This is Part IV 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 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.
Last week we discussed the duty and future of libraries and archives especially with regards to the digital age. This week, in our final post of the Richard Ovenden Blog Post series, we will look at some examples of how libraries are able to collaborate and serve their various communities.
“we’re [not] just a supporting service … we are actually part of the University.”
As previously mentioned in our first post of this series, Richard Ovenden is Head of Gardens, Libraries & Museums (GLAM) as well as being Bodley’s Librarian. This is a post he took over from Professor Anne Trefethen early last year, “I became head of GLAM in February”, which Richard Ovenden has described as involving “trying to build on all of the work of my predecessors as head of GLAM in supporting the cultural and scientific collections in the University”. Following our interview, Richard Ovenden mentioned that he had a meeting with “the University and Strategy Plan Programme Board which is working on the University’s new strategy”. In particular, Richard highlighted his aim of emphasising the importance of libraries, and their contribution to the University of Oxford: “What I’m trying to do is to help the University develop a strategy that has these kinds of issues that we have just been talking about, as centrally as possible” libraries are “[not] just a supporting service” but instead “we are actually part of the University.”
Throughout our interview, Richard makes a point of discussing Libraries within the context of the communities that they serve. For the Bodleian that primarily encompasses the staff and students at the University of Oxford (although not insignificant are the various independent researchers and even members of the general public who may also interact with our collections). But each library will have diverse communities that they need to determine how best to provide for.
One anecdote in particular that stood out was Richard’s mention of Uma-Mahadevan-Dasgupta, a woman he met who is not a Librarian, but in fact “a civil servant in India … her whole raison-d’être is to build a public library network in rural India”. The community she serves in this process is one that is “disenfranchised from knowledge, if you like, and as part of their educational experience they don’t have those opportunities and that seems to me tragic.” But the work that she’s striving to achieve is “just incredible … it’s very, very simple stuff but it’s kind of transforming the opportunities for people in rural India – young people opening books for the first time, it’s just phenomenal.” Richard’s admiration for Uma and the work she’s doing is clear, and understandable. There are few library staff who wouldn’t see the appeal in getting to create, shape, and expand a new network of libraries across a nation with previously limited access to such resources. As Richard says, “she’s been one of the most inspirational people I’ve met in a long time, and just incredible.”
“Public libraries are on the front line serving their community in every possible way that they can.”
But one doesn’t need to travel all the way to India to see ways in which libraries can change to better serve their underrepresented communities. Richard mentions a recent trip to Berlin where he “gave a talk in a public library”. He describes the library itself as, “a very good public library with a children’s library section and books, but not many. Small, on a modest scale.” It serves “an area of Berlin that has a big immigrant community, they’re facing defacement and vandalism from the far right because they have services directed towards the Turkish” and other marginalised groups. These groups are just as fundamental a part of the local community as any of the other residents and these “public libraries are on the front line serving their community in every possible way that they can.” The talk Richard was giving was in fact directly intended to address the issues of vandalism faced by the library and the wider community, it was on the subject of “censorship and banning books” which shows just how much work even ‘modest’ libraries will put in to serve and protect its users. As Richard says, “they’re really standing up for [their community].”
On the same trip to Berlin, Richard made a visit to the director of the Staatsbibliotek, or ‘Berlin State Library’. The Staatsbibliotek is a part of a wider organisation called the Stiftung Preussischer Kulturbesitz, or ‘Prussian Culutural Heritage Foundation’ which is “responsible for the museum and state libraries and state archives, state everything.” The Foundation is one of the largest cultural organisations in the world and “responsible for these amazing institutions.” Lucky for us then that Oxford’s Gardens, Libraries and Museums (of which Richard is the head) already have “an MOU” (Memorandum of Understanding – a non-binding letter that says the institutions will work together.) “with that organisation, which sits alongside the MOU between Oxford university and the four Berlin universities.” As Richard says, “this is a cultural and knowledge partnership alongside the academic partnership,” the opportunity for two such prestigious institutions to be able to work together on future projects is a wonderful opportunity for both parties. However, as this MOU was signed just before the pandemic “we haven’t really been able to do much collaboration.” Now that restrictions are loosening however, “we actually have an agenda for collaboration between the Bodleian and the Staats.” This agenda is hopefully one that will continue into the future as, “next year we’re re-signing the MOU with the Stiftung and GLAM.”
One can’t help but feel that this all harks back to the advice Richard gave in our first article. The importance of networks and connections between library staff is central, not just to developing one’s personal career trajectory, but also between institutions as a way of supporting global efforts to protect and preserve knowledge and serve individual communities. Libraries can only continue to do the fundamental work that they are engaged in if they cooperate, share knowledge, and support one another. After all, isn’t that really what libraries are all about?
We would like to thank Richard Ovenden for very generously giving up some of his time to meet with us. We really enjoyed our conversation with him and learned a lot by listening to his experiences of the library world. We hope these blog posts will be useful to those wanting to learn more about what happens behind the scenes at the Bodleian and the wider world of libraries!