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, “as you 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.