If you’ve ever looked at a map of Oxford city centre, you’ll notice that it is packed with colleges (thirty-nine to be precise). But what are they, and what is it like to work in one?
We sat down with this year’s cohort of college-based Graduate Trainees, to discuss their roles, their colleges and their libraries. This year there are five of us:
- Ben at Pembroke College
- Heather at St Edmund Hall ( a.k.a Teddy Hall)
- Jemima at New College
- Lizzie at All Souls College
- Georgie at St John’s College (asking the questions)
Special thanks to Josie from the Law Library for the transcription.
What is a college?
Heather (St Edmund Hall): A college is a community of students and staff who are all part of Oxford University, but within the university community they’re also part of their own separate college community. Most colleges have undergraduates and postgraduates, but some colleges are postgraduate only. Some colleges are very big with lots of students and staff, and some are much smaller.
Georgie (St. John’s): Students can get accommodation, catering, and teaching through their college, and as part of that, the college will have its own library.
Jemima (New): There may appear to be some discrepancy between older and newer colleges but they essentially all do the same job for their students. Even though some of them look bigger or older or have a particular reputation, they all serve the same purpose.
How does the library fit into the college?
Jemima: I think generally a college library will cater for most undergraduate academic needs, but from my experience (as a graduate student here) there was more of an expectation that a college library wouldn’t cater for more in-depth academic research. Whether that’s true or not, a college library is definitely more of a centre for undergraduates, perhaps because it’s seen as less overwhelming than a bigger Bodleian library.
Ben (Pembroke): Yes, the library is at it’s heart a hub for students. We have a few postdocs and fellows who use our library, but mostly it’s used by undergraduates and taught postgraduates who all study a wide array of disciplines, reflecting our growing library collection. We’re open 24/7 and the library is also open for all Pembroke staff. Also our library is a space for holding Pembroke’s archives and special collections which attracts visiting researchers and research students.
Heather: It’s definitely more of a direct service for the students, and I think it’s interesting that when people apply to Oxford or Cambridge, they don’t really think about the fact that they’ll have a college library, but it’s actually a really important aspect. It’s really there to cater to a student’s own needs, so at Teddy Hall, for instance, we buy a lot of student requested books, which something you can do through your college library, but is not something Bodleian libraries tend to do.
Lizzie (All Souls): All Souls Library is mainly there for the Fellows* (as there aren’t any undergraduate students at All Souls). The Fellows can request that we buy books, and also if a particular Fellow with a particular research interest is there for a number of years, we can develop a significant collection relating to that interest. But the library does serve a dual purpose because it is also open to external readers. Because the college doesn’t have its own students, if there is a book that is highly requested across the university, or quite expensive, the library will buy that book so that it’s potentially available to all students.
*Fellows are senior members of a college, whose responsibilities typically include teaching, research, administration, and participation in the college’s governance.
Georgie: Another thing to mention is study spaces. College libraries mean that the students who want to use the library can do that somewhere which, in a lot of cases, is near to their accommodation.
Heather: We have height-adjustable desks, and printing and photocopying facilities and they all get used a lot. We’re open 24 hours and you can see from the records that there are people in here throughout day and night.
Jemima: That’s actually a good point: I think a key difference between Bodleian libraries and college libraries is that Bodleian libraries aren’t open as late as college ones. At New, we’re not open 24 hours, but we are open until 2:00 in the morning. I would say that a college library is accessible at most times of day whereas the Bodleian is less so.
Lizzie: At All Souls, all the books are confined so readers can’t borrow them. That means the library is used more as a study space, since it’s very quiet and there are fewer people taking books off shelves, as all the books are locked up (though you can request me to get them for you). The library also serves as a venue for the college for events such as Encaenia, or drink receptions. Sometimes you can be participating in college stuff more than library stuff.
Can you describe your Library in three words?
Heather: Church, friendly, busy.
Ben: Unintimidating, 1970s, welcoming.
Lizzie: Unique, architectural, research.
How many staff members are there in your Library?
Jemima: We have four of us in the main office, basically full-time, then there’s the Archivist, the Curatorial Assistant (who was a trainee last year, and is now part-time), and a Shelving Assistant in the mornings in term time. I think it’s a relatively big team for a college library.
Ben: In the library team, it’s just me and the Librarian, so I often wear multiple hats and juggle jobs such as invigilating researchers, cataloguing, shelving, dissertation-binding, reading list creation, purchasing acquisitions, rare books enquiries, and lots more. Working in a small team is great! There is always something to do, and you gain a well-rounded, and sometimes unexpected experience.
Lizzie: We have a Librarian-in-Charge & Conservator, Senior Assistant Librarian, Assistant Librarian for Digital Resources, and a Graduate Trainee (me!), as well as this, we have the following staff who are part-time: Assistant Librarian for Rare Books, a Clerk to the Archives, and the Serials Librarian (who does cataloguing).
Heather: So, at Teddy Hall, it’s me as the Graduate Trainee, James the Librarian, and Emma who is the Assistant Librarian, and our Archivist, Rob, who is in two days a week. He’s also the Archivist at Oriel and I know that it’s quite common for archivists to be shared across colleges. We also have a Library Fellow on the Library Committee.
Jemima: Yes, I think our Fellow Librarian is involved in important decision-making but I barely see him from day to day. I don’t have very much contact with him at all. It sounds like a similar setup.
Lizzie: I see my Fellow Librarian every day. They do the top-level college stuff and there’s a lot of committees so they sit on those as well.
What’s distinctive about the collection in your Library?
Ben (Pembroke): As much as it is a collection reflecting Pembroke’s history as an institution (Pembroke was founded in 1624), we do have some more rogue objects, often things connected with alumni or past staff, such as Tolkien’s letters (we have an amazing letter where Tolkien writes to a friend that he is starting a book called The Hobbit which he hopes will be a success), Samuel Johnson’s desk, Samuel Johnson’s teapot, a fountain pen used by Lyndon B. Johnson, oh and a WWII Japanese sword!
Jemima (New): We have a very good manuscripts and early printed books special collection – I think that comes with the age and wealth of the college. In fact, about 30-40% of my time is spent invigilating readers who come to use our Special Collections for research.
Lizzie (All Souls) : Christopher Wren was a fellow, so we have one of the largest collections of Wren drawings, and T.E. Lawrence was a fellow, so we have some of his things, but they’re on loan to the Ashmolean Museum.
Heather (St Edmund Hall): Something distinctive about our lending collection is that we have lots of student requests and new acquisitions – we’re working hard to try to diversify what we have. At the moment, I am starting to decolonise our history collection.
What kind of interactions do you have with Library readers?
Heather: Readers ask pretty much anything and everything – I spend about half my time on the issue desk. Our library is in a 12th-century church, so we also have people coming to see the building.
Ben: Fairly, a lot! Questions can be anything from “how do I find this book?” all the way to, “Would it be possible to see ‘x’ manuscript?”. During COVID peaks, when students are self-isolating, I deliver books around college to them. My workspace isn’t usually at an issue desk, but at the start of the year I gave lots of induction talks, so now the readers know who I am. This means they are confident to pop into my office, or stop me around college to ask me questions.
Jemima: We don’t have a specific issue desk (everyone is based in the office), so I don’t interact with readers as much as you two do. But that doesn’t mean they don’t come to the office with questions, mostly if they’re having problems with the self-issue machines or they want to borrow a book but don’t have their Bod (library) card.
How does working in a college compare with your expectations?
Jemima: I hadn’t anticipated how much social media, exhibitions and ‘internal outreach’ work I’d get to do. It’s really nice that so much of my role is about sharing the collection with people in college.
Ben: At Pembroke, the Library and Archives work together a lot of the time, which makes the job all the more fun. I can be climbing ladders in order to hang pictures in the hall one minute, then in the next I can be in the depths of the stacks, then helping out with object talks for students or working with furniture and pictures conservators the next, all the way to reader services enquires. However, I think that’s the product of my library team being so small.
Jemima: Yeah, I think it’s worth saying that I think college library jobs are really varied in terms of what you do and the influence you’re able to have.
Do you get involved with other parts of the College?
Heather: Actually, that’s another thing I was surprised by: you’re part of the College team as well as the Library team. I’ve worked with the Communications team to set up a Library Instagram, and worked with the Housekeeping department on the sustainability project.
Jemima: Although as Graduate Trainee I don’t interact with other departments that often, as a Library and Archives department we collaborate with JCR and MCR committees (similar to a college-based Student Unions) to organise tours, and with the college Warden (i.e. Principal or President) on things like exhibitions.
That concludes our discussion about college library life! We managed to get through the whole thing without mentioning the free college lunches. Oh, no, wait…