in gallery 56. Here I was looking for the rather murky toadstone rings.

A glass octagonal case with rings in each frame.
The glorious ring case on the second floor

Toadstone, or bufonite (bufo being Latin for toad), was thought to be great for protecting against poison. Not just a moody fashion statement, toadstones have a history of being worn as a protective amulet or charm[2]. It seems that the logic went as follows: toads are poisonous, therefore toadstones (believed to be formed in the heads of toads) protect against poison and even detect it. Please do not bother any of your friendly neighbourhood toads – this origin of the toadstone does not boast the electrifying acclaim of being peer reviewed. Fun fact – toadstones have nothing to do with toads at all, but are actually the fossilised teeth of an extinct genus of ray-finned fish![3]

Toadstone was allegedly most effective when worn against skin. A lot of these rings that have toadstone in them have open backs so the stone is always in touch with the wearers hand. It was believed that the stone would alert its wearer if they were ever poisoned by heating up or even changing colour. They were seen as something of a cure all, used in treatments for countless conditions and were even thought by some to protect ships from getting wrecked at sea.

Despite all these rather delicious claims to fame, the rings don’t particularly stand out in the display. In fact, I had to lap the jewellery case a couple of times before spotting these mystical little beauties. If you want to take a look for yourself, there is a helpful catalogue of the rings in the display case in folders that are kept near the case in gallery 56.

 

Toadstone ring, no. 115

 

For the final item we step away from the 17th century and into the Victorian age – peeking round the door of the office of William Burgess, a famous designer and architect of the gothic revival persuasion.[4]  Made to hold Burges’s art books, this elaborate bookcase had 14 painters contribute to it –  many of them being big names from the pre-Raphaelite movement. Edward-Burne Jones, Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Simeon Solomon were among the artists involved.  Each one was handsomely rewarded at £5 apiece.

 

Large ornate bookcase. Trimmed with gold and with a red background, this bookcase is covered in paintings of different people, animals and plants
The Great Bookcase in all its glory!

 

The external decoration relates to the books that would have been housed on that shelf so there is a great variety in the decoration. Biblical scenes mirror stories from ancient Greece and Egypt, and the entire piece is covered in depictions of animals and plants.

 

 

This piece is part of the spotlight trail at the Ashmolean, so you can scan the QR code and listen to some of the background of its creation.

 

With their target of making 25% of their objects available to view online by 2020 reached, the Ashmolean is continuing to make even more of its collection accessible. Collections currently being digitalised include the Egyptian collection and portraits from the collection of Revd F. W. Hope.

What I enjoyed most about this experience was the difference between browsing online to searching for my chosen objects in a physical space. I think I felt more connected to the pieces because I had sought them out. This is not to say I had laser focus…Drifting from room to room in the Ashmolean is a process of delightful distraction – you walk through different exhibitions to reach your destination and charming and unexpected pieces unavoidably catch your eye.

 

 

These bonus pieces are not unlike side quests that enhance your journey to your true aim: immunity to everything via proximity to a toadstone. I plan to visit it once a week for the rest of my days in order to experience maximum benefits.

I hope to bug my friends some weekend soon with this makeshift tour – why not put one together yourself with the Ashmolean online database!

 

[1] https://collections.ashmolean.org/collection/about-the-online-collection

[2] Listen to Lucie Dawkins’ podcast Museum Secrets here for a great mini-podcast in which Matthew Winterbottom, curator at the Ashmolean, discusses toadstones and other magic jewellery at the Ashmolean! https://www.ashmolean.org/museum-secrets

[3] https://www.ashmolean.org/museum-secrets, at the 5:00 minute mark exactly

[4] https://www.britannica.com/biography/William-Burges

Marking Holocaust Memorial Day at Christ Church Library

‘What is abnormal is that I am normal. That I survived the Holocaust and went on to love beautiful girls, to talk, to write, to have toast and tea and live my life – that is what is abnormal.’ Elie Wiesel, survivor of the Holocaust

Holocaust Memorial Day takes place on the 27th of January every year, marking the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz and to remember the more recent genocides which followed in Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia, and Darfur. The Holocaust Memorial Day Trust website provides life stories, information and resources: https://www.hmd.org.uk/ 

We put together a display at Christ Church library to mark the day. This post shines a spotlight on three of the books in our display: a graphic novel, a memoir and a collaborative autobiography.

 

Maus, Art Spiegelman

Photo of book cover. Maus in red font, two cartoon mice cowering in eachothers arms together under an image of a cat drawn to resemble HitlerIn Art Spiegelman’s graphic novel, Spiegelman interviews his father, Vladek, a Polish Jew who survived the Holocaust. The comic moves between the father and son’s conversation and depictions of Spiegelman’s father’s memories. Throughout Maus, as the title hints to, characters are depicted as animals rather than people, and specifically depicts Jews as mice and Nazis as cats. This novel combines biography, autobiography, history and fiction in a piece that became the first graphic novel to win a Pulitzer Prize.

Maus comes from humble beginnings, originally published in serial form in Françoise Mouly and Art Spiegelman’s eclectic comics anthology ‘RAW’ in the 1980s. Chapters one to six were later published in ’86 in a volume titled Maus I: A Survivor’s Tale and the latter five chapters were published in 1991 as Maus II: A Survivor’s Tale: And Here My Troubles. The text in our display contains both these volumes.

RAW Magazine began life in whirrings of a living room printing press in the house that Spiegelman and Mouly still share[1]. (Each publication was adorned with its own cheeky subtitle, two of my favourites being ‘Required Reading for the post-literate’ and ‘Open wounds from the cutting edge of commix’). This set up goes a little way to paint a picture of the world Spiegelman was living in. He was working in the underground comic scene, the predecessor of which he had grown up on in ‘60s New York. It was from Justin Green, a fellow alternative cartoonist whose work was often featured in RAW Magazine, that Spiegelman learnt:

“confessional, autobiographical, intimate, unsayable material is perfectly fine content for comics.”[2]

 

Maus shows how the medium of comics can be one that communicates harrowing themes and strained relationships in a way that feels both sensitive and charged. The experience of reading Maus is one of constant stock-taking. You have to sit with the often-disturbing images, move back and forth between them as you progress through the novel. Spiegelman’s conversations with his father about his experiences in Auschwitz not only frame the recollections, but also often intrude upon the narrative. The form of a comic works exceedingly well as something that can interrupt itself. Embodied memories barge into the present as Spiegelman plays with comic strip borders and ratios. In an interview with Alexandra Alter for the The New York Times, Spiegelman says of the cartoon format, and particularly of depicting the people in the story as animals, that:

 

“For me, it was powerful just because it allowed me to deal with the material by putting a mask on people. By reliving it microscopically, as best I could, moment by moment — it allowed me to at least come to grips with something that otherwise was only a dark shadow.”[3]

 

An Underground Life: Memoirs of a Gay Jew in Nazi Berlin, Gad Beck

“For them I was a boy from outside. Why? I was visiting theatres, I was dancing, even ballet dancing.”[4]

Gad Beck and his sister Margot were born in Berlin in 1923. An Underground Life recounts the story of how Beck was able to escape the Nazis and stay living in Berlin throughout the duration of World War Two. Being both Jewish and gay, Beck was doubly at risk of persecution from the Nazis. Nazi conceptions of race, gender and eugenics very much shaped the regime’s aggressive policy on homosexuality. Repression commenced within days of Hitler becoming Chancellor. In spite of all this, Beck’s voice throughout the memoir is playful and unbelievably positive.

Beck decided to actively resist Nazi persecution, taking on a principal role in the Chug Chaluzi Jewish resistance group. The Chug Chaluzi (circle of pioneers) was an illegal group founded on the day that all Jewish forced laborers were arrested and most of them deported. The group was as small as 11 members when it started, but had grown to around 40 by the end of the war.

Jizack Schwersenz was the director of a Jewish youth group that Gad Beck attended in Berlin. In a letter from March 1942, Schwersenz writes about how Erwin Tichauer responded to the continued deportations during a secret gathering of the group in 1942:

“Then one of our members, Erwin Tichauer, stepped forward—at first we had no idea what he was about to do —and read to his group the names of all those who had been taken from us during the past months, since the deportations had begun, and as he read each name the members replied as one: ‘Here’, that is to say, that even those who were missing were with us on this occasion, for we are always with them in our thoughts, just as they are surely with us in their thoughts…”[5]

The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum holds a very precious item in its collection – a handmade book made by a boy that Gad fell in love with, Manfred Lewin[6]. In the same way that the youth group remembered those that had been deported, Gad remembered Manfred through this gift. Small enough to fit in a pocket, this book and Beck survived the war.

Beck and Lewin met at the Jewish youth group in the build up to the war. Clumsy illustrations in green felt tip pen populate the pages of this token of affection, depicting shared memories and private jokes. Slightly underwhelmed with the gift at the time, Beck recollects thinking ‘It’s very simple book, booklet, very simple … and he’s not an artist’[7]. I hope the thoughtful Beck we meet in  An Underground Life was on duty that day, and he managed to keep these thoughts to himself…

With time, and the outbreak of the war, this gift took on a new significance.

‘Dear, kind Gad, I owe you a present, no, I want to give you one, not just so that you get something from me that you can glance through and then lay aside forever, but something that will make you happy whenever you pick it up.’[8]

 

What is the What: The Autobiography of Valentino Achek Deng Dave Eggers

‘Since you and I exist, together we can make a difference!’[9]

I had only encountered Dave Eggers through his short stories up until this point, so this novel felt like something of a departure for me.

While nominally a novel, the experiences recounted in this book are true. Written in 2006, What is the What is based on the life of Valentino Achak Deng. Deng was a child when the second Sudanese Civil War broke out, a civil war that was to last twenty-two years. Deng was able to immigrate to the United States through the Lost Boys of Sudan programme[10]. Escaping conflict required moving through war zones, however. Named ‘lost boys’, many of these children spent years in life threatening circumstances. Many lost their lives due to hunger and dehydration. Travelling to Ethiopia and then Kenya for safety, around 10,000 boys between the ages of eight and eighteen arrived at the Kakuma refugee camp, ‘a sprawling, parched settlement of mud huts where they would live for the next eight years’[11].

Deng and Eggers came together through Deng’s desire for his story to reach a wider audience. He says that he sees his mission as being to help others ‘understand Sudan’s place in our global community’[12]. While having told his story to many audiences through public speaking, he felt a book about his experiences would reach more people.

‘Dave and I have collaborated to tell my story by way of tape recording, by electronic mailings, by telephone conversations and by many personal meetings and visitations.’[13]

This collaboration has resulted in a gripping read – Deng’s story, communicated to Eggers through so many different modes, finds a fluidity on the page that you can’t help but be engrossed by. As with Maus, the story moves back and forth between past and present. At the time of recounting his story to Eggers, Deng is ‘trying to survive an altogether different struggle: assimilation into a culture defined by its short-term memory and chronic indifference to the world beyond its borders’[14].

I hope this starting point will encourage you to follow Elie Wiesel’s model from the top of this post for a normal life – make yourself some toast and some tea and get reading – just remember no food in the library.

 

[1] https://www.nytimes.com/2022/12/27/books/art-spiegelman-maus-breakdowns.html

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] A quotation from an interview with Gad Beck from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, https://www.ushmm.org/collections/the-museums-collections/collections-highlights/do-you-remember-when/page-2

[5] https://www.ushmm.org/collections/the-museums-collections/collections-highlights/do-you-remember-when/page-6

[6] Find a page by page break down here: https://www.ushmm.org/collections/the-museums-collections/collections-highlights/do-you-remember-when/cover

[7] https://www.ushmm.org/collections/the-museums-collections/collections-highlights/do-you-remember-when/page-1

[8] A translation of the first page of Manfred’s book

[9] What is the What: The Autobiography of Valentino Achek Deng, Dave Eggers (Penguin Books: London, 2006) p.xv

[10] https://www.rescue.org/article/lost-boys-sudan

[11] https://www.rescue.org/uk/article/lost-boys-sudan

[12] What is the What, p.xiv

[13] Ibid., p. xiv

[14] https://nymag.com/arts/books/reviews/23147/

 

 

The Alpine Club Library

Outside my day job as a graduate trainee librarian, I am a keen climber with an interest in climbing and mountaineering history and literature. In the past, I served as the Librarian of the Oxford University Mountaineering Club and the editor of its journal, and I spent long days paging through the OUMC’s rich guidebook collection, dreaming of working in a specialised library. When I first started my library traineeship and was encouraged to see various libraries, arranging a visit in the library of the Alpine Club was one of the first things on my to-do-list.

I do not suppose many of our readers will be familiar with arcane mountaineering terminology, so a bit of a background: the Alpine Club is the oldest mountaineering club in the world, founded in 1857 to facilitate access and exploration of the mountains of the world. Since its inception, its members have been the leading mountaineers and explorers of their generations, including household names such as George Mallory, one of the first mountaineers to attempt to climb Qomolangma (Mount Everest) in 1921, 1922, and 1924. Today, the Alpine Club is based in Shoreditch, London, and houses one of the most extensive collections of mountaineering literature in the world: over 30 thousand books, magazines, photos, and other archival material. Truly an exciting place for a budding climber-turned-librarian.

 

12 book spines in vibrant reds, greens, blues and browns. Many of them have gilt detailing or other decorations.
Pretty bindings in the Alpine Club Collection

 

To organise the visit, I reached out to Nigel Buckley, Assistant Librarian at Balliol College (my DPhil home) and the former Librarian of the Alpine Club. Nigel very kindly agreed to travel with me to London to show me around on a particularly sunny November Tuesday.

Upon our arrival to the hip borough of Shoreditch, the first of our two stops was the Library itself. Full of excitement, I foolishly did not take many photos, so my description will have to do. The Library, located in the first floor of the club house, is a small room with a handful of reading spaces, full up to a brim with all kinds of mountaineering literature: guidebooks, maps, biographies, historical accounts of climbing, or magazines. I even spotted the issues of Oxford Mountaineering Journal that I edited! After some time ogling at the shelves, Nigel showed me the digital catalogue that he created during his appointment using the free library management software called Koha.

The second stop – the basement – proved to be even more exciting than the Library. It houses all kinds of material, from journals, outdated climbing guidebooks, and historic collections, to paintings, photographs, and all sort of mountaineering paraphernalia. Ice axes, ropes, compasses, tents, you name it. At one point, Nigel opened a random drawer, and there was a pair of solid leather mountain boots!

What were some of my favourite objects? I fell in love with ice axe that used to belong to Dorothy Pilley (1894-1986), a pioneer British female climber who established many routes in Wales as well as further afield in the Alps. Although hundred years old, this tool seemed much lighter and sleeker than my own modern ice axe, and it has probably seen more action in the mountains as well.

 

 

An ice axe with smooth wooden handle and metal pick. It is held in someone's hands over its storage box which lies open underneath and contains book bound in black textured leather surrounded by tissue paper.
The ice axe of Dorothy Pilley

 

I also want to mention a couple of illustrations. The 19th-century edition of Edward Whymper’s Scrambles Amongst the Alps made me excited for its excellent illustrations and lovely Victorian binding. Whymper (1840-1911), the first ascensionist of Matterhorn in 1865, was an engraver before he was a mountaineer, and his illustrations are an absolute joy. Furthermore, I loved the book plate of The Ladies Alpine Club (founded in 1907 and merged with the Alpine Club in 1975) which seems to capture the spirit of mountaineering very well.

There are many more books, paintings, and objects that Nigel showed me that day, but these should be enough to showcase the atmosphere of the library and the collection. We eventually made our way back upstairs to see the archives, and then moved towards the bar to finish our tour off with a pint. There was a lecture planned that evening – the cutting-edge British mountaineer Tom Livingstone spoke about his latest ascents in the Himalayas – so we stayed in London until about 10pm before catching the train back to Oxford.

I have enjoyed the visit tremendously, and I encourage you to make use of the Alpine Club collections if you are in the slightest interested in mountaineering and climbing. Many thanks, of course, go to Nigel Buckley for taking the time to show me around and chat about librarianship and mountaineering.

 

A black and white line drawing depicting four men on a mountain. The first man is falling off an icy overhand, his guide rope still attached but flying loose in the air. Below him three men stand on a ridge watching. Two simply lean against their sticks and observe, the third has sunk his ice axe into the ground beside him and has his arms wide in shock.
Illustration from Edward Whymper’s “Scrambles”
A decorative bookplate with a picture of a mountain scene. Below it texts reads: "The Library of the Ladies' Alpine Club" Above their moto reads: "per aspera as astra" with a small semi-circle containing seven stars right at the top. Around everything is a thin checkered border.
Bookplate of the Library of the Ladies Alpine Club

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Day in the Life at the Oxford Union Library

10am – 12pm: Careers in Libraries

Tuesday (17 January 2023) started with an online conference organized by Emma from the Bodleian Staff Development Team. Open to public, the conference introduced various career paths in the field of librarianship. I gave a short talk as a current trainee, sharing my day-to-day experience at the Union Library. I was happy to see some familiar faces and listen to my colleagues describing the projects they had been working on. I appreciate the Bodleian team for organizing these career events. Last year, as a student, I attended a similar event during which three Bodleian librarians shared career tips and personal insights.

 

Poetry Room: a room with a view and lots of fiction, but no poetry

12pm – 1pm: Isherwood Lecture

Access to free lectures is a huge reason why I love working in a university environment. At the beginning of each term, I check out the courses offered by the English department, a habit/hobby developed during my undergraduate years. Since I work evening shifts on Tuesdays, I could rearrange my hours to create a 90-minute window in the middle of the day to attend a lecture on Christopher Isherwood and have lunch afterwards (will explain how this works in more detail below*).

Reading literature is, in a sense, my way of constantly reaffirming my decision to go into librarianship. The pay is okay for now, as I don’t have kids or other expensive hobbies (but every once in a while, I also want to go to London and re-watch The Phantom of the Opera!); the work itself is not stress free (as a kid I imagined librarians just sitting at the help desk with a cup of tea and reading novels all day. Very naïve). But every day working at the Union Library has proven that the company of books and book-loving people is just priceless. Isherwood, for one, was an author I encountered while shelving books. I love books—if I haven’t mentioned this already. I love wiping dusts off their covers, putting them back on shelves next to their cousins, discovering bookmarks (and all the weird things people use as bookmarks) between pages. Who left you there, little pack of contraceptive pills?

 

1pm – 1:30pm: (Almost) Free Lunch

As a Union employee, I receive a £4 lunch allowance at the Union bar every day, and lunch at the Union bar is priced at, yes, £4.50. The coronation chicken baguette is delicious though, definitely worth that 50p.

 

1:30pm – 2:30pm: Random Small Tasks

Emailing.

Sorting out paperwork for the library committee meeting. The library committee members meet every Monday to discuss new books they’d like to buy and old books they’d like to get rid of. I take notes during the meetings and write some reports and agendas afterwards.

 

2:30pm – 4pm: Book Display

Reading List Poster

The Union is, after all, a debating society. During term time, the students here organize a debate every Thursday evening. This Thursday’s motion is:

‘This House Believes that the Future is Post-gender’.

The library staff put a few books on display based on the topic every week. This week, I searched for books on gender studies and queer theory, trying to find relevant materials for both sides of the argument. To prepare a book display project or a reading list, I usually begin by brainstorming relevant books I know. In this case, Judith Butler’s theory of performativity proved to be a good start. Then, I’d search on Google and SOLO for key words – it turned out that Rutgers had a very comprehensive reading list on queer theory, thanks, Academia. To narrow down my choices, I’d read the abstracts of the books and sometimes skimming through those that seem particularly interesting. This time, I settled on the following:

  • Undoing Gender by Judith Butler
  • Bodies that Matter: On the Discursive Limits of ‘Sex’ by Judith Butler
  • Gender Queer: A Memoir by Maia Kobabe
  • No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive by Lee Edelman
  • Invisible Women: Exposing the Gender Bias Women Face Every Day by Caroline Criado Perez

I also create a simple poster to go along with the books. Here on the right is a poster I am especially fond of, designed for the Winter Reading List last year.

My hope is that these reading lists will give readers a glimpse into an area that may be new to them. This is certainly true for me personally. I find library work to be, in a sense, the opposite of academic research: in the latter you end up knowing a lot about one particular area, while in the former you learn a little about a wide range of topics.

 

4pm – 5pm: Shelving

Fun and satisfying work for someone with an obsession for orderliness.

 

5pm – 7pm: Evening Shift

Apart from sitting at the help desk and answering reader enquiries, I was mostly working on a blog post (not this one). The Union is about to launch its own blog soon. The article I have been working on is about a fascinating episode that took place in the 1960s at the Union.

 

*Normally I work from 9:30am to 5pm with a 30-minute lunch break; on Tuesdays I have evening shifts, so I work from 11:30am to 7pm instead. On this particular Tuesday, however, I started 90 minutes early at 10am, so that I could take some time off at noon to attend the Isherwood lecture. This Tuesday is rather unusual, but I chose it for my ‘Day in the Life’ post so as to show the blog reader the variety of activities you can engage in as a Bodleian trainee.

 

Old Photo of the Union in 1909

 

A Day in the Life at New College Library

8:40

After forgetting to eat breakfast I start the brisk (and very cold) walk into college. It’s only a 15 minute walk, but I still manage to slip twice on the morning ice on Magdalen Bridge. The New College chapel and old Oxford city wall never fail to look beautiful in the morning. I get distracted and take some photos before heading into the library.

 

Holywell Quad in the morning

 

9:00 – 9:30

The start of the day at New College Library usually involves checking my calendar for scheduled events or visitors. I also check to see if anyone has requested items through our hold request system the night before and fetch the books for them ready to collect from the Click-and-Collect trolley in the hall. As it’s the start of the term, the list gets longer and longer every day – I enlist a couple of Sainsbury’s bags to aid me in my quest. I answer any email enquiries the Deputy Librarian didn’t get to first and check to see if anyone has booked our group study room.

MS 333, f. 181r

We usually have one or two readers per week come to view our special collections. Requests are varied, from Peter Lombard’s 11th-century commentary on the Psalms to our 16th-century Isaac Newton Papers. It’s always exciting when a reader comes to view something that doesn’t often leave its shelf. Last term, a reader came to view an Italian 16th-century women’s beauty manual, which was nice to see go on a little holiday to the Special Collections reading room. If we have a reader booked in, I spend the morning invigilating, essentially making sure people are handling the books with care and not ripping out any pages as souvenirs. Today someone has booked to see our (possibly) 11th-century Harklean Syriac New Testament, which I fetched from the Bell Tower yesterday. It’s a beautiful volume. If anyone reads Syriac and wants to let me know what it says that would be wonderful.

9.30 – 12.30

I show our reader into our Special Collections reading room, make sure they have pencils and paper or a laptop (no pens allowed), and set the manuscript up on a cushion with snake beads. Invigilating today means I have time to work on longer-term projects, such as writing labels for any upcoming exhibitions, working on an article for the library’s e-journal, writing a script for one of our Curator’s Choice videos, helping run our trainee twitter account, or writing a blog post like this one. Next month we’ll be putting on an exhibition on Queer Love and Literature in our collections for LGBTQ+ History Month, so there’s a lot of preparation to be getting on with. We cannot under any circumstances leave a reader alone with a manuscript, so another member of the teams subs in throughout the morning so I can have tea breaks. Topics of tea-break conversation today: the finer points of the art of the pub quiz, the new Queer Britain Museum that’s opened in King’s Cross, and what if J.R.R. Tolkien stood for Jolkien Rolkien Rolkien Tolkien?

 

A photo of posting photos on the blog . . . Blogception?

 

12:45 – 13:45

Lunch time! As I’m sure my fellow college trainees have already mentioned, one of the perks of working at a college library is the free hot lunch. While the medieval dining hall at New College is very impressive, we usually eat in the less-intimidating south undercroft. Today’s menu is mushroom & tarragon soup, followed by parsnips, wild mushrooms and smoked tofu with soubise sauce, and an apple frangipane. After eating I take a walk around the cloisters and gardens. Don’t ask what the mound is for, I genuinely have no idea. I then spend the rest of my lunch break in the New College café with my book club read: Bimini Bon Boulash’s autobiography.

13.45 – 15.30

The art of processing

After lunch I get on with everyday tasks such as processing any new acquisitions that come in. We received a couple of boxes of books over lunch from Blackwell’s that I begin unpacking. I immediately process any books requested by students or academics and notify the reader that their book has arrived. I then start to process the rest of the books.  This involves attaching them to a bibliographic record on Aleph, choosing an in-house shelfmark for them and stamping them before adding a spine label, RFID tag, and New College bookplate. I then cover the book with a plastic cover – essentially a cutting and sticking job – and put it on the shelving trolley. Most of our new rare and antiquarian acquisitions don’t have an Aleph record, so I apologetically add them to the Assistant Librarian’s pile for cataloguing. I also update our new book display, temporarily rebranded as a ‘Goodbye 2022!’ display, featuring some of the most interesting reads from last year.

This week students are back from their vacation and the library is really quite busy. Our work in term time is therefore a lot more student-focused, and we invest our time in welfare initiatives as well as everyday tasks like ordering and processing new books for our students. On Monday, for example, we put together a display from our Welfare and Wellbeing collection and gave out tea and chocolates for Brew Monday (Blue Monday with a happier twist).

Unlike some of the other college or Bodleian libraries, we don’t actually have a reader enquiries desk, but rather an open-door policy for our office in the main entrance. There are only 4 of us in the office, trying our best to look as unintimidating as possible, so readers can poke their heads around the door if they need anything. One of the best parts of the job is being greeted with gratitude and relief when returning triumphant with a crucial book needed for an essay (usually due on Monday). As most degrees here require weekly essays, we try our utmost to buy and process books for students as fast as humanly possible if its not already in our collection.

15.30 – 16.00

If there are a lot of new books arriving, processing can take up a lot of my day, but today I have a little time to head back over to the Bell Tower to take a look at the final volume of a late-thirteenth-century Bible particularly rich in strange marginalia, such as fish with human heads. I also take a quick look at our 1512 copy of the Malleus Maleficarum, Hammer of Witches. I plan on talking about the book in one of our Curator’s Choice videos, writing an article on it, then perhaps even centring a small exhibition around it . . . Stay tuned. With so many funky manuscripts to look at, I pore through a couple more looking for marginalia and strangely drawn animals to post on our social media.

 

Old books in the Special Collections storage room
MS 6, f. 174v

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

16.00 – 17.00

In the last hour of the day, I get on with creating content for our social media channels (Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter). We try to stay quite active on social media, both to showcase our special collections and keep our readers up to date with our new acquisitions, reader services, and any upcoming exhibitions. Our particular focus at the moment is promoting our LGBTQ+ History Month Exhibition, so do come along on 25th February to make my work worthwhile!

17:15

After getting distracted making a Twitter Header on Canva, I say my goodbyes and head over to the Rad Cam to get on with some non-library work before making my way to the pub.

A Day in the Life at Jesus College Library

A day in the life in Jesus College library is idyllic and peaceful, even though it is also busy. Most of my activity is based in the library office, rather than at a customer-facing library desk, so the support that I provide is primarily behind the scenes. The first thing that strikes me, as I stride through the quad to get to the library every morning, is that Jesus College is very beautiful. Historic buildings may not be of interest to everyone, but I love art history and I’m the type of person who likes to visit National Trust properties in my free time, so I get a lot of pleasure from my surroundings when I’m at work.

The first part of my day always starts with the same routine of tasks and after that it’s a case of reviewing where things sit on the ever-jiggling ladder of priorities, in order to plan the rest of my day. Task number one is to check the reading rooms. I make sure that everything is neat and tidy and that the computers are all ready to go. I quite often reshuffle a few chairs at this juncture, or reshelve stray books. Generally, things will already be in fairly good order and I’ll just be making sure of that, but every now and again I’ll find something out of the ordinary. Once, for example, I walked in to find that a strip light had fallen from the ceiling and crashed onto the table below (though thankfully  no one was hurt) and another time, I found a pile of students asleep beneath a desk. They had pulled an all-nighter to get their work finished for a deadline, then promptly collapsed. I didn’t move them, I just opened a couple of windows…

The title page of a book called "Theatrum Botanicum: The Theater of Plants or an Herball of Lareg Extent" [sic]. At the top of the page written in blank ink is the signature of Elizabeth Burghess. The book is held open using a white book snake.
“Elizabeth Burghess her book”
A tiny pressed stem with 6 leaves branching off, three on each side. The leaves sit exactly opposite each other and are almond shaped. Each set gets smaller as they progress down the stem. At the very end the stem tapers off into three tendrils. the leaf sits on top of a page of text in Latin, seemingly to do with horticulture.
A pressed leaf, possibly vetch

Next I check the Fellows’ Library. Given what a fantastic setting this would make for a murder mystery crime scene, very little drama actually occurs here at all. This is where we house all of our rare, early printed books and only researchers with special permission really get to use it. Last term I was given the absolute privilege of curating a little exhibition here, of books on the theme of botany. I was so thrilled to be in there, hunting for fascinating specimens, researching them and writing up captions. I even made a couple of discoveries – one was a plant pressed inside the pages of a 300 year-old field guide to British plant life and the other was a signature, penned by the owner of the book on to the title page in around 1640, who, it turns out, was… a woman! (this is very unusual).

But back to my daily responsibilities, if there are no murder victims, then I make sure all the blinds are down (to prevent sun damage to the books) and move on to pick up the post from the porter’s lodge.

Something that I spend a fair amount of time doing on a regular basis is book processing. The librarian often orders in new books, and book processing is all the things that must be done to a book before it is ready to go on the shelf, such as, adding the bookplate sticker, that identifies the book as belonging to Jesus College; giving it a barcode sticker, so it can be tracked; giving it a security tag, so that it can’t be removed from the library without beeping. I also classify new books coming in, that is to say, I identify which subject they come under and give them a shelf-mark, accordingly.

An ornate wood panelled door with myriad botanical carvings. Above the arch of the door is a panel with two dragons, facing apart, their tails entwined.
Dragons in the dining hall
A carved mantelpiece with the Jesus College crest of three deer. The crest sits nestled between two carved leeks which overlap at the bottom then curve up so that their many leaves drape gracefully either side of the shield.
Leeks above the fireplace

On Wednesdays and Thursdays the librarian and I do elevensies with the archivist. We also do half-twosies. This involves coffee and biscuits around the fire, in an oak-panelled drawing room, full of ancient oil portraits and carvings of leeks and dragons (Jesus is traditionally “the Welsh college”), while the archivist tells us jolly good stories about the heroism or villainy of college members long gone. Lunch is served in hall just after midday.

On Wednesday afternoons I enjoy meeting with the other trainees for one of our varied and delightful training sessions. We’ve had workshops on cataloguing, customer service, digital collections; we’ve been to visit other libraries, we had a field trip to the Bodleian’s huge off-site book storage facility in Wiltshire… all sorts. Each time I’ve felt that the leaders were kind and friendly and had put a lot of thought and care into designing the activity and each time I’ve been struck by just how much goes on in libraries and how many different avenues there are within librarianship.

In my library there normally lurks a host of goals that require chipping away at over time, in between tending to more urgent tasks, so I’ll often make a little window for one of these in the afternoon. Projects of this nature include redesigning library signage, writing up reading lists or [building up to] cleaning out the stationary cupboard. At 5pm I go home.

 

A Day in the Life at the Old Bodleian

Opening (8.42-9): LGL

Like Alice’s over at the Rad Cam, my day begins at 8.42 precisely. This week, I have been allocated to open the Lower Gladstone Link, turning on the computers and the printer (PCAS machine). Rather too often, one of the pesky History Faculty team get here before we do despite the fact that the Lower part of the link contains almost exclusively Old Bodleian books and is part of our opening rota! As much as I might want it to be in these instances, my work is, unfortunately, not done, with the LGL always seeming to have quite a bit of reshelving to do each morning. Perhaps it’s the fact it’s a little tucked away, perhaps it’s that it closes half-an-hour earlier than the rest of the library, or perhaps it’s due to the large number of book scans it seems to generate, but I quite often don’t make it through the whole replacing trolley before my 9am shift.

This subterranean segment of the Old Bodleian (named after nineteenth-century Liberal Prime Minister William Ewart Gladstone who designed its distinctive rolling metal stacks when this was a staff-only, closed-stack space) also contains two shelfmarks endemic to it, and notoriously difficult to understand or explain (which I would, no doubt, fail to do adequately if I tried now): the “M” shelfmark containing all different types of Humanities material categorised by size and the year they entered our catalogue; and the “Nicholson” sequence named after a nineteenth-century Bodley’s librarian who designed it, presumably as a nasty trick to confuse readers for at least the next century-and-a-half. All I will say is that each digit after the first in the first part of the call number clarifies the first, so 3265 e. 46 is between 326 e. 567 and 327 e. 1308, not after both. And look out for the letter in between; despite being in the middle, this is the first way the books are classified so you won’t find a “d” and an “e” next to each other!

 

Three wooden desks with plastic screens sit next to a large window. The desks are decorated with tinsel. Behind the desks is a wall with built in bookshelves, two of the shelves also have tinsel stars.
The Main Enquiry Desk at the Bodleian decorated for Christmas.

 

MED (9-12):

Well, enough of boring you with shelfmark explanations that took me weeks of hands-on practice to get my head around! Every Monday, Wednesday and Friday morning I help out on the Main Enquiry Desk (MED) which serves both as the first point-of-call for in-person enquiries about the Old Bodleian and as the place where all emails sent to the Reader Services address, regarding all of the Bodleian libraries, end up and our answered. I’ll head up there in the Lower Reading Room just before opening time at 9am on these days, help out with clearing the off-site books whose loans have expired (lapsed) from Lower’s Self-Collect and check the inbox. This will usually consist mainly of questions regarding access to the library, advance off-site book requests and technical issues. Updating myself with the latest emails landing in the junk folder can also be an entertaining way to start the day!

Today, after an extended correspondence, I am expecting a visit from television producer who has come to view past issues of University of Oxford student newspapers looking for information regarding a certain former PM who studied here (like all other university-educated Prime Ministers since the Second World War except for Gordon Brown). Much to my disappointment, and despite asking if I would be onsite to help, the producer doesn’t come to see me. I thought, perhaps, I might be interviewed for the documentary with a short video of the “librarian” and his views on said Prime Minister an invaluable contribution. But, alas, it was not be and my five minutes of fame are delayed to some other occasion.

Still, my morning on the MED did involve researching the works of amateur botanist and early photographer Anna Atkins (1799-1872) after an enquiry by an undoubtedly precocious Year 9 school student. Atkins is best known for her 1843 book Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions, reputed to be the first published book illustrated with photographs and making her possibly the earliest female photographer in history. Though these facts are impressive, the prints themselves which she produced are even more so in the beautiful simplicity of the process used to achieve them and the beauty of the colour and pattern of the end result. Invented only a year earlier by a friend of hers, this is how the New York Public Library, which holds one of the extant copies of British Algae, describes the process of cyanotype:

“Herschel… discovered that colorless, water-soluble iron salts, when exposed to sunlight, form the compound known as Prussian Blue; unexposed areas remain unaffected and the salt rinses away in plain water, leaving a blue ‘negative’ image. Inexpensive and easy to use, the blueprinting process, or cyanotype, is familiar today as an artists’ medium as well as a popular children’s pastime…”

And so my morning, waiting for a brush with stardom that never arrived, was lightened by looking through the NYPL’s digitised, open access version of these cyanotypes, seeming to foreshadow the paintings of Yves Klein and Henri Matisse’s cut-outs in their brilliant, if incidental, use of the colour blue.

 

 

Lunch (12-1.30):

Finishing at the Old Bodleian at 12 for early lunch, I wolfed down my sandwich in expectation for a bit of a wander round town before the walk up to the Oxford Brookes Headington campus for this week’s training session. Deciding that a trip to the charity shops of Jericho might be a bit ambitious in the time I had, I opted instead for a quick jaunt to the Oxfam on Broad Street which, despite being the first and oldest branch in the world, I had always found rather disappointing. I was rewarded today though with some bargain vinyl to add to my collection and I started my journey up Headington Hill with a jaunty spring in my step while I chatted to my artist sister on the phone about the Atkins cyanotypes.

 

A big glass fronted building stretches up four stories. There is an open section for the front door with the words "John Henry Brookes Building" written next to it in large white letters. Above the main door a large metal section extends out from the main building formin an arch perpendicular to the entrance.
The front entrance to the John Henry Brookes Building

 

Trip to Brookes (1.30-4.30):

I then arrived at Brookes after the slightly-strenuous climb in time for our tour of the library kicking off today’s training. My first impression was that it could hardly have been more different than the Old Bodleian, mainly in its attitude towards readers which also informs its architectural style and physical layout. Throughout the afternoon, whether admiring its individual and group-study spaces, or learning about staff’s marketing initiatives, teaching, and reading list organisation, I was struck by how the student experience of using the library informed pretty much everything the librarians did. Although the Bodleian clearly must cater to a far larger number of academics and external researchers, contains an almost-infinitely greater number and variety of books, and appeals to those with a taste for the gothic over the metallic, I would say the University of Oxford as a whole has a lot to learn from Brookes in its emphasis on the importance of pedagogy as an indispensable discipline for all its lecturers and academic librarians. As I said, the physical space, set over six floors, was designed for comfortable, relaxed study with both quiet and group discussion areas and rooms while there were also several self-service borrowing machines spread throughout. From my perspective as a former Master’s student at St Antony’s College, Brookes was much more proactive too in using posters and social media to get students engaged and informed about the library while also pushing for lecturers to make their reading lists available through the university’s online platform. Subject librarians (in Oxford’s terminology) or Academic liaisons (in Brookes’s) also made sure they met students in lectures, and one-on-ones at dissertation level, to explain the different resources on offer and how to use and access them.

 

Rows of white shelves extend down the left-hand side of a corridor that ends in a glass window looking outside. Along the right wall desks and chairs stand empty. Just before the window at the end of the corridor one person sits at another desk.
The Brookes Library

 

We had the chance too to visit the Special Collections part of the library, held in the basement, of course. Rather than medieval manuscripts and government files, however, their archives were devoted in part to collections around food and drink. These included the late Antonio Carluccio’s library, Ken Hom’s “golden” wok made to celebrate the sale of one million units and, most excitingly and tantalisingly for me, only part way through Dry January, the collections of the National Brewing Library. My appetite somewhat sated by the acquisition of a commemorative beer mat, we ventured back out to the rest of the library. Alice had very kindly invited us all round to her nearby flat for coffee and a chat afterwards where we then lingered for an hour or two before venturing back out to the depressing January drizzle and, eventually, home.