What’s in a library? “Information” is perhaps the most exhaustive answer to that question. But what counts as information, and who decides? Even as library trainees, especially in a digital age, we might be tempted to think of the words on the page as rather abstract concepts, rather than of their shape, the page that carries them, the material book that preserves them, or any of the ways in which the physical material of library and archive collections – paper, pictures, binding, type – can be meaningfully shaped. These, however, are important things, and not only for the archivist. On this blog, we like to think about questions like this, and highlight the library talks and events that suggest them. Because that is another thing that can be in a library: discussion, the library as a space for figuring out its own role, the nature of books, images and text, and the ways they interact with and are shaped by their social context. A library is anything but silent. Just like a book is anything but silent, and its very materiality can itself serve as a medium for relevant artistic expression. More than that: as Tia Blassingame argued at the Weston Library this week, the artist book – art in the form of the book – can serve as a ‘vehicle for social change and racial unity’.
Tia Blassingame, an example of whose work is featured in the new Weston Library exhibition Alphabets Alive!, is a book artist, printmaker, educator, Associate Professor at Scripps College, current printer in residence at the Bodleian Bibliographical Press, and founder of the Book/Print Artist/Scholar of Color Collective. Her talk, ‘We Rise (Together): Taking and Making Space for BIPOC Book Arts Creatives, Cultures, and Histories’ (part of the We Are Our History Conversations at the Bodleian), presented the work of the Collective in advocating for and forging collaborations between BIPOC/Global Majority book artists and scholars, illustrated by a wealth of wonderful photographs. Its audience was introduced to, among many other works and artists, the giant pop-up books of Colette Fu celebrating ethnic minorities in China, the traditional handmade Korean paper (Hanji) dresses of Aimee Lee, Colette Gaiter‘s handcrafted editions of Black Panther artist Emory Douglas’ writing, and the woven book art of Skye Tafoya. It was interesting to see how books can evoke meaning not only in the words and information that they contain, but in their actual physical composition, like Sun Young Kang’s work In Between Presence and Absence, I. And fascinating questions were asked: what qualifies as paper, for instance, and why? What if we remove those qualifiers, and see links between fibre-working traditions from Hawaii to Korea? What if quilting might be regarded as a very meaningful African American paper making tradition?
Amidst all her examples, from paper cast sculptures over Japanese woodblock printing to miniature illumination and experiments in bookbinding, Tia Blassingame was pointedly sparse in talking about her own work in letterpress and print. Instead, she practised the solidarity at the heart of the Collective’s purpose of what she called taking and sharing space, through project grants, artist residencies, and celebrating members’ work. At the same time, she also noted the importance of established institutions’ (like the Bodleian) and individuals’ allyship – making space, through fundraising assistance, commissions, and more thoughtfulness in giving space to artists and scholars. A thought-provoking talk, that opened up to us the social aspects of book arts, as well as the material side of library information, and how the library can be a venue for discussing and creatively thinking about both.
This is Part II 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 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.
Last time we spoke about Richard’s early career and how he was supported by mentors and colleagues as well as having a solid grounding in a variety of different libraries and library jobs. This time we focus more on one of the biggest issues facing librarianship as a career: accessibility.
Accessibility issues are a wide topic for discussion, encompassing not just physical accessibility of, in many cases, listed buildings, but also the accessibility of the profession to people who are members of certain marginalised groups. “If you look at the make-up of the Bodleian staff it doesn’t reflect society as a whole.” Richard acknowledges. For him part of this issue is “how can we change that when – the make-up, particularly when you go up the organisational structure it’s increasingly white.” And race isn’t the only issue, “there are other forms of diversity that are slightly better represented but still not adequately represented.” One of the more recent comprehensive surveys of the LARKIM (Libraries, Archives, Knowledge and Information Management) industry backs this up. It found that the lack of ethnic diversity within the profession is pronounced and whilst we are a female dominated profession, there is still a significant gender pay gap.
“This is one of the major issues for our industry at the moment.”
For Richard Ovenden, accessibility is “one of the major issues for our industry at the moment.” An issue that he acknowledges is not unique. “We share that across the museums and the cultural and scientific collections at Oxford. Particularly thinking about Oxford as an institution that has been … very implicated in empire and all of what that entails.” It’s a legacy that will take more than a few years to undo, but the Bodleian is in the process of addressing at least some of the issues it caused. This impetus for change is coming from the very top. Richard mentions a “Bodleian strategy to address diversity and equality” and looking at the Bodleian Libraries Strategy for 2022-2027 you can see that the drive to improve diversity runs throughout the objectives laid out, as well as being explicitly stated as one of the core Guiding Principles in delivering the strategy.
Pre-dating this strategy, however, is an ongoing project called ‘We are our history’. The project involves several teams working on a variety of key issues related to improving diversity. One aspect of this is metadata, or the information we keep about the items in our collection. This can range from something as simple as the title and author of a work to descriptions of the item, its provenance or even how and when it was printed. With so much information to consider there are many ways in which we need to pay mind to the language we’re using and how we’re using it. As Richard puts it: “is our metadata fit for purpose, and how do we change that?”
Another aspect that Richard mentions is “How do we diversify the collecting of books?” The Bodleian libraries are of course one of six legal deposit libraries in the UK, meaning that we are entitled to a copy of every book published here. But as Richard points out, “we’re one of the great libraries for the study of Sub-Saharan Africa – are we buying books from African publishers, are we supporting the book trade in Africa? Or are we just buying books because it’s easier and cheaper to do it from library suppliers in the UK?” Being aware of where we source our collections and the potential biases that might entail is crucial to ensuring we have a strong and diverse body of knowledge available to our readers.
But it’s important also to consider how we present that knowledge to the wider public, to “look at our exhibitions” as Richard explains. We’re sat with him in the main hall of the Weston library and he gestures behind him, “asyou can see here at the moment”. Currently the newest exhibition at the Weston is ‘These Things Matter’, a fantastic collaboration between the Museum of Colour, the Bodleian, and Fusion Arts. The exhibition examines items from the Bodleian’s collection that illustrate the horrific legacy of colonialism and slavery, and invites seven artists to interpret and respond to the material in a variety of mediums, including sound, art installations and digital displays.
Beyond even the collections, however, we also need to think about our staff. Richard points out that biases can creep in “even in how we advertise our jobs”. He wants to strive for job postings that are “easy for people who might not have thought about working at the Bodleian – from communities who do not usually send their members to work in university libraries.” Unless we are able to employ a diverse staff, these projects become more difficult to carry out, and less impactful.
“It’s got to be part of our everyday business”
Whilst all these initiatives under the ‘We are our history’ project are fundamental to addressing these issues of accessibility, Richard warns against becoming too complacent. “Funding has allowed us to get a project manager to help co-ordinate that but really, it’s for my senior colleagues in the library to take the responsibility for that. So, it can’t just stop when the funding for the project has run out. It’s got to be part of our everyday business.” Until we make accessibility and diversity as intrinsic to libraries as the books themselves we cannot really say we have made true progress. And as Richard rightly points out, “that project’s really looking most at race and ethnicity but there’s also gender, equality, sexuality, even disability to think about.” Libraries are meant to protect and preserve information to be accessed by everybody, and unless we consider the different needs of some of the myriad groups who, arguably have greater reason than many to make use of our services, we’re falling short of the basic requirements of the profession.
From reading rooms that smell of Rich Tea biscuits to practising calligraphy and visiting the fascinating Tutankhamun exhibition, the Library Lates at the Weston Library have been among the highlights of the first Michaelmas term working in Oxford for myself and previous and current trainees. The Library Lates took place in the evening between 7.00pm and 9.30pm and featured free talks, drop-in activities and exciting performances.
The first Library Late took place in October and showcased the delightful Sensational Books exhibition at the Weston. It began with a guided tour of the exhibition by one of the curators, who spoke about the aims of the exhibition: to highlight different ways in which readers engage and interact with books using senses such as sight, sound, taste, smell, touch and proprioception. Books on display included illuminated manuscripts, pop-up books, very large and very small books that need to be moved with extreme care, books made from fruit and vegetables, the ‘cheese book’ (a book kept permanently in a fridge and made entirely of cheese slices, as the name suggests!), along with many more interesting and unusual items.
I was very much intrigued by the collection of bottled scents available for visitors to smell. Each one captured the aroma of certain books in the Bodleian Library’s vast collection, or the smell of certain readings rooms. For instance, the Duke Humphreys Library, I can now testify, smells of Rich Tea biscuits.
Following the tour, we had the opportunity to engage with a number of activities set up in the Blackwell Hall. These included embossing our initials in a Gothic font, attempting calligraphy, speaking with members of Bodleian Conservation and learning a bit more about the work they do. Along with other trainees, I found myself gravitating towards the Guide Dogs and then the printing press, where we had the exciting opportunity to create our own little prints which we proudly took home. We also had the chance to choose and take home a flip book – artwork commissioned by Oxford for the Sensational Books exhibition .
As well as activities, there were also several short lectures that visitors were invited and encouraged to attend. Topics ranged from the creation of multisensory books to the use of smells to support children’s engagement with books and their stories, as well as unusual books (including a presentation on a book covered in mushroom spores!) and what this means for libraries and conservators.
Excavating the Egyptians:
The second Library Late took place in mid-November (100 years since Howard Carter and his team discovered Tutankhamun’s tomb) and celebrated the wonderful exhibition: Tutankhamun: Excavating the Archive, which is still on at the Weston. A wide range of performances, presentations and activities awaited us in the Blackwell Hall. From watching screenings of an artist’s work, listening to analyses of Carter’s diaries, writing our names in hieroglyphs, playing ancient Egyptian board games in the Weston café, to being inspired by images of the golden Shrine to Nekhbet in order to create and emboss our own foil decorations, we trainees had an enjoyable and entertaining evening at the Weston.
I highly recommend visiting the wonderful (and free) Tutankhamun: Excavating the Archive exhibition, which is running until the 5th of February next year. Items on display include photographs and annotated drawings of the archaeological discoveries made during the excavation of Tutankhamun’s tomb, as well as pages from the diary Carter kept in 1922. Nearer to the end of the exhibition there was a short video which used records from archives to show what the tomb must have looked like originally in 1922 when it was first discovered.
Hi, my name is Miranda and I am one of two digital archivist trainees at the Weston Library. The Weston holds the Bodleian libraries’ special collections and serves as both a working library and research center.
Before starting this job, I was completing an MSc in Evidence-Based Social Intervention and Policy Evaluation at the University of Oxford and working as bar and box office staff at the O2 Academy in Oxford. Before that, I was working as a neuroscience research assistant at the National Institutes of Health in the US. Two potential career paths that seemingly have nothing to do with archiving. I never imagined myself in a career in archives and did not even know the position of digital archivist existed until I was exploring potential jobs for when I was done with my masters. However, when I realized that what I really enjoyed from both neuroscience and policy evaluation was the technological, code trouble-shooting, side of the work rather than the actual topics themselves, I began investigating other opportunities where I could use those skills. I serendipitously came across the digital archivist trainee job description in the midst of my search. According to the post, I would get to use my hard-earned tech skills, learn about an eclectic set of topics, collaborate with colleagues, and I did not have to have any prior archiving experience. It seemed like an incredibly cool job.
Now that I have been at this position for a little over a month, I can say that it definitely is incredibly cool. The majority of my time is spent maintaining the Bodleian Web Archive (found here: https://archive-it.org/home/bodleian) and converting decentralized word documents that catalogue the University’s department’s records, into a centralized accessible online resource. I get to work on everything from capturing Radiohead’s website for our archive to XML manipulation and metadata input. I am also gaining my postgraduate qualification in Digital Information and Media Management at Aberystwyth University as part of this traineeship. While it can be hard to balance a distance-learning masters and a full-time job, this program is providing me with work experience and the qualification I need to continue in this field after the traineeship ends, which is pretty incredible. Overall, I am excited to learn more about the collection and management of digital resources over the next two years.
My name is Alice and I am a graduate trainee digital archivist based in the Modern Archives and Manuscripts department at the Weston Library. My traineeship runs over two years and, at the time of writing, I am already six months into my job. Prior to the traineeship, I completed a PhD in art history. Whilst working on my thesis, I spent a considerable amount of time in rare materials reading rooms studying early modern Dutch books and works on paper, so that working in Special Collections provides continuity with my research background but also new learning opportunities.
Indeed, the focus of my traineeship is on born-digital archives, which offers me a great chance to expand my expertise beyond the 17th century and gain technical skills that are especially valuable in the field of digital preservation. For example, I am learning all about web archiving in order to be able to manage and curate the ever-growing collection of websites hosted on the Bodleian Libraries Web Archive. I also contribute to a catalogue retroconversion project, for which I use extensible mark-up language (XML) to transform analogue catalogues from the Oxford University Archives into machine-readable documents. My favourite part of the job thus far is cataloguing: I enjoy the process of describing archival materials and learning about how to make these descriptions accessible and discoverable in the online catalogue.
For now, my job takes place entirely behind the scenes, in an office on the third floor of the Weston which I share with Miranda, the other trainee archivist. This is a picture of my favourite part of the building. It is the reference collection on the first floor, with the bookshelves behind a glass wall in a gallery from which one can admire the inner structure of the whole building.
What I most enjoy about the Weston Library as a workplace is the way in which it brings together spaces and opportunities for research, public engagement and the display of special collections. In the future, I would like to be able to combine cataloguing activity with some collection-based teaching and research, and I hope the archives traineeship is a first step in that direction.
On Wednesday 3rd November, the Graduate Trainees were treated to a special tour of the Weston Library, where the Bodleian Libraries maintains their conservation lab and special collections materials.
By Lucy Davies
My favourite Wednesday training session so far has been the visit to the Weston Library for a tour of the Conservation Studio and Special Collections. This trip really sparked an interest in book and paper conservation for me so I hope this blog post describing our experiences can do the afternoon justice.
According to the Bodleian Conservation and Collection Care team, their role is “to stabilize bindings, bound manuscripts and early-printed books with minimal interference to their original structures and features”. Part of their role also involves maintaining and caring for the open-shelf references books and lending items in the Bodleian libraries. Their responsibilities are extensive and there are a number of roles in the team, including Book Conservators, Paper Conservators, and Preventive Conservators. The Bodleian’s is the second largest conservation team in the UK!
When we first arrived, head of preventive conservation Alex Walker talked to us about storing library materials correctly. Alex’s job is to train the Bodleian Libraries staff to care for their collections and to oversee preventive conservation projects. Her role includes managing and avoiding pest damage to the Bodleian’s collections, and she discussed with us the kind of damage that silverfish and woodworms can inflict specifically. As former students, we were all too familiar with a silverfish infestation, but had never witnessed the damage they could inflict on paper. Interestingly, silverfish graze along the surface of the paper, whereas bookworms burrow through from cover to cover – the more you know!
She showed us examples of damaged materials and explained how everything from temperature, location, humidity, and the material of a storage box can drastically affect the condition of books and manuscripts. The damage was quite extensive and highlighted for me the importance of preventive conservation and pest control in libraries, not something that had been at the forefront of my mind whilst working at the SSL.
Once our skin was crawling at the thought of various insects, it was then over to Julia Bearman to show us the work she has been undertaking on the consolidation of paintings within a Mughal album. She showed us how she takes photographs of the work before beginning and then carefully marks on the photos every change or repair, however miniscule, so that everything done to the object is recorded. It is a slow and careful process that clearly requires patience. Additionally, Julia explained to us that the aim was not to make the book of paintings appear new again, as that could be misleading and unhelpful to those undertaking research. Instead, her aim is to stabilise it and preserve it enough to travel to exhibitions or not need further conservation work in the near future.
What was most interesting to me was that Julia explained she undertakes research for months before even touching a new project, which I thought was incredible, and highlights how much work goes into a conservation project before even picking up any tools. She speaks to other conservators and academics to gain an understanding of the object’s history, the materials it is made of, and what the aim for the conservation project should be.
Finally, it was over to Andrew Honey who showed us how his role is to conserve and rebind books. Again, he outlined how the aim is not to make the book look like it was never damaged but to use minimally invasive techniques to stabilise the book. This is because invasive techniques or the use of certain materials can cause further damage down the line. Interestingly, leather is no longer used to repair broken leather book spines, but rather cloth is used, as this is safer for fragile materials.
He also showed us a book from Henry VIII’s personal library, which blew all of our minds to see, I think. It was covered in velvet as apparently even Henry’s books were not safe from his gaudy fashion tastes. It was fascinating to see it right there in front of us and to learn about how the Bodleian is conserving it so it can survive for future generations to learn from.
The tour of the conservation studio could have lasted days and we still wouldn’t have seen everything, but I learnt so much in the couple of hours that we spent there and am very grateful to the staff for taking time out of their day to share their expertise and experiences with us.
By Sophie Lay
After our time in the Conservation Studio, we took a much needed tea/coffee break in the café. From here, we met the Weston’s own Chris Fletcher: Keeper of Special Collections at the Bodleian.
Chris then proceeded to take us on a tour of the Weston Library. We travelled through a series of complexly inter-connected corridors and stairwells which, in retrospect, I cannot piece together at all. The building is a maze, but a delightful one full of treasures – perhaps leave a trail of breadcrumbs if you go exploring! The building weaves together classic and modern architecture, combining oil paintings and sweeping doorways with sleek exhibition spaces and glass viewing platforms.
The tour began with a glance into one of the reading rooms (the Rare Books and Manuscripts Reading Room, to be precise), an architectural delight with exposed stonework, skylights, and a gate-like entrance. From here, we travelled up to the roof terrace. The terrace is not a public space, as it backs onto a reading room so requires quiet, but fret not – we couldn’t possibly miss the opportunity to get a photo or two.
Chris then took us down to the Archive Room. Inside, two archivists were hard at work up to their elbows in material. We only saw glimpses of the pieces down there, but they covered a broad spectrum of subjects from OXFAM to the Conservative Party to Joanna Trollope. Chris assured us that in libraries, a dedicated archiving space of the size available at the Weston is a rare and special thing.
Then came the closed stacks, nestled out of public view and often discussed in whispers and covert glances. Of course, these spaces are highly secretive, so there is very little I’m allowed to tell you in a blog post. I can especially neither confirm nor deny the rumours of underground tunnels connecting the Weston stacks to the Radcliffe Camera and the secret wine cellars of the Sheldonian Theatre, Merton College, and All Souls College.
The next highlight for me was the Centre for Digital Scholarship. What had once started out as a few computers that researchers could use to view their rare books in close detail became rapidly swept up in the wash of digital advancement. The centre now exists as a hub for using cutting-edge and innovative digital tools to support multi-disciplinary academic pursuits as well as engaging with the wider public. They run workshops, seminars, and events – some invitation-only, and some open to the public. You can find out more information about that here, including the Digital Humanities School. What is particularly fascinating to me is how this work applies to librarianship, with digitisation projects already underway and the popularity of electronic resources rising among academics of all levels.
The final destination for our tour was the Bahari Room, where Chris showed us some of the rare items that the Bodleian is currently working on or has recently acquired. The talk was detailed and I could not possibly give away all of Chris’ trade secrets, but here are a few key points of our discussion:
In buying special collections, time is of the essence. Pieces that are up for sale get snapped up incredibly quickly, so you have to act fast. Chris told us that he has received catalogues and picked up the phone to purchase items within minutes of delivery – only to find them already gone.
Some of us took the opportunity to talk to Chris about how institutional collectors navigate cultural heritage and the question of repatriation: who owns an artefact? Where did it come from originally? Through what processes and hands did it end up in the collection? These questions are key in collections work.
Collaboration and mutual respect are important within and between academic institutions. Sometimes multiple bodies team up to purchase certain collections that can be mutually owned. And sometimes, you have to know when another institution has a more vested interest than yours in purchasing a particular item. It pays to back off and let someone else win sometimes (though not always!)
The training session ended as most do, with fond goodbyes and a trip to the pub for the willing. I’ll spare you the details of that, and instead, leave you with a sneak preview of the rare artefacts shown to us by Chris Fletcher…
Rare Collections Material: According to Chris, this was the first bible bound by a woman.
Hello! I’m Daniel, the Quaritch graduate trainee at the Weston Library, which houses the Bodleian’s Special Collections. I’m based in the Rare Books and Early Modern Manuscripts department, which handles a range of projects, enquiries, and outreach. I studied English here at Oxford, and worked part-time in several Bodleian libraries after graduating in 2018, picking up a range of technical skills along the way and working with some incredible people. One month into the traineeship, I’ve got my own messy desk (very libraryish, I’m told), a mountainous card catalogue to sort through, three floors of underground stacks to memorise, and more analytical bibliography to learn than I can hope to remember — and I’m more certain than ever that I want a career in rare books.
At the Weston, subject specialists mingle with polyglots and techies; there are always exhibitions to prepare for, just as there are always researchers to assist; there are all kinds of lectures, seminars, and hands-on workshops. In short, behind the studious solemnity of its two Reading Rooms, the Weston is constantly moving (and not just because of Trinity College’s building works next door). It’s a truly phenomenal place to work.
From day one, I’ve had the opportunity to handle early printed material, such as Vesalius’ De humani corporis fabrica (1543) and Hooke’s Micrographia (1665) for an overseas author writing about ‘remarkable books’. Another research enquiry involved comparing bindings in our Edmund Malone collection (including rebound volumes containing the earliest Shakespeare Quartos!) to identify the trademark tools of the German binder Christian Samuel Kalthoeber. One morning, I was deep in the Weston’s labyrinthine underground stacks, wrapping up original Tolkien watercolours in polythene for transport to the Bibliothèque Nationale. This week, I’m hunting down Samuel Johnson’s signature in a book that the Bodleian may or may not possess. It’s surreal, and sometimes challenging, to be working with material as special as this in quite ‘normal’ contexts such as stamping, barcoding, wrapping, or photographing, and really reflective of the methodical, technical skills that form an essential part of working in special collections.
When I’m not on training courses or learning cataloguing in the office, I’m moonlighting in the John Johnson Collection of Printed Ephemera, assisting the Librarian with item-level captions for her upcoming exhibition in the Treasury. Exhibitions at the Weston channel the wealth of academic expertise from all kinds of fascinating subject areas, and I’d love to curate my own some day.
In the meantime, my own traineeship project for the year is to lay the groundwork for digitising some 3000 fine bindings in the Broxbourne collection, from private press books to manuscript genealogies of the kings of England. I’ll be talking more about this, and the importance of widening access to collections in the digital age, in future blog posts. Until then, you can check on the progress of the project here.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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!
We Oxford Library Trainees are a lucky bunch. We have had many interesting and useful training sessions and tours over the last nine months, but few were as remarkable as our trip to the Weston Library.
We met in Blackwell Hall, the Weston Library’s new public space, and were led up to the Conservation Studio. There we were shown a few of the Bodleian’s treasures and taken through how the team of expert conservators assess, repair and conserve our special collections. Highlights included a 9th Century book of Canon Tables and two 17th Century Chinese hanging scrolls, the Maps of the Heavens and the Earth.
It is no exaggeration to say that these were awe-inspiring. The fact that Bodleian Libraries has a world-class team working on priceless objects underscores just how special this library system is. We came away speculating about a career change, but these conservators have decades of training and experience under their belts. To see what they get up to, you can follow them on Instagram at https://www.instagram.com/bodleianconservation/.
We were then taken to a seminar room for a meeting with Dr Martin Kauffmann, Head of Early and Rare Collections and Tolkien Curator of Medieval Manuscripts. Martin showed us three objects from the Bodleian’s collections to illustrate different ways in which historical collections are valuable. The highlight was a 1217 copy of the Magna Carta, one of three copies from that year held by the Bodleian.
The Magna Carta is even more Magna up close
We finished the day with a tour which included going onto the roof of the library, from where we could gaze out over Oxford’s famous spires.
The Trainees bask in the Oxford sun. I think there was a sun up there somewhere.
Thanks to all who welcomed and shared their work with us. It was a really special afternoon.