A day working in Room 206 (Rare Books)

In the recent post about noise levels in libraries, much of the discussion has focused on what libraries are for. The consensus seems to be that libraries are for the readers: they are institutions intended to facilitate the research conducted by a varied demographic. In such a conception, customer care is the first and highest priority of the staff. That such a view should be unchallenged is demonstrative of the fact that nearly all of the trainees spend most (in some cases, all) of their time either dealing directly with customers (answering enquiries, lending material etc.) or helping to render the library a more reader-friendly environment (for instance, changing shelfmarks and labels or opening and updating Facebook pages).

The problem is, however, that this view does not represent the full gamut of librarianship. In some instances, the reader and their purposes have to be subordinated to other priorities. Dealing with rare or antiquarian books is one of those instances. Here the books themselves are the most important thing: their care is the Librarian’s objective. Indeed, the book itself assumes an entirely different character in the job of the Rare Books Librarian. No longer is the book secondary to the knowledge it contains but instead becomes an object of value in its own right, regardless of its specific contents and their use to the reader. Books become cultural artifacts, as opposed to tools in the quest for knowledge. Libraries become museums, dedicated to the careful storage and preservation of the book. Bibliography, conservation and literary history become the key areas of study for the librarian, rather than information management and customer service.

So too do relations with the reader shift, becoming far more troubled: they adopt some aspects of being a struggle for control. The reader wishes to use the book for his or her particular purposes but the Rare Books Librarian has to defend the book from any usage that may damage it or render it liable to theft. So the kind of reader permitted to view the book needs to be restricted to only the most trusted, the most qualified, the most experienced. Even those who meet such stringent criteria need to conduct their research in a place specified by the Librarian: it cannot be dispatched to other libraries or other reading places.  If possible, the item should be handled by the reader only when being supervised by a qualified member of staff. The things that such reader can do with the book must also be severely curtailed: photocopying, scanning or photographing the material is forbidden. The needs of the individual researcher are thus pushed into a subsidiary position: the librarian exists not to indulge the whims of the reader but to defend the book from harm and preserve it for posterity.  It is no surprise, therefore, that some patrons become frustrated with what they perceive as the contumacious behaviour of the staff handling the rare books they need to continue their research. However, they need to understand that, where antiquarian books are concerned, the customer is not always right nor even very important to the entire process.  In an age of consumerism and egoism, such unflattering principles can be difficult to accept but it is ultimately for their own good: if such books are not preserved and kept safe, they may not survive to see another century. They will be lost to future researchers.

One of the tasks that I was given earlier this week demonstrate these principles splendidly. I was asked to move several hundred pre-1800 books from the Nicolson classification scheme to the protected area on J-Floor of the New Bodleian Stack in preparation for their reclassification. Why was this done? As is well known, the New Bodleian Library is going to be demolished and rebuilt. Those books on J-Floor will remain under the direct supervision of Special Collections. However, books in the Nicolson classification scheme will be removed, photocopied and sent to the Social Science Library where they could ultimately be lent out.  This is bad enough for the 27,000 pre-1900 items present but it would be utterly disastrous for the 700 pre-1800 Nicolson books. They would not receive the proper care nor could access to them be regulated. Theft and intentional damage would become far easier. Thus it is necessary to move them and reclassify them so that they do receive the protection they require.

Of course, it is not always possible to defend the books: the outside world will inevitably find a way to invade the closed  and orderly edifices we erect and maintain. This was proved to me earlier on Tuesday when we had a leak reported in K-Floor that had been caused by the heavy rains. The water was dripping in an area where many pre-1900 books were stored. The entire Room 206 team were dispatched to remove those books that were in harm’s way and place them in a safer and, hopefully, drier area of K-Floor. Some books unfortunately were wet enough to warrant a speedy dispatch to the conservation team but most were unharmed.

That we cannot always win should not discourage the Rare Books Librarian from maintaining his or her focus on caring for the book: as Brecht once said “Those who try may fail but those who do not try have already failed.” This is one area of librarianship where the reader must be held resolutely at arm’s length: their satisfaction is not the ultimately objective of this kind of library work.

A Day in the Life of… a Reader Services Member at the Bodleian

As I think most you know, the three trainees at the Bodleian move around throughout the year, thus having the opportunity to experience lots of different aspects of library life. I have started my placement in Reader Services. As a trainee you are a ‘peripatetic’ team member, so you are trained to work in all four of the main reading rooms (Lower Reserve, Upper Reserve, Lower Camera and Upper Camera) in the Old Bodleian library. In a normal week I’ll spend time in at least three of these reading rooms and often also on the Main Enquiry Desk. Throughout the day we get three breaks; one in the morning, one at lunchtime and another in the afternoon. Lots of staff spend their breaks in the common room or in the staff canteen which is called Duke Hungry’s!

My favourite part of my placement so far has been the time I’ve spent on the Main Desk. I really enjoy the variety of questions I get asked and get a great feeling of satisfaction when I can help a reader, especially if they’ve been having trouble with something for a little while. However, I still find some enquiries tricky and I am constantly thinking on my feet to try and think of ways to solve problems or answer questions. The ladies who work there full time have been incredibly helpful and slowly I feel as though I’m finding my way through the vast address book of contacts- at least if I’m familiar with this then I know who to pass my difficult enquiries onto!

This Tuesday I spent half my time in the Lower Reading Room and half the day in the Upper Reading room. The Lower Reading Room specialises in Classics and Patristic theology, both heavily used collections. Duties on Tuesday included receiving deliveries from the stack, shelving stack books, answering reader queries, taking staff-mediated photocopying orders and shelving new journals after recording them in our hand catalogue. Lots of our stack material is currently stored in Cheshire so there are often queries to follow up about this material and journal ordering can also be quite confusing for new readers (and often for me too!)

The Upper Reading houses graduate English and History collections and is a very busy reading room. Deliveries are often very large and can be quite complicated due to the nature of material requested (periodicals, large items, antiquarian material, multi-part volumes). Again, I spent most of my time answering queries, which sometimes involved phone calls to the stack. I always feel like I’ve had my daily exercise quota when I’m working in Upper so it’s nice to be able to go home and have a relaxing evening!

Although I enjoy the variety of working in lots of different places and it has provided a great opportunity to get to know lots of readers and staff, I sometimes miss being able to get to know readers well and I always have to remember to complete any tasks I’ve started or let regular staff members know of any queries they may need to follow up when I’m not there. It is interesting, because although most of us spend some time on the desk, I have had a whole three months exclusively in this role.

I think I will miss the reader interaction and the ‘people side’ of things a bit when I first move to a ‘behind the scenes’ role but I am looking forward to experiencing different aspects of library life.

A day-in-the-life with the futureArch project

People have been talking about ‘day-in-the-life’ blog posts to give everyone a better idea of the different kinds of work we all do and I thought I’d kick things off. For those that don’t know, I’m the trainee for the futureArch project and I’m  going down the archiving,  rather than librarian route. From what I’ve heard from some of the other trainees, my job is quite different, so hopefully people will find this quite interesting. I think the big difference is that I’m only in a reading room dealing with enquiries and visitors one morning a week and the rest of the time I’m in an office and only have to talk to my colleagues!

So anyway, here is a typical Thursday: I’m based in Osney but on Thursday mornings I go over to the Logic School in the Bodleian Quad as I’m being taught how to use EAD, the cataloguing programme. I’ve been given a small collection of Victorian letters to catalogue first, which thankfully is a pretty standard collection. EAD is pretty simple to use, once you get used to all the little quirks and rules, like when inserting the scope/content you have to also insert a paragraph element within it before you can start writing. If you don’t, EAD has a bit of a tantrum and starts highlighting everything in red. It’s also very fussy about punctuation and where you can and cannot have a comma. The hardest part (but also the most fun)  is trying to read the signatures of all the correspondents and work out who they are so I can list them in the catalogue – there’s a lot of variation in the standard of handwriting. Thankfully most of them are famous enough to be in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, or as a last resort, wikipedia. It can be frustrating (one letter was signed ‘H.H.’) but it’s very rewarding when you finally work out who they are (for anyone interested H.H. turned out to be Hugh Haweis).

I finish at the Bodleian at 1pm and get back over to Osney (for which I love the minibus). In the afternoon I get on with my ongoing struggle with the CD imaging programme. The futureArch project is looking at born-digital archives (computer files, emails, MP3s etc.) and trying to develop an infrastructure for preserving and archiving these. CD imaging is a form of forensic imaging whereby a programme examines a disk to see what’s there without disturbing any of the metadata. For instance, we don’t want to change the last modified date, so we can’t just open all the files normally to see what’s there, besides which not all files are compatible with PCs. The programme also harvests and creates other metadata, like MD5 hash values. These are unique identifiers, so you can easily see if a file actually is a duplicate, or just looks the same. The programme can also retrieve deleted files (though not always intact), but this brings up a whole set of issues over the morality of archiving files the owner doesn’t realise we have. The imager also produces a copy of all the files, which eventually will be preserved in our secure server. This means we’re not reliant on computers still having CD drives in fifty years time to be able to view the files – just look at Amstrads: a lot of disks still exist, but if you haven’t got the computer they’re pretty much useless and the data on them is lost.

Anyway, I have a set of disks to image and we have a robotic loader, so in theory I should be able to pile them up and set the loader to put each one in the machine, image it, take it out and put the next one in, but of course technology is never that simple! Most of the time the loader seems to get confused and tries to remove the disk without first opening the disk drive and then decides to sulk and stop working. It also can’t seem to work out when it’s run out of disks and will bring up an error message and again stop working. I was getting a bit worried I’d pressed the wrong button or something, but my manager assures me other people who use it also complain about it being temperamental. Maybe it just doesn’t like being left in a room by itself.

When I get too annoyed with the loader, or just need a break I move on to one of my other tasks, which is sorting out one of the boxed collections. It’s in one of the cages across the hall and when it was archived nobody properly went through it, so I get the exciting job of going through the boxes and removing any staples and paperclips left in there and removing papers from metal ring binders and folders and putting then into plain card ones. A lot of the metal has started to rust and it’s quite dirty work, but it makes a change to do something manual that doesn’t require much brain power and it gets me away from the computer screen for a while. I normally spend the afternoon alternating between the imaging and the box sorting and then comes home time!

There are other jobs I do on different days of the week, but that’s a pretty typical Thursday. It’d be great to hear what other people get up to and compare it.