A Day in the Life at the Oxford Union Library

10am – 12pm: Careers in Libraries

Tuesday (17 January 2023) started with an online conference organized by Emma from the Bodleian Staff Development Team. Open to public, the conference introduced various career paths in the field of librarianship. I gave a short talk as a current trainee, sharing my day-to-day experience at the Union Library. I was happy to see some familiar faces and listen to my colleagues describing the projects they had been working on. I appreciate the Bodleian team for organizing these career events. Last year, as a student, I attended a similar event during which three Bodleian librarians shared career tips and personal insights.


Poetry Room: a room with a view and lots of fiction, but no poetry

12pm – 1pm: Isherwood Lecture

Access to free lectures is a huge reason why I love working in a university environment. At the beginning of each term, I check out the courses offered by the English department, a habit/hobby developed during my undergraduate years. Since I work evening shifts on Tuesdays, I could rearrange my hours to create a 90-minute window in the middle of the day to attend a lecture on Christopher Isherwood and have lunch afterwards (will explain how this works in more detail below*).

Reading literature is, in a sense, my way of constantly reaffirming my decision to go into librarianship. The pay is okay for now, as I don’t have kids or other expensive hobbies (but every once in a while, I also want to go to London and re-watch The Phantom of the Opera!); the work itself is not stress free (as a kid I imagined librarians just sitting at the help desk with a cup of tea and reading novels all day. Very naïve). But every day working at the Union Library has proven that the company of books and book-loving people is just priceless. Isherwood, for one, was an author I encountered while shelving books. I love books—if I haven’t mentioned this already. I love wiping dusts off their covers, putting them back on shelves next to their cousins, discovering bookmarks (and all the weird things people use as bookmarks) between pages. Who left you there, little pack of contraceptive pills?


1pm – 1:30pm: (Almost) Free Lunch

As a Union employee, I receive a £4 lunch allowance at the Union bar every day, and lunch at the Union bar is priced at, yes, £4.50. The coronation chicken baguette is delicious though, definitely worth that 50p.


1:30pm – 2:30pm: Random Small Tasks


Sorting out paperwork for the library committee meeting. The library committee members meet every Monday to discuss new books they’d like to buy and old books they’d like to get rid of. I take notes during the meetings and write some reports and agendas afterwards.


2:30pm – 4pm: Book Display

Reading List Poster

The Union is, after all, a debating society. During term time, the students here organize a debate every Thursday evening. This Thursday’s motion is:

‘This House Believes that the Future is Post-gender’.

The library staff put a few books on display based on the topic every week. This week, I searched for books on gender studies and queer theory, trying to find relevant materials for both sides of the argument. To prepare a book display project or a reading list, I usually begin by brainstorming relevant books I know. In this case, Judith Butler’s theory of performativity proved to be a good start. Then, I’d search on Google and SOLO for key words – it turned out that Rutgers had a very comprehensive reading list on queer theory, thanks, Academia. To narrow down my choices, I’d read the abstracts of the books and sometimes skimming through those that seem particularly interesting. This time, I settled on the following:

  • Undoing Gender by Judith Butler
  • Bodies that Matter: On the Discursive Limits of ‘Sex’ by Judith Butler
  • Gender Queer: A Memoir by Maia Kobabe
  • No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive by Lee Edelman
  • Invisible Women: Exposing the Gender Bias Women Face Every Day by Caroline Criado Perez

I also create a simple poster to go along with the books. Here on the right is a poster I am especially fond of, designed for the Winter Reading List last year.

My hope is that these reading lists will give readers a glimpse into an area that may be new to them. This is certainly true for me personally. I find library work to be, in a sense, the opposite of academic research: in the latter you end up knowing a lot about one particular area, while in the former you learn a little about a wide range of topics.


4pm – 5pm: Shelving

Fun and satisfying work for someone with an obsession for orderliness.


5pm – 7pm: Evening Shift

Apart from sitting at the help desk and answering reader enquiries, I was mostly working on a blog post (not this one). The Union is about to launch its own blog soon. The article I have been working on is about a fascinating episode that took place in the 1960s at the Union.


*Normally I work from 9:30am to 5pm with a 30-minute lunch break; on Tuesdays I have evening shifts, so I work from 11:30am to 7pm instead. On this particular Tuesday, however, I started 90 minutes early at 10am, so that I could take some time off at noon to attend the Isherwood lecture. This Tuesday is rather unusual, but I chose it for my ‘Day in the Life’ post so as to show the blog reader the variety of activities you can engage in as a Bodleian trainee.


Old Photo of the Union in 1909


Rose Zhang, Oxford Union Society Library

Hello! I am Rose, the 22-23 graduate trainee at the Oxford Union Library. Today (3 Oct) is my first day of work and I am also writing my very first blog!

The Oxford Union is a debating society created by and for the Oxford students, and the library used to be the society’s debating chamber. As a lover of 19th-century literature, I find myself extremely lucky to be working every day in this Victorian building with Gothic looking rose windows and walls painted by the Pre-Raphaelites.

A photo showing the interior of the Oxford Union Society Library
The Union Library (Photo Credit: Barker Evans)


My love for libraries began when I was a kid in China. There was a period when I was obsessed with R. L. Stine’s book series Goosebumps. I was too young then to have my own money and yet too old to not feel embarrassed spending five hours in a bookstore without purchasing anything. Luckily, there was a tiny library in the neighbourhood with an entire shelf of Goosebumps. After I finished them, I went on to read Agatha Christie, the Bronte sisters, Hugo, Camus… Since the literary curriculum at school focused primarily on Chinese literature, it was through libraries that I had my first glimpse into world literature, which then led me to study literature at university. After completing my bachelor’s degree in English and Psychology, I came to Oxford for my master’s degree in Comparative Literature. Meanwhile, I worked part-time at several academic libraries. I particularly enjoyed my time as a shelving assistant at the English Faculty Library, where I had the opportunity to work on a variety of tasks—thanks to my kind and supportive colleagues there, who taught me so much about the art of librarianship!


A photo of a mural depicting Arthur's Wedding to Guinivere, painted by William and Briton Riviere
Arthur’s Wedding to Guinevere: Murals painted by William & Briton Riviere (Photo Credit: Cyril Band)


The trainee programme so far has been really eye-opening. As a student, I used SOLO every day for my research. It’s amazing for me to see from the library’s perspective how much work has been put into a sophisticated online database like SOLO, and how it is intricately connected to Aleph. Today, I also had the fun experience of looking into our library archive. We had an inquiry about a particular debate that took place in 1974. My colleague Laura and I went into the stack room in the basement to find copies of the term cards and minutes from half a century ago. I always find it fascinating to read handwritings of people who are before my time, to see their styles of writing, and to imagine them as unique individuals. To me, previous members of the Union are no longer just faces in a black and white photo. I look forward to this new academic year, and also the many years to come of working in libraries!

Elizabeth Piper, Oxford Union Society Library

Good morrow! I’m Elizabeth and I’m the trainee at the Oxford Union Society Library.

It’s an older photo sir, but it checks out…

The Union is cunningly hidden off Cornmarket Street with another entrance on St. Michael’s Street and acts rather like a private club for its’ members- people come here to work away from colleges or distractions from roommates and the like, although the Union bar is in the room next door so distractions are never that far away! The library houses about 46,000 books which makes it one of Oxford’s smaller libraries, but it makes up for that with some incredible murals and a painted ceiling from the pre-Raphaelites showing scenes from Tennyson’s Morte d’Arthur. Unlike other libraries, it holds the largest collection of travel guides and fiction (outside of the Bodleian, naturally!), but unlike the Bod, all of these are borrowable.

Oxford Union Society Library
This is the Old Library which was the old Debating Chamber and now the Main Library

There are four of us who work here and we have the luxury to have an actual office just off the library, so we’re allowed tea at our desks! This is a luxury I never had when working in Christ Church, where I worked for a few years in the Main Library, and also producing an item-level catalogue for one of the special collections called The Portal Papers which is a collection from the Chief of the Air Staff of the Royal Air Force from World War Two. These are the papers that really sparked my interest in libraries. I had previously served in the RAF and seeing how records that were classified as Top Secret had been protected and kept hidden away, just waiting for a time when they were able to be used and read again is absolutely fascinating to me. Some of the papers had not been looked at since Portal looked at them and finding that information for the first time just hiding in plain sight in a grey or blue archival box looking completely innocuous on a shelf is, I think, quite exciting. And that is just one collection- knowing that libraries are full of collections just like this just waiting to be found made me apply for the Masters programme in Library and Information Studies at Aberystwyth which I am currently doing via distance learning at the moment.

Sir Lancelot mural
Nice detail of the murals

My days in the library are generally spent learning super in-depth how to catalogue, although there are other duties as well. I am the minutes secretary for the Library Committee which decides which books should be kept and which to be withdrawn- there is a “one-in: one-out” policy when it comes to acquisitions here. The members are in charge of our policies, budgets and acquisitions as a general rule, and members can range from a first-year undergraduate to a senior life-member who has been a part of the Union for the last seventy years. It is a style of management I haven’t come across before in Oxford libraries. The other bonus to working here is getting to go to the debates or to hear the speaker events- only recently, I got to see Jon Stewart and Dave Chappelle while they were at the Union which was incredibly exciting.

All in all, this is a great place to work! 🙂

A Day in the Life of the Oxford Union Trainee

9.15am   I arrive and help my colleagues open up the Library. This involves a lot of light switches, unlocking various doors and drawers using a wide selection of keys and provides the rare treat of enjoying a moment or two in the Old Library all by yourself: an amazing chance to glance up and marvel at the Pre-Raphaelite murals and William Morris painted ceiling. If I’m honest, working here has ruined my expectations for workplace interior décor…

The Old Library

I check the returns box for any overnight deposits and scan them in, sorting books for reshelving. Then it is time to check emails and ensure everything is ready to go for when the readers start to arrive at 9.30am.

9.30am   During term time, I’m either on desk duty for the morning or afternoon. This gives me a chance to get on with processing and classifying any new books, before adding them on SOLO – a job that is easy to break away from to help students with any enquiries or to loan and return books. Members of the public who wish to visit the murals also come to the library desk as their first port of call. During the vacation, we offer talks to groups on the history of the murals – I’ve recently given my first one, which was quite nerve-wracking but actually very enjoyable once I got into the swing of it! During term-time though, we only allow small groups to visit so that they don’t disturb the readers. Each visitor gets a little pamphlet to allow them to self-guide, or they can hire one of our brilliant audio guides, which will give them a much fuller history.

11.00am   Tea! We all stop work for a cup of tea and a chat (and a chocolate or two if anyone has been on holiday recently!) This is great as it allows us to catch up with each other, and to bounce ideas or questions around as well.

1.00pm   Lunch. Nom. During term time we can have soup or a sandwich from the Union bar, which is brilliant; however, during vacation time I have to remember to a) make my lunch before leaving home, and b) remember to put said lunch in my bag and actually bring it in to work with me. I am not always successful.

1.30pm   Back to work. If I’m back at my desk then there is always lots to do – I have several ongoing projects, such as organising the shelf-labelling (we’ve done some book moving recently), labelling books that myself or the others have added to SOLO, or I might have a new display to create to communicate to our members. I will also take the time to work on entering data into the Union History Database – there are so many events at the Union that this can take quite a long time! So far, I’ve managed to upload three full year’s worth of events – only another 190 years’ worth to go…

2.15pm   During term time, we have weekly Library Committee meetings. Made up of Union members, both junior (undergraduates) and senior (postgrads and members who are no longer at uni), this is chaired by the Junior Librarian, an elected officer. I serve as the Minutes Secretary, so every Monday it is up to me to prepare the papers for the meeting. These consist of book lists, DVD lists, suggestions from members, lists of books being considered for withdrawal, and any other agenda items, such as the complaints book, or reports on a particular aspect of the library’s work. I take the minutes during the meeting, and am then responsible for typing them up and distributing them to the committee members afterwards. It is quite a lot of work, but it is great to have so much reader involvement in the library.

3.30pm   Tea! You can never have too much tea.

4.00pm   During the vacation period I might do some shelving, as our shelver only works during term time. We also do half an hour each of shelf-tidying a week. This helps to keep the library looking fabulous, but also helps us to find any books that have been misplaced, or to re-label any that aren’t easy for readers to see.

5.00pm   Home! Unless it is a Tuesday during term time, in which case it is my turn for evening duty. We each do one day a week during the term, keeping the library open till 7.00pm. This is especially useful for the readers in Trinity term when they are studying for exams – I always feel a little mean for turfing them out in order to lock up!

Working at the Oxford Union is wonderful, because though it is a relatively small space, the fact that we lend our books means that it is always busy with readers. Being part of a small team has also meant that I have been able to get involved with lots of different areas of work, so I feel that I have learnt an awful lot in quite a short space of time. I will continue to work here for the next two years, whilst studying for the MA at UCL – and I’m really looking forward to it!

Diana Hackett, Oxford Union Library

Hello, I’m Diana and I’m the trainee at the Oxford Union Society Library. I did a BA and MA in English Literature at the University of Sheffield, graduating in 2007, and have since been working in theatre PR. The graduate trainee scheme is a bit of a change of career direction, but offered me the chance to fulfil an ambition I thought had long since passed me by!

The Oxford Union Library is for members of the Union Society and our holdings are determined by the wishes of our members. We have Library Committee meetings every week during term time to discuss what will be added to the collection, which consists largely of academic materials, but with a strong leisure reading section too, including an extensive collection of travel guides, and an ever-growing stock of DVDs.

The building itself is pretty special, featuring the famed Pre-Raphaelite murals on the gallery walls of the Old Library. Anyone can come and visit the murals for a small fee, and we have a steady stream of visitors coming in every day to see them. My predecessor has created a fabulous audio guide for them too, which you can hire or download to give you a little more of the story behind these wonderful paintings. I’ll be using it to ensure I know all the answers to any visitor questions…Oxford Union Library - Gallery and Murals

I’m really looking forward to this year. Though I was initially worried about being too old and no longer having a properly functioning brain, the training so far has been really interesting and I’m beginning to get the hang of things (slowly…). It is wonderful to be working in such a unique environment, and in a library with such a varied collection, whilst also having the opportunity to meet and chat with the other trainees, and learn from their experiences too.

Evelyn Webster, Oxford Union Library

Hello! My name’Oxford Union Library - Gallery and Muralss Evelyn, I’m the trainee for the Oxford Union Library. I graduated in 2009, having studied Linguistics at York, then spent a year as an English teaching assistant in Japan, followed by a season working as a Tudor waitress and a Victorian shop girl for the National Trust (costumes sadly not required).

I’ve worked part-time in various public libraries from the age of sixteen until I finished university, gradually climbing from ‘shelving assistant’ to ‘counter and shelving assistant’ to full-blown ‘library assistant’. I’m very excited, and very lucky, to be beginning my career in Oxford, in such a beautiful library. I’m hoping I can be a useful asset to the Union, get stuck in with everything from cataloguing to minute-taking to wrestling with the new circulation system – and with any luck I’ll learn a lot in the process.

Trainee project showcase – Playground of politics: writing a brief history of the Oxford Union

Here is another of the presentations from Wednesday’s showcase.

It begins with a little history of the Union to give some of the context for presentation. Then you will find some slides about my project, writing a brief history of the Oxford Union to sell in the Library. Finally, for the library admirers among you, I spoke about, and included some pictures of the Old Library and its murals.

If you are reading this, will be working in Oxford in September, and fancy a spot of library tourism, do come along to the Explore visit, organised by Bodleian Libraries Staff Development, to see the murals and hear about the particular issues the library faces, on 20 September.

p.s. small landmark: wordpress informs me that this is the 100th post on the trainee blog – it says it is dandy!

Cate, Oxford Union Society

I’m Cate and I’m now the graduate trainee in the Oxford Union Society Library. I graduated this summer from Bath after four years of French, German and European Studies and am excited about starting my career here in Oxford. So far I’m finding there is quite a steep learning curve but I am enjoying all the scanning, stamping and shelving – which, apart from the shelving, are all the kind of jobs I used to find exciting when I was about six, and still do! I’m really looking forward to the varied nature of the year to come and, like Clare, to term time when the library will hopefully be full of people. I may not being saying the same then though!

Do drop me a line if you’d like to know more about the Union or its library!

Adrienne Cooper, Oxford Union Society Library

Adrienne Hello!  My name is Adrienne, and I am the current graduate trainee at the Oxford Union Society Library.  Previously, I was a digitisation assistant in the University of Warwick Library.  As part of a pilot programme, I scanned book and journal extracts under the Copyright Licencing Agency’s Higher Education Licence, and answered emailed and faced enquiries from students, academics, and library staff.  Warwick University is my alma mater where I read Philosophy and Literature.  I first became interested in librarianship as a career whilst researching an essay about the concept of the library in literary epistemology.

Working in the Oxford Union Library is all I could have wished for in a traineeship. I am honing my professional skills in an august institution that has dedicated itself historically to the personal and intellectual development of its readers – often controversially so.  It is a beautiful library that holds a diverse and dynamic collection; from antiquarian books to the latest DVD releases.  Being part of a small team means that I get to take part in a variety of frontline and ‘behind-the-scenes’ duties everyday: helping readers, classifying and cataloguing new stock, preservation work, and acting as the secretary for the Library Committees.  It is that level of direct involvement in the running of the library which drew me to the position initially, and is already proving to be very rewarding.

Taking part in the Oxford Libraries Graduate Trainee Programme is a wonderful opportunity to meet other library and information paraprofessionals, and to learn about the various projects they are involved in across the university.