OPENING DOORS WITH RICHARD OVENDEN BLOG SERIES:
Richard Ovenden is the Bodleian’s 25th Librarian and has been in this position since 2014. In addition to being Bodley’s Librarian, Richard holds several professional roles including Head of Gardens, Libraries & Museums, President of the Digital Preservation Coalition, Director of the Bodleian’s Centre for the Study of the Book, Board Member of the Council on Library and Information Resources as well as a Member of The Academic Advisory Board at Deutsches Literaturarchiv . All in all, a very busy man!
Richard has delivered numerous talks about the delivery of e-content by libraries in the UK and the US, the role of libraries and archives, and the 2018 Tolkien: Maker of Middle Earth exhibition at the Weston . He has also written a number of articles, essays, research reports, and is the author of ‘Burning the Books: A History of Knowledge Under Attack’ , which was shortlisted for the 2021 Wolfson History Prize.
Last year a few of us trainees had the very exciting opportunity to speak with Richard Ovenden at the Weston Café over tea (and delicious cakes). Throughout the next few weeks, we will be sharing what we discussed in a series of blog posts, beginning with Richard Ovenden’s journey to Bodley’s Librarian – his interest in librarianship and where it came from
Opening Doors: The Journey to Bodley’s Librarian
This is Part I of our four-part series on our interview with Richard Ovenden.
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.
For a look at how various libraries are able to collaborate and serve their individual communities, please see Part IV.
After settling down with our beverages and cakes, we asked Richard how his journey into libraries began.
For him, it started early, “being taken to my public library with my mum when I was about three. So, borrowing books from one of my public libraries, and then, when I was a teenager, going by myself and reading.” This kind of memory may be familiar to many, but over the years, Richard made the change from reader to staff member after becoming a student librarian at his college library in Durham. The role was fairly typical, “mainly tidying – nothing very exciting”. But it was in his second year there when an opportunity arose that seems to have lit a spark in the young Richard Ovenden. The construction of a new college bar meant that he was offered the chance to move the secondary sequence “which was basically a basement room full of mouldering books” and told that if he stayed over the summer holidays he would be paid for his trouble. As Richard recalls, “this was great. I was the first from my family to go to university so my parents thought this was great as I was being paid.”
“For the first time, I could see myself doing a job.”
Whilst working on this book move, Richard came across some early books, “15th century things”. Not knowing what to do with them he went over to the University Library “to ask someone some advice – literally walking up to the enquiry desk”. The staff there “pointed to this door that had a brass plaque on it, which said: ‘Keeper of Rare Books’, which I thought was quite cool. There was a wonderful holder of the office called Beth Rainey, and she was incredibly kind and generous and patient and helpful, and I thought – wow, this is really good. For the first time, I could see myself doing a job.” After this revelation, he then stayed on as a trainee librarian at Durham with three others. “We moved around different departments of the university library and then went to library school”. For Richard, the event that really shaped his future in libraries “was really that moment – becoming a student librarian and meeting lots of serious professional librarians.”
After leaving the traineeship at Durham, Richard’s career progressed through a number of library jobs. Notably, at one point he became a member of what is now ‘The Rare Book and Special Collections Group of CILIP’ a title equally as impressive to impressionable young graduate trainees as the grand ‘Keeper of Rare Books’ must have been to Richard. But through all of his inspiring career moves, he credits his colleagues as being key mentors who were instrumental in his path towards becoming Bodley’s Librarian.
Whilst he was a member of the special collections group at CILIP, the chair of that same committee, Barry Bloomfield, “was a very senior figure in librarianship. He was just, again, very kind and helpful.” Another key figure in Richard’s early career was Ian Mowat, Chief Librarian at Edinburgh University Library. “He was a fantastic leader,” Richard reminisced. “Just working with him for four years, I learnt a huge amount. Not that he taught me but just watching him – I absorbed it.” After Ian Mowat died young, Richard felt the need to move on. “I couldn’t think of staying there and not working with him. So, I came to Oxford.” Whilst there Richard had the opportunity to work under his two predecessors in the role of Bodley’s Librarian. First was Reg Carr, who was instrumental in the integration of the departmental libraries at the Bodleian. Richard recalls that he “was also very involved in digital things and JISC – in the old days of JISC. So, he was great.” Then Richard’s direct predecessor Sarah Thomas “was a very different character, and I learnt a huge amount from her – I worked very closely with her. So, that was like a masterclass.”
“The variety of libraries continues to be a source of joy and wonder.”
Part of the strength of Richard’s career history is not only in the calibre of colleagues he has had the pleasure of working with
over the years, but also the sheer variety of roles he has undertaken. In Richard’s own words, “the older I get, and the more I look across the profession, I think the variety of libraries continues to be a source of joy and wonder.” Obviously he has a strong background in academic libraries, and he admits, “I’ve worked in university libraries most of my career” but as mentioned above he also has experience “in National Libraries and in parliamentary libraries” as well as being “involved in various ways with other special libraries as a trustee, like at the Chawton House Library which is for Rural Studies and has rural literature.”
Richard’s opinion is that “it’s good to be involved with all those different aspects because there are commonalities between them all, but their variety is partly what makes life interesting.” Beyond just keeping the spice in life however, he also makes the point that “they all serve their communities differently,” a sentiment which rings true for many of us in the library world.
We finished our interview by asking Richard Ovenden if he had any final pieces of advice for those looking to pursue a career in Librarianship. Ever the generous boss, he gave us two: Firstly, “just try and visit and talk to as many libraries and archives as possible. Just seeing the work of a diverse range and talking to professionals of a diverse range is just really good.” And finally, “your network – your own network. My network has in the past and continues to sustain me in different ways. I utilise it to ask questions and see who I can get to come and speak and see who I can connect my new colleague with to help him or her and the problem that they’re trying to solve. So that network that you’re building now – think about it as you are doing it. Collect people’s business cards, capture their profiles in your contacts lists, follow them on social media, go on LinkedIn – it’s really, really important. Nurture it and curate it and stay in touch with each other.”
Our hope is that the advice and information provided by this blog will help those of you out there who are also interested in pursuing a career in Librarianship and can serve in some small way to kickstart your own network of information and contacts. Anyone who is interested in connecting with other people at the beginning of a career in Libraries should check out the ECLAIR (Early Career Library & Information Resource) Community.