Madeleine Ahern – Taylor Institution Library

Hi everybody I’m Madeleine, one of two trainees based this year primarily at the Taylor Institution Library with shifts at the Sackler and Oriental Institute as well. I just graduated this spring with my BA Honours degree in History and Art History from Queen’s University in Canada, and after working in archives and museums previously I am now keen to pursue a career in academic librarianship.

A book from our special collections

 

Being a trainee at the Taylorian has been wonderful so far in part because of the extensive collections it encompasses. The Western and Eastern European languages, Linguistics, Film Studies, and Women’s Studies collections make for not only a fascinating range of library resources here but also some neat research going on at any minute. Most people gravitate towards our beautiful reading room adjacent to the main research collection stacks it seems!

 

The main reading room

 

I am primarily based at the issue desk so far, fielding reader inquiries, doing some book processing, shelving, and most recently preparing for inductions week. A favourite moment of my traineeship so far was when I got to work with Dalí, Matisse, and Picasso prints from the Strachan Artist Book collection all in one afternoon. I am really looking forward to all that is to come this year, in part because of an exciting new Navigation and Wayfinding Project that I am undertaking with my fellow trainee Chloe and a team of librarians across the Taylorian and Sackler to improve reader experience.

The History Faculty Library’s Collections

The first weeks of February occupy the middle of Oxford University’s Hilary Term. They represent a busy time for students; the History Faculty Library’s self-collect shelves are heaving with off-site stack requests and there is rarely an empty seat in sight. Roughly speaking, this period also marks the midway point of the Bodleian Libraries Graduate Traineeship and now I feel more familiar with the library’s collections, I thought I’d use this space to share a few details about them.

Not just books: The HFL houses a variety of other items including maps and DVDs.

There are a little over 80,000 volumes at the HFL, including 1100 books in the local history section and 3,500 ‘oversize’ books on art, architecture and archaeology. Yet, it’s the main lending sequence that accounts for the bulk of this figure. Spanning three floors, the majority of the books in this collection can be borrowed by anyone with a blue reader’s card. Theoretically, this means that every current member of the University has the opportunity to take home a sample of what the History Faculty Library has to offer.

Those with a blue card like this one can borrow a variety of items from the HFL.

Though it parted ways with 473 of its rare antiquarian books when it moved from the Old Indian Institute in 2012, the library still has approximately 1,000 pre-nineteenth-century volumes in its care. A portion of these are known as ‘set texts’, which are prescribed readings for undergraduates studying Joint or Single Honours History Degrees. In certain cases, the HFL has the only available copy these readings in Oxford, making the Set Text Collection in the Upper Camera a particularly important and unique resource.

A sample of the blue-labelled books in the Set Text Collection.

The library further provides for the needs of students by responding to trends currently shaping the historical disciplines. Between March and June 2018, the library purchased just over 1100 books in the wake of a recent syllabus reform by the University’s History Faculty, whilst steps have also been taken to secure additional funding for pre-emptive purchasing in growth areas, such as global medieval history. The time spent processing these new acquisitions has been fascinating. All too often an intriguing title or profound idea has diverted my attention from the timely application of stamps and Tattle Tape. It’s a similiar story organising the New Books Display, though I think this is somewhat understandable given the premise of a few volumes in particular…

The weird and wonderful! Captivating titles at the HFL include: The Bedroom, An Intimate History; Shoplifting In Eighteenth Century England; Beard Fetish In Early Modern England; and The Known Citizen, A History Of Privacy In Modern America.

Joking aside, it has been exciting to witness an influx of research on previously neglected pasts. It seems historians are now asking more questions, about more things, than ever before. Welcoming the fruits of their labour to the HFL with a shelf mark, bookplate and dust-jacket cover has  certainly been a therapeutic way to spend a quiet afternoon!

Adding to the breadth of the library’s collections, many of these new arrivals are inter-disciplinary in nature, made worthy of a position on the open shelves by virtue of their versatility. However, some more specialist works are sent directly to the off-site storage facility in Swindon, a decision predicated on a forecast of infrequent use. Here, they are kept safe in climate-controlled conditions under the watchful eye of the Head of the Bodleian Storage Facility, or BSF. Being so far removed from Oxford doesn’t necessarily mean these books won’t see a day in a reading room though. Despite the 80(ish) mile round trip, off-site items are never more than a few clicks away from being sent to a variety of Bodleian Libraries via SOLO.

The Radcliffe Camera’s large wooden sorting table for incoming and outgoing BSF deliveries.

Though comparably modest in size, the HFL certainly punches above its weight when it comes to provision. This is, in no small part, due to a concise and effective collection development policy which sees students and academics well catered for. Yet, as one of the Bodleian Libraries, the HFL is also aided by the logistical and technical support derived from the legal-deposit library’s infrastructure. The Bodleian’s network of reader terminals, dotted throughout the Radcliffe Camera and Gladstone Link, provide access to hundreds of thousands of e-resources, including eLegal-Deposit items. Additionally, the Radcliffe Camera’s status as a collection point for off-site stack requests puts the Bodleian’s vast reserves of print material at the fingertips of any HFL visitor. Though such a symbiotic arrangement might seem challenging, in this instance, it has proven to be a winning combination.

Ross Jones, History Faculty Library and Radcliffe Camera

 

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

Marjolein Platjee, Weston Library

Hello everyone! I’m Marjolein and I am the new digital archivist trainee at the Weston Library. The Weston Library, or originally the New Bodleian Library, was built in the 1930’s in order to house all the books and collections that no longer fit in the Old Bodleian. However, by 2010 the Bodleian’s holding’s had outgrown this building as well. The decision was made to move the majority of the material to Swindon and to completely renovate the New Bodleian. The library reopened under the name Weston Library in 2015, and is now home to the special collections. It has two large reading rooms where readers can consult the material in these collections.

The Weston Library

So now you know where I work, but I bet you are wondering what it is I actually do. Well, I have a job that offers quite a bit of variety, which makes it exciting. On Monday mornings you can find me in one of the two reading rooms of the Weston Library to answer questions that readers have, give out archival materials and books etc.

I am also being taught how to catalogue both digital, paper and hybrid collections. This involves making a boxlist (where you list what is in each box of a collection brought into the archive), creating a cataloguing proposal, arranging the material in a way that is logical for readers who wish to consult it in the future, cataloguing it and publishing it online. So far I have really enjoyed making boxlists, as you never quite know what material you come across… The most exotic items I have encountered are undoubtedly temporary tattoos and multi-coloured, gold inscribed corkscrews. That’s right, archiving doesn’t just involve books and piles of loose paper.

Me getting materials out of the stacks whilst wearing the protective and “ever so stylish” Bodleian bobcap.

Speaking of publishing catalogues online, I am currently helping my colleagues to reformat the XML (i.e. code) behind the online catalogues of the special collections. We are doing this to transfer them to a new, better system, which will help readers navigate the online collections more easily.

Next to this, I also spend quite a bit of time digitizing media such as CD’s, cassette tapes etc. using forensic software so that the information is preserved for posterity.

Apart from all of the above, I also work on the Bodleian web archive, where we archive entire websites so anyone can still consult them after their owners have taken them offline. We are currently writing a Libguide to accompany our collection, to help readers navigate the collection and to refer them to other web archives that might be of interest to them.

I am really enjoying my time here and definitely am not getting bored with all the exciting and interesting tasks I have to do. I cannot wait to see what else there is to learn!

Jenna Meek, Bodleian Law Library

Me! In front of our exhibition celebrating 100 years of votes for women. Photographed by Hannah Chandler (Official Papers Librarian), @thelawbod

Hello! I’m Jenna, and I will be spending my traineeship in the Bodleian Law Library. I am originally from a town in central Scotland, and have spent the last 6 years in Glasgow where I completed my degree in English Literature and History of Art at the University of Glasgow. While I have not travelled the furthest for the traineeship, as we have a few trainees from mainland Europe doing placements with us, Oxford certainly feels like a far cry from Glasgow! Most notably, having only experienced a blend of a city and campus university in Glasgow, getting my head around the collegiate system in Oxford has been difficult. Something I am coming to realise is that Oxford likes to do things VERY differently in many respects!

I was so pleased and grateful to have been offered a place on the traineeship, but also slightly intimidated! I have no previous professional experience of working in a library, but became very familiar with my university library spending (literally) every day there during my final year. I do, however, have around 8 years of customer service and retail experience which I think will come in extremely useful when on the enquiry desk and interacting with such a varied pool of readers in a library as busy as the BLL. Secondly, it was advised that it would be preferable if the BLL trainee had a decent grasp of a few languages, which thankfully I do. This has come in very useful when completing one of my integral tasks of organizing the weekly New Journal Display which boasts many foreign language texts. However, it had not aided when trying to decide which page is the title page when processing a text written in Chinese characters!

While the BLL interior seems very new after having a refurbishment in the last few years, the building itself was built in 1959-1964. As Bryony has stated below, it shares the St. Cross Building with the EFL and the Law Faculty and creates a series of three interlocking cubes. It has a very different feel from many of the college libraries dotted around Oxford, though it has definitely been built for purpose, with four floors of space for the 550,000 texts the Law Bod holds which are mainly on open access. Designed by Sir Leslie Martin (1908-2000) and Colin St John Wilson (1922-2007), the blocky exterior is juxtaposed with the light and airy atrium in the main reading room. Jeffrey Hackney, who was a law student at Wadham College when the building opened, describes:

“My first reaction to the building was that it had been modelled on an Aztec temple and it was a constant source of pleasant surprise that there were no human sacrifices at the top of the steps. “

However, during the exam period, I imagine many students are in as much terror and as helpless as the sacrificial lamb! In actual fact, Ruth Bird, (Bodleian Law Librarian 2004 – 2017) advises that there is notable influence from Alvar Aalto’s Säynätsalo Hall, and the external brick cladding intended to blend with the stone of the adjacent Holywell manor and St Cross Church.

The BLL in 1964: Donat, John, Bodleian Law Library, St Cross Building, University of Oxford, Photoprint, 1964, RIBA Collections
Säynätsalo Hall: Accessed September 2018, https://museot.fi/searchmuseums/?museo_id=9147

One of the most interesting parts of my introductory weeks has been seeing the Official Papers holdings in rolling stacks on the ground floor. 2.5 linear kilometres of texts were moved from the basement of the Radcliffe Building to the Law Bod in 2009. Seeing reports and materials that have changed laws and the lives of people living in the UK has been a real treat and I’m hoping to do a blog post on some of the most interesting finds in the near future.

At the end of my third week, I have already learned SO much and I can’t wait to continue learning and gaining new skills from the extremely helpful teams housed in the BLL, as well as training alongside all the lovely trainees on the scheme. So far I’m not feeling the terror the sacrificial lamb, but I’ll get back to you on that once the mass of undergraduates start in a couple of weeks!

References:

Hackney, Jeffrey in Ed. Bird, Ruth, Celebrating 50 Years of the Bodleian Law Library 1964 – 2014, Witney, Oxfordshire: Windrush Group, 2014, p.5

Ibid., p.138

University of Oxford, The Faculty of Law, Accessed: September 2018, https://www.law.ox.ac.uk/about-us/about-faculty/st-cross-building