Built in 1857 and originally the Society’s debating chamber, the Oxford Union Library is one of the most beautiful libraries in the world and a striking example of Victorian architecture. It is for use of the members of the Oxford Union Society.
This month marks the 60th anniversary of the death of C. S. Lewis, therefore it seemed fitting to write a little about the man who is held so dear by the city of Oxford.
C. S. Lewis attended University College, Oxford, and was a close friend of J. R. R. Tolkien, author of the Lord of the Rings books. Both writers were members of the Oxford Union Society, or “Ugger” as it was called by many a student at the time. Lewis often met with friends in the Union Library and this group of literature enthusiasts became known as ‘the Inklings’. They discussed various writings and, in true Oxford University style, went drinking at the Eagle and Child.
Although C. S. Lewis was himself an extraordinary man and renowned for his stories, most famously his Narnia series, his death went almost unnoticed. “Never!” I hear you cry. How could such a famous man’s passing be so trivial to the world? The answer, sadly, is that Lewis died (at the age of 64) on the 22nd of November 1963 – the same day that American President John F. Kennedy was assassinated.
If the extraordinary life of C. S. Lewis has interested you, perhaps it has also rekindled a desire to read his literature; a collection of non-fiction works by, and about, C. S. Lewis is available for loan across the Bodleian Libraries and associated colleges. Additionally, Lewis’ works of fiction are available for loan from the Oxford Union Society Library. Alternatively, for a wander through nature you may like to visit the CS Lewis Nature Reserve, in Risinghurst, which was once owned by the man himself.
 C. S. Lewis. 1955. Surprised by Joy : The Shape of my Early Life. p.186
 Humphrey Carpenter. 1977. J.R.R. Tolkien : a biography. p.54.
 Humphrey Carpenter. 1978. The Inklings :C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien, Charles Williams, and Their Friends. p.122
Hello! I’m Connie, the trainee for The Oxford Union Society. I graduated with a BA in Classical Studies from Reading University in July 2023. Throughout my final years of university I worked in my local public library, first as a volunteer, then as a Saturday assistant.
I love working for the Union, although it is not what you might call a normal library, though there are some aspects which are standard: our library, like the Bodleian, has many smaller libraries within it – the Old Library, the Poetry Room, the Goodman, the Gladstone Room and the President’s Office. We classify our books by the Dewey Decimal system or versions thereof. This is, however, where normality ends. The Library Committee, a group of all-powerful students, decide which books we will buy and which we will remove. We have fiction books for those who want to read for pleasure and famous Pre-Raphaelite murals in the Old Library which illustrate the story of King Arthur, from adolescence to death, in ten hard-to-see paintings. These faded because the artists, which included Dante Rossetti, William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones, did not prepare the wall first. Honestly! Didn’t they know what they were doing? The answer is no, definitely not – they were in their 20s (except Rossetti) and were paid in “tonic” (really gin). Meaning a group of young men were up ladders, possibly drunk, on the very narrow and rather high gallery (yet it is out of bounds today for health and safety reasons). On my first day the kitchen was being refurbished and, on taking up the floor, a ‘mysterious void’ was found with only a chair at the bottom. What the pit is, no one yet knows, although my co-worker insists that it is an oubliette. Unfortunately, we do not know if the chair had straps.
The Union has been described by Harold MacMillan as “the last bastion of free speech” and the variety of people who speak in debates is testimony to this. In fact, in my third week at the Union, the Prime Minster of Pakistan came to visit so we had security and police officers crawling around the building. The Union has also invited celebrities including Jack Gleeson, Michael Gambon and Stephen Fry as well as controversial figures such as Jordan Peterson, Ricky Gervais, and Katie Hopkins. In fact, in the no-platforming debate of 2019, the Society voted by vast majority not to support no-platforming.
As a final goodbye from the Trainees of the year 22-23 we thought we’d share with you a look at some of the trainee projects which were presented at the showcase this year! These descriptions, each written by another trainee who viewed the original presentation, are designed to give you a flavour of what our year with the Bodleian and College libraries have been like.
Jenna Ilett: Creating an interactive map of the Nizami Ganjavi Library
By Alice S
Kicking off our Trainee showcase with a bang, Jenna’s presentation hit all the right buttons. With an amusing title and appropriately themed presentation, Jenna talked us through the ins and outs of coding an interactive map, complete with hoverable shelfmark labels!
The inspiration for this project came from a slew of wayfinding projects that have been taking place across the ‘Section 3’ Libraries (which include the Taylor, The Art Archelogy and Ancient World and the Nizami Ganjavi libraries) as well as Jenna’s own background in tech thanks to a GCSE in Computer Science and a module in Web Design during her undergraduate degree.
Using Inkscape, Jenna made the underlying vector graphic for the map itself, working off a previous design, but keeping the styling consistent with maps currently available at the AAAW Library. She used the feedback she received to refine her design before moving on to the coding itself.
Remaining humble throughout, Jenna also treated us to an inside look at her thought processes in the form of increasingly anxious WhatsApp messages she had sent about her project to friends and colleagues, as well as a demonstration of a particular bug that caused her map to flip itself over when zoomed out, both of which earned a hearty chuckle from the audience. But with the amount of skilled work Jenna has put in already, the audience and I are in no doubt that Jenna will soon have the kinks worked out, and the Nizami Ganjavi Library will have a swanky new interactive map!
The most interesting thing I learnt from Jenna’s presentation would probably have to be the benefits of scalable vector graphics. As someone who has all too often fallen foul of the perils of trying to resize images only to be left with a grainy and illegible mess, it’s great to know that using a vector graphic will allow me to scale an image to any size my heart could desire. Through the magic of mathematical graphing it preserves the shape and position of a line so that it can be viewed at any scale. Thanks to Jenna for a fabulous presentation and enlightening me to the wonders of vector graphics!
Alice Zamboni: Audio-visual archive of former Prime Minister Edward Heath
The second presentation of the day came from Alice Zamboni, one of the two Digital Archivist trainees based for two years with the Special Collections team at the Weston Library. Alice’s project was concerned with adding the audio-visual material donated by former Conservative Prime Minister Edward (Ted) Heath to our catalogue.
As with most of his predecessors and successors in the role of Prime Minister since the Second World War, Ted Heath began his political involvement at Oxford, studying PPE at Balliol College and winning the Presidency of the Oxford Union in 1937. Therefore, it is no surprise that the Bodleian chose to purchase his personal archive in 2011 to add to its collection. Covering mainly the period from the mid-1970s to the early 2000s, Alice related how many of the cassettes and tape reels held information on music and yacht racing connected to the love of European culture which inspired Heath’s drive – and eventual success – to gain admission for the UK in the European Community in 1973.
Most of the material was held in analogue formats so Alice’s first step before cataloguing was to convert them into digital MP3 files. Then, one of the main challenges she faced was that the sheer scale of the material (481 tapes some up to ninety minutes long) meant that not every recording could be listened to in its entirety. An educated assessment on the contents, and how it should be catalogued, had to be made from listening to a portion of each. This allowed some of the material, such as recordings made from radio programmes, to be weeded out of the collection.
Perhaps the most interested thing I learned from Alice’s talk was the broad scope of Heath’s recordings, including some in foreign languages. One interestingly was in Mandarin Chinese, and of a children’s programme on learning languages.
As with most of the trainee projects, there is always more to be done after the showcase and Alice’s next main step is to place the original tapes back into boxes according to how she has catalogued them. An even longer-term plan for ensuring that the archive can be opened to researchers is acquiring the rights for many tapes recorded from musical recitals, for instance, where the copyright is owned by the composer or conductor rather than Heath himself.
Miranda Scarlata: Web archiving and the invasion of Ukraine.
Although the phrase ‘once it’s on the internet, it’s there forever,’ is common, Miranda’s talk highlighted the ephemeral and volatile nature of websites, and the importance of capturing and preserving information from these sites.
Although it would be impossible to capture every single website in existence, there are times when the digital archivists undertake a rapid response project – for example capturing information on Covid-19, or the ongoing war in Ukraine – the latter being the focus of Miranda’s talk.
Soon after the Russian invasion of Ukraine (on the 24th of January 2022), the Digital Archivist team launched a rapid response project to preserve information regarding Ukrainian life and culture, as well as the war itself, which was at risk of being lost. A campaign was launched that asked people to nominate websites that fit certain criteria.
Miranda discussed some of the challenges involved in a project like this. Although 53 sites were nominated, only 21 were deemed viable. Twitter accounts of Ukrainian citizens were also included, and additional news, cultural and war specific sites were crawled, leading to a total of 72 sites. There is a limit on how many sites can be preserved due to the strict data budget, which means that difficult decisions had to be made about what to prioritise. Another added level of complexity was the limited Ukrainian and Russian language skills within the department, which made it difficult to determine types of content and assign metadata tags.
The normal processes when archiving websites involves contacting site owners to obtain permission before beginning the capturing process, but due to the high risk of information loss, site owners were contacted after capturing the sites to gain permission for publication. With the help of a Ukrainian and Russian speaking intern, site owners were contacted, but there was an understandable lack of response given that many of the site owners would have been directly impacted by the war.
Miranda’s talk was a fascinating insight into the world of digital archiving and the challenges within, particularly with the more arduous and intricate rapid response projects, which are hugely important when it comes to capturing important events as they are happening.
The most interesting thing I learnt was that digital archiving involves capturing a functional version of the site that could continue to exist even if the original host site was removed, rather than a static capture, which leads to added complexity when it comes to external links and embedded content.
Caitlín Kane: Maleficia: Curating a public exhibition at New College Library
By Alice Z
In her talk on the exhibition that she undertook as her trainee project, Caitlín focused on her experience of organising and curating the exhibition of rare books and manuscripts from the collection at New College. A chance encounter with the New College copy of Malleus Maleficarum (The Hammer of Witches), a well-known 15th century treatise about witchcraft, sparked in Caitlin the idea of organising a display of special collections about magic, witchcraft, and astrology.
The promotional material devised by Caitlín to advertise the exhibition on social media and in print was what stood out most for its originality and it is clearly something that contributed to making the exhibition a success in terms of visitor numbers. I think the most interesting thing I learned from her talk was how you can create moving graphics using services such as Canva and how these can be used on social media to promote events such as exhibitions.
Caitlín reflected on some of the logistical challenges of organising this kind of collection-focused public engagement event, such as the selection of material and collection interpretation. For one thing, identifying relevant material from New College’s collection of manuscripts was more difficult in the absence of an online catalogue. Without the benefits of a neatly catalogued SOLO record to guide her, she was required to rely on previous staff members’ handlists as well as serendipitous browsing of New College’s rare books shelves.
Another aspect of the exhibition she touched upon was the interpretation of the materials. It was important for the labels accompanying the items on display to strike the right balance between content and context. Providing insights into the objects themselves was key, especially as many were texts written in Latin, but so was giving visitors enough background on the early modern philosophical and theological debates underpinning witchcraft.
Caitlin’s work clearly resulted in a fascinating and well-attended exhibition, and she was able to make great advances in increasing awareness of some of the amazing collections held by her library.
Abby Evans: Professor Napier and the English Faculty Library
Abby’s trainee project concerned a fascinating collection of dissertations and offprints gathered by Professor Arthur Napier, a philologist and Professor at Merton College in 1885. Held by the English faculty library, this collection consists of 92 boxes
containing 1058 items that needed to be reassessed ahead of the library’s move to the new Schwarzman centre for the Humanities in 2025.
Her project showcased the speedy decisions and minute details that must be considered when working at a library as she had only two weeks to determine the content of the collection and assess what material was worthy of making the move to the new building. The process required lots of skimming through documents to understand their content, the deciphering of previous systems from librarians past, and a strong head for organisation!
The collection itself was also able to provide some insight into how the English Faculty used to operate. Many of the materials were annotated with small markings and references to an older organization involving different box numbers and labels.
The collection also surprisingly held works from female authors – a rarity for the time – but their work was clearly well-enough regarded that Professor Napier saw the benefit in collecting and preserving it in his collection.
The most interesting insight the Napier collection provided however is perhaps its demonstration of the of the workings of Royal Mail years gone by. The collection contained several items which bore evidence of travelling through the UK postal system, some which were simply folded up with the address written on the back – no envelope required! Additionally, a simple name and general neighbourhood were enough to get the letter to its intended location, postcodes clearly had yet to hit it off!
Overall, Abby’s talk demonstrated the myriad of small and large details that must be considered when continually maintaining library collections. And the efficiency with which she was able to work through the collection is an example to us all!
Morgan Ashby-Crane: Making Collections More Visible: Displays and Data Cleanup
At the SSL, Morgan embarked on a mission to improve the visibility of collections, both in making items easier to locate within the library system, and in highlighting diverse voices in the collections.
During awareness months throughout the year they curated book displays which allowed them to improve the circulation and physical accessibility of collections such as those for Black and LGBTQ+ History. For Black History Month, they asked subject librarians to recommend a book with an accompanying caption. Morgan then curated the display, and added QR codes linked to e-resources that the subject librarians recommended. They then collated these into a post on the SSL blog to reach those who couldn’t access the display physically.
For LGBT+ History month, Morgan organised another pop-up display, but this time the focus was on recommendations from readers in previous years. One of the most interesting ideas I gleaned from Morgan’s presentation was their approach in designing new recommendation slips for readers to fill in and recommend their own books to make sure the displays stayed relevant to reader interests. As books were borrowed and recommendation slips filled in, Morgan was able to track the circulation of items and provide evidence of engagement.
Another way in which Morgan improved accessibility to the collections was in cleaning up data on Aleph, our old library system. Over the past few months, the trainees have been busy helping our libraries prepare for the changeover to a new library system, Alma. With thousands of records being transferred across, a lot of data clean-up has been required to make sure records display correctly in the new system.
Some outdated process statuses, such as AM (Apply Staff – Music), can be left attached to records long after they fall out of use. Other books, that are on the shelves to be loaned, can be left marked as BD (At bindery). To single out any irregularities, Morgan made a collection code report to see if any items stood out as unusual. When items appeared under unusual process statuses, Morgan investigated them further to see if their statuses needed changing.
Similarly, some items without shelfmarks had slipped under the radar, and Morgan set about adding them back to the books’ holdings records. They worked backwards from potential Library of Congress classifications to figure out where the books might be on the shelves and, once they’d identified the physical shelfmark, restored it to the item’s holdings record. These data cleanup tasks will make it easier both for readers in locating the items they need and will help the collections transition smoothly from Aleph to Alma.
Ruth Holliday: Investigating the Christ Church Library Donors: Research and rabbit holes
For her presentation, Ruth discussed her project to research donors to Christ Church’s ‘New Library’, with a particular focus on their links to slavery. The incongruously named New Library was constructed between 1717 and 1772, and over 300 benefactors contributed to the project! Given the time constraints involved, in this presentation Ruth chose to focus on just three:
The first donor Ruth spoke about was Noel Broxholme, a physician and an alumnus of Christ Church, who during his time there was one of the first recipients of the Radcliffe travelling fellowship. This was a grant established by Dr John Radcliffe (a rather omnipresent figure in Oxford) that required medical students to spend years studying medicine in a foreign country. Ruth was able to establish that at one time Doctor Broxholme was paid for his services not in cash, but instead in ‘Mississippi stock’. As one might be able to deduce from the name, this was effectively shares in companies who had strong ties to the slave trade.
The next donor Ruth discussed was George Smallridge, Bishop of Bristol. Again, we have a man whose profession is seemingly at odds with involvement in the trade of human lives. However, as part of his donation for the foundation of the new library he included two lottery tickets. One of the prize options for that lottery was South Sea Stock – more shares with ties to the slave trade. It has proven difficult to determine whether the tickets he donated were, in fact, winning tickets, or whether they were ever cashed in, but once again the foundation of this library has found itself fiscally linked to slavery.
The final donor to feature in Ruth’s presentation was Charles Doulgas, 3rd Duke of Queensbury, whose financial investments included shares in the British Linen Company. Whilst British linen does not ostensibly appear to have clear ties to slavery – being both grown and manufactured domestically by paid labour – there is in fact a significant connection. Whilst cotton was becoming the more popular fabric for textile production in the mid-late eighteenth century, the fabric was seen as too good to be used to clothe the people forced to grow it. As such, linen, in its cheapest and least comfortable format, was exported in droves to be used to clothe the slaves labouring on cotton plantations.
What all these donor case studies in Ruth’s fascinating presentation showed, and probably the most interesting thing I learned, was how enmeshed slavery was in the eighteenth-century economy. Whether in the form of shares received in lieu of payment, shares won as prizes, or as custom to the textile industry it was growing to dominate, Ruth’s project demonstrated that making money in the eighteenth century was almost inextricably tied to slavery.
Rose Zhang: As She Likes It: The Woman who Gatecrashed the Oxford Union
Rose’s project and subsequent presentation touched on a captivating aspect of the history of women at Oxford. As the trainee for the Oxford Union, she undertook some first-hand research on an unusual event in the early history of women’s involvement in the Union’s debates.
Rose first gave us a summary of the Union’s history. Set up in 1823 (and therefore currently celebrating their bicentenary), The Oxford Union has been famous (and infamous) for its dedication to free speech over the years. As women were only formally admitted to the University itself in 1920, it is unsurprising that they were also barred from entry to the Union debating society. This restriction against women members continued until well into the latter half of the 20th century, although rules had become laxer by this point, allowing women into the debating hall itself, but only in the upper galleries.
By the 1960s, there was increasing pressure from female students who wished to access the main floor of the debating hall, rather than be confined to the gallery, where they were expected to be silent, and could not get a good view of the proceedings. The pressure built to a point in 1961, when two students achieved national press coverage for their successful gate-crashing of the debating chamber, which they did in disguise as men!
Rose gave us a captivating account of the gatecrashing, using newspaper clippings from the time and information from one of the gatecrashes herself, Jenny Grove (now a published journalist), to really bring this moment of Oxford History to life. One of the most interesting things I learned from Rose’s presentation was how library projects can handle, preserve and communicate data that’s less discrete – which tied in well with our keynote talk from Phillip Roberts, especially focussed on how heritage organisations have a power to preserve and convey stories that otherwise might be suppressed or overlooked.
Thankfully, the actions of Jenny grove and her co-conspirator Rose Dugdale were successful in bringing wider attention to the issue, and within two years successive votes won women the right to be full and contributing union members.
Rose’s presentation on this project was interesting not just for such a fascinating bit of history, told with good humour, but also for how it differed to most trainee projects methodologically in using first-hand oral histories to bring context to her library and its collections.
Grace Exley: Creating online exhibitions
One of the later presentations in the day, Grace kept the energy flowing as she discussed her experience creating online exhibitions. The inspiration for Grace’s project was accessibility. While Jesus College puts on termly exhibitions in the Fellows’ Library, not everyone can make it on the day, and having some kind of record of past exhibitions would be beneficial to many.
Taking the initiative, Grace sought out training on how to curate and manage online exhibitions. She worked her way through a course which introduced her to the platform Omeka. Using Omeka, visitors can scroll through photos of the exhibition items and read captions for each one, making it both a great way to experience exhibitions that you cannot make it to physically, and a way of preserving physical exhibitions in a digital space.
With this new knowledge at her fingertips, Grace set out to organise her own exhibitions that she would subsequently upload to the Jesus College website using the Omeka platform. The books that featured in these exhibitions were selected by Grace from the Fellows’ Library at Jesus College – a stunning 17th century room that holds 11,500 early printed books.
Grace told us about the botany exhibition she curated in Michaelmas term, which featured a first-time find of an inscription in John Parkinson’s Theatrum Botanicum. One of the most interesting things I learned from Grace’s presentation is that this is one of the very few books in the Fellows’ Library to have had its title page inscribed by a female owner, Elizabeth Burghess. From the style of the handwriting, we can tell that the signature is likely to have been penned near to the time of publication, though we don’t know for sure who Elizabeth Burghess was.
We were in a Jesus College lecture theatre for the showcase, and due to running ahead of our schedule we were able to sneak into the Fellows’ Library and look around. It’s a gorgeous space, and it was great to see where the exhibitions take place when they’re in 3D! If you’re interested, you can view Grace’s Botanical Books exhibition along with some of Jesus College’s other exhibitions on the website the Grace created here: Collections from the Fellows’ Library and Archives, at Jesus College Oxford (omeka.net)
Alice Shepherd: The Making of a Disability History LibGuide
A theme running through many of the trainee projects this year was accessibility, and Alice proved no exception. For her trainee project, she worked on creating a LibGuide on Disability History, to help people find resources relevant to researching that topic.
A LibGuide is an online collection of resources that aims to provide insights into a specific topic of interest. They are created across all Bodleian Libraries and often act as a launch pad for a particular subject to signpost readers to the plethora of resources available. The resources for Alice’s LibGuide were largely collated during a Hackathon event organised by the Bodleian Libraries team, during which 36 volunteers shared their expertise on Disability History and put together a list of over 231 relevant electronic resources on this topic.
Alice started by working through this long list of resources. She spent a considerable amount of time cleaning, screening, and processing the data collected at the Hackathon. Specifically, she removed website links that were no longer active, evaluated the quality of the materials, and carefully selected those that were most appropriate and relevant to the topic of Disability History.
With this newly complied ‘shortlist’ of scholarly resources, Alice then started putting them together on the LibGuide website, adapting the standardised Bodleian LibGuide template to better fit the needs of researchers by including resources grouped by date, topic, and format. With the resources carefully curated and added to the LibGuide, Alice put some finishing touches on the guide by doing her own research to fill in some of the gaps left after the Hackathon.
There will be a soft launch of the LibGuide in the Disability History month this year. Although this LibGuide is mainly created for students and scholars with research interests in Disability History, the LibGuide will be available to the public as a valuable educational resource.
Charlie Ough: Duke Humfrey’s Library Open Shelf Collections
As the trainee for the Bodleian Old Library, Charlie gets the tremendous pleasure of working in the Medieval precursor to Oxford’s centralised Bodleian libraries, Duke Humfrey’s Library.
Whilst the setting and atmosphere may be one of academic serenity, after a few months of working there, Charlie identified that something ought to be done to make the organisation of its Open Shelves Collection slightly less chaotic. He had found that books were difficult to locate, some were physically difficult to access, the shelf marks were confusing, and certain volumes from the collection were missing entirely.
With a plan in mind, the first task in addressing this issue was to create a comprehensive list of everything on the shelves. Part way through this venture, Charlie stumbled across a file hidden away in an archived shared folder from 2017 and discovered that a previous trainee had already make a handlist for Duke Humfrey’s. This saved lots of time and allowed him to focus on making improvements to this cache of information by slimming it down, rearranging it according to area, and dividing it into different sections.
During this time Chalrie also designed and conducted a reader survey that was distributed within Duke Humfrey’s to determine who the main users of the library are, and whether they were there to use the Open shelf books specifically, or more because they enjoyed using the space. With the results of that survey to sort through and analyse, Charlie now has a permanent position working at the Bodleian Old Library and intends to continue working with the Duke Humfrey’s Open Shelves Collection. His plans involve new shelf marks, updating the LibGuide, a complete stock check, and barcoding the collection.
The most interesting (and mildly terrifying) thing I learned from Charlie’s talk is that the population of cellar and common house spiders in the Duke Humfrey’s Library ceiling were intentionally introduced at the beginning of this century, to combat an infestation of deathwatch beetle that was burrowing into the wooden beams and panels. In fact, the spiders still thrive there to this day! Not something to think about when you’re peacefully studying in the picturesque Duke Humfrey’s Reading Room…
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.
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
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.
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.
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!
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!
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.
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.
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.
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…
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!
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…
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.
Hello! My name’s 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.
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.