Ruminations From A Reading Room

As part of the traineeship, I work one late shift each Friday, which makes for a welcome change of pace. Once the 9 to 5 flurry of circulation activity subsides, a palpable calm fills the library as readers settle down to an evening of study. The shift in tempo provides a much needed opportunity to catch up with emails, book processing and other ongoing projects. It also gives me the chance to reflect on some of the things that make this experience so memorable, primarily working in the Radcliffe Camera.

An early morning snap of the Camera

Home to the History Faculty Library, this building is a regular feature of lists and literature documenting noteworthy landmarks throughout the UK. Its circular design, with baroque allusions to classical architecture, make it a feast for the eyes. Perhaps unsurprisingly, images of ‘The Camera’ pervade the city’s visual culture and manifest in a plethora of interesting ways. A staple of postcard vendors, it can be seen spray-painted to a building on the Cowley Road and is the subject of pictures in numerous shops and restaurants.  Its likeness has been reimagined in the form of key chains, book ends and ornaments in the Bodleian Shop as well.

Some of the trinkets available in the Bodleian Shop

The Camera’s role as a reading room of the Old Bodleian Library since 1860 has also brought it international recognition, and this cultural icon continues to attract large numbers of students, academics and tourists from around the world today. This trend reflects the increasing popularity of the Bodleian Libraries as a whole. Figures from the 2016/17 academic year reveal that specialists and staff across the organisation responded to roughly 7,500 queries a week, and sustained public interest has meant that the Libraries are among the UK’s top 50 most visited attractions in 2018. This got me thinking of how such an organisation meets the expectations of a complex and increasingly large demographic; the task of reconciling the contradictions between tourist attraction and academic library must be a tricky one!

Through the traineeship, I have been fortunate enough to learn about some of the ways this challenge is being addressed. During a behind the scenes tour of the Weston Library, Christopher Fletcher, Keeper of Special Collections, shed light on how the building’s clever use of space helps to serve a host of different visitors. The open plan design of the atrium in Blackwell Hall means that the cafe, exhibition rooms, lecture theatre, temporary displays and information desk are visible as one seamless panorama, whilst a suspended glass-panelled gallery puts the inner-workings of the library on display overhead. It’s this architectural ingenuity that helps evoke a welcoming sense of inclusivity.

Blackwell Hall and the Weston Library’s suspended gallery

The Bodleian’s decision to accommodate for heightened levels of public interest is evident throughout the central site. In addition to hosting open lectures and workshops, The Libraries also offer a sneak-peak of the reading rooms, some of which featured in the Harry Potter films. Each week, volunteer guides perform the mini miracle of leading immersive tours through this famed network of silent study spaces, with minimal disruption to readers. Nearing the end of Michaelmas term, I am still struck by the novelty of a trail of beguilled visitors passing through the library each Wednesday to gaze at the Camera’s domed ceiling.

The ceiling in the Upper Camera

Though I’ve not been here long, it seems to me that a flexible, creative and pragmatic approach to public engagement has meant that there really is something for everyone at the UK’s largest library system. It is enlightening to learn how such a feat is achieved.

Ross Jones, History Faculty Library and Radcliffe Camera

Emmy Ingle, Lady Margaret Hall Library

Me in the very intriguing Briggs Room, where the rare books live.

Hello, I’m Emmy and I’m the current graduate trainee at Lady Margaret Hall Library, one of the college libraries. For my first post, I thought I’d give an introduction to how our library and its unique personality fit into the 100+ Oxford libraries. I’ll also tell you a bit about my own interests and experiences within libraries and information, which are a little different from an academic library.

‘Filled with volumes of every kind, handsomely bound without, and full of useful learning within…’

 

…is how an early student described the original LMH library. It’s large for a college library, and there is a historical reason for this. LMH was founded in 1878 to allow women to study at the university; previously, colleges only admitted men. Early LMH students were heavily discouraged from visiting the Bodleian Library (where they might encounter boys!) and consequently they relied on a comprehensively stocked college library. One of the things I like about the college is how they continue their history of access and inclusivity, for example through the Foundation Year programme.

1879: the college’s first nine students. [Source: LMH]
This slightly larger collection includes  a rare books room (having lived surrounded by the history of the Pendle Witches for the last few years, I’m excited to meet the witchcraft books). However, we’re still smaller than the faculty libraries, and being part of a small team means I get to do a bit of everything – from the expected (turning the photocopier off and on again) to the more surprising (competing on the library’s Giant Jenga team and definitely not cheating).

LMH Library from across the wildflower meadow.

So how did I end up here? Saturday afternoons spent helping out at my local Sue Ryder shop were my introduction to systematising written materials: sipping tea in the stock room, I’d sort bin bags of dusty-smelling books into alphabetised piles. Later, I became interested in the information side of things. Between university lectures I volunteered with the student charity Sexpression:UK, who facilitate workshops in schools around PSHE topics. This made me reflect on where the young people I was working with sourced knowledge and information, and how they were (or weren’t) being encouraged to evaluate it.

Having developed this interest in information in health contexts, I looked for some work experience with Library and Knowledge Services at my local NHS trust. Besides trying out shelving, the label machine, and other more traditional library activities, a clinical setting presents more unusual opportunities. I found myself testing wet-wipes with nurses, learning my way around a forest plot, and listing as many synonyms as I could find for ‘hip operation’. Healthcare knowledge and information is an area I’m hoping to become involved in following the traineeship, so I’ll probably talk a bit more about what this entails in another post.

Freddy doing a bit of shelving.

Having looked at the past and the future, I’ll leave you with what’s currently going on in the library at this time of year. Students are about to resume their studies. This means there are inductions to prepare (which may involve jelly beans and our resident skeleton, Freddy) and the latest textbooks to process. Meanwhile, the library pages in my notebook are already filling up with events, meetings and scribbled ideas. I’m looking forward to sharing them on here as they happen.