Tempora mutantur: Two Decades as a Classics Librarian
By Charlotte Goodall
Acknowledgement: Reproduced by kind permission of the author; and of the editor of Antigone: An Open Forum for Classics
September next year will mark my twentieth anniversary as Classics Librarian for the Bodleian Library [and the Sackler Library] in the University of Oxford. My time overseeing the Classics collection at Oxford has coincided with a period of great change, both in librarianship and in the way scholarship in Classics is carried out.
I came into the job in the early days of electronic resources, when very few journals were available online, and the Thesaurus Linguae Graecae was still only available on CD-ROM, loaded onto specific computers and with a simple text based search interface. In the Bodleian, we operated a book-ordering system unchanged since the 1930s, consisting of hand-written slips, filled out in triplicate, inserted into zinc cases and sent down pneumatic tubes from the reading room to the bookstack. The concept of ordering books online via the library catalogue, accessible through the internet, was still very new.
The book tunnel connecting the Bodleian beneath Broad Street.
In Classics, we were quite advanced for a humanities subject already, as we had the TLG as well as the Packard Humanities Index CDs. These would allow basic searching of Classical Greek and Latin texts and some epigraphical works. By today’s standards, it was clunky, but at the time these resources were starting to revolutionise the way the subject was being approached, and to challenge the way Classics was served by the libraries and librarians who were the concierges of this new information landscape.
I arrived in Oxford as a graduate student in 1999, having completed my B.A. in Classics at University College Dublin. For me, Oxford was a jarring experience. Dublin had been a fabulous city to be a student; bustling, exciting, with a cosmopolitan nightlife and a feeling of modernity and fun. Oxford, on the other hand, felt provincial, dark and quiet. Everything shut at 6pm (apart from one shop at the top of Headington High Street that was open 24 hrs: students would take taxis there and back to buy cigarettes and cheap bottles of wine). Even the streetlamps were less bright. College dinners (formal hall every night, gowns required) were fun at first but the quality of the food was sometimes astonishingly awful (mutton stew, overboiled carrots, not enough potatoes to go around).
Oxford’s Radcliffe Camera of an evening.
Academically, I was extremely fortunate to have been taught by some of the finest Classical scholars of our time. I had papyrology classes from Peter Parsons; I got sent to a terrifying meeting with the philosopher Myles Burnyeat at All Souls (he was surprisingly kind). I went to Nigel Wilson’s palaeography seminars, and listened to Martin West’s lectures on Greek Metre. I spent most of my time in the libraries. The Bodleian Lower Reading Room had only one row of desks that were wired with sockets for laptops, and I would be waiting for the doors to open every morning to secure one of these precious spaces.
There was also the library of the Ashmolean Museum (the predecessor of the Sackler Library) which was located at the back of the museum, accessed through a door at the end of the Cast Gallery. The Ashmolean Library was tiny, with a precarious spiral staircase of filigree cast-iron that would take you up to the mezzanine floor (a warning to female readers not to wear skirts was part of the induction process!). There were anglepoise lamps on the desks, and a sense that this was where “serious scholarship” was taking place.
It had now become clear that this “serious scholarship” was probably not for me. I enjoyed my time as a graduate student, but realised that I didn’t want to be an academic. There were other things in my life that brought me joy, and I didn’t want to be tied to a lifestyle that demanded so much of me. So I got a part-time job with Oxfam as an archival assistant, which taught me some of the basics of information management, and helped me recognise that I wanted to work in an area that used my education. As someone who studied exclusively in these libraries as a student, I knew their collections intimately. I was also curious about how libraries were organised and managed. Timing worked in my favour, and when I was finally in a position to apply, the job of Classics Librarian happened to become vacant.
The Sackler Library, Oxford.
My predecessor had been an old-fashioned Librarian, who ruled over the Bodleian Lower Reading Room with a stern eye and hand-catalogued every book on the shelves. My role was expanded to encompass the newly-opened Sackler Library, and I was to oversee the provision for Classics across two sites. The Sackler had absorbed the collections of the old Ashmolean Library, as well as the Art History, Archaeology, and Ancient Near East collections, and had also taken in the Classics Lending Library for undergraduates.
The building was a new-build neo-Classical rotunda, tucked in behind the museum; it had been designed as a traditional library, though at a time when libraries were changing quickly. It housed the lending collection for Classics, and would in time become one of the preeminent collections in the world for Classical Studies, Egyptology and Ancient Near East, Art History, and Classical Archaeology. For the first time in Oxford, Classics had a budget and an individual (me) whose job it was to oversee the purchase of material published across the world, in multiple languages, covering the entire scope of Classical studies. I was also trained in the traditions of cataloguing, and the archaic workings of the Bodleian, with its confusing collection of classification schemes and complicated procedures.
At the same time, the relatively novel concept of electronic provision was gaining momentum. Journals, especially from English speaking countries, were increasingly published online, although the subscriptions were often complex and expensive. Online publishing was in its infancy and publishers were struggling with figuring out how to adapt to the evolving requirements of their customers.
Some of the fifteen miles of shelves at the Bodleian Libraries’ Book Store, Swindon.
Increasingly, as we moved through the mid and late 2000s, libraries were at the forefront of pushing innovation and facilitating new approaches to scholarship. The TLG went fully online in 2008, rendering the CD-ROMs obsolete, and Brepols’ Library of Latin Texts had an online searchable interface for Latin that was superior to the old Packard Humanities Institute disks. Perseus, which had existed since the 1980s, was showing how open-source, web-based resources could be developed, giving access to searchable lexica for the first time. Big publishers such as Brill started to digitise some of their large works of scholarship (such as the Jacoby, the essential collection of fragmentary Greek historians which we first purchased online in 2007). Digitisation became the buzzword of the time.
In the libraries, we had to help our readers and scholars access these new resources, and figure out how to host and service them. Google partnered with the Bodleian, creating digital scans of the Bodleian’s 19th century collections in 2009. This project was overly ambitious for the time, as the technology was not quite ready for it, and the scans were often of poor quality; also, Optical Character Recognition (OCR), which automatically converts printed type into a digital document, was not available at the time. However, there was a clear appetite for digital texts, and the technology was catching up with the requirements of readers.
Title-page of Elmsley’s edition of Sophocles’ Oedipus Tyrannus (Oxford, 1811), one of nearly a million 19th-century books scanned from the Bodleian Library for the Google Books project.
In Oxford, as the 2010s came around, issues of space and conservation were impossible to ignore. The opening of the Gladstone Link, which used the refurbished area of the old bookstack under the Radcliffe Camera and the tunnel that attached this to the Old Library, was the first big physical change to the fabric of the buildings since the 1930s.
It had become clear that instead of the old bookstack, a modern “book storage facility” was needed, and it proved impossible to build such a facility in Oxford. It ended up being constructed in Swindon, 30 miles away. The facility provides a modern, climate-controlled environment where the majority of our books are stored, to be fetched when required by readers. The old bookstack and the 1930s “New Bodleian” were refurbished as the beautiful Weston Library, which opened in 2015.
The Bodleian’s Weston Library (below), the recent refurbishment of the New Bodleian (pictured above in 2009).
It was always difficult to balance the different media of publication with the needs of our different readers. While so much was becoming available online, it was clear that in certain circumstances, reading print would always be preferred. However, it took the COVID-19 pandemic to fully break down some of the barriers and preconceptions around using electronic publications. As a library service, we had to pivot quickly to provide fully remote services, and we were able to introduce scanning on demand, and a hugely expanded library of electronic texts. Now our library buildings are as busy as ever, but our electronic provision continues to expand: we are, for instance, the largest user of the TLG in the world.
Open Access is our newest challenge. The academic publishing world has changed hugely in the last few years, and open-access journal publishing is now a requirement for all funding bodies in the UK and for the REF. Open Access monograph publishing will be a requirement in the future. The cost of academic journal publishing and access has been outsourced to the libraries, and it is a challenge to manage this in a fair and understandable way. Classics still follows a relatively traditional publication model, but Open Access is here to stay, and deals between libraries and publishers increasingly dictate what journals are accessible to researchers.
A Venn diagram of “Open Access colours”.
As librarians we are required to understand often confusing, fast-changing rules and concepts, and to be able to communicate them to our readers. As libraries, we have been paying huge amounts of money to facilitate access to journals, for which our own academics often acted as editors. The future of library provision will involve negotiating and understanding the quickly evolving world of Open Access publishing, and helping our academics do the same.
Trends in scholarship come and go, and the books that are published every year reflect this. Each week, we librarians receive a spreadsheet of every academic book received by the Bodleian. I scan the lists, picking out the Classics books and deciding where they should go. It gives me a perspective on how some of these titles could have been published at any time in the past century – but the scholarship and technology used to produce them have changed beyond recognition. As libraries, we house and preserve the physical or digital books and retain their contents for posterity, but we also facilitate the infrastructure that allows the scholarship that produces these books to take place.
Duke Humfrey’s Library, the oldest reading room in the Bodleian. Humphrey of Lancaster (1390–1447), 1st Duke of Gloucester (and youngest son of Henry IV), bequeathed 281 manuscripts to the university.
I was given the responsibility of looking after the archive of the Sackler Library, which holds the papers of a number of prominent Classicists and Archaeologists from the twentieth century. Part of my work involves making these papers available to scholars who are interested in the history of Classical scholarship, and the history of excavation and the study of Roman Britain. It always strikes me that the generation of scholars who left behind these detailed written remains will, in some ways, be the last: so much of today’s ephemera is created digitally, and it is very unclear how such material will be preserved for posterity. A notebook or a photograph from 1923 is far more accessible and more easily conserved than, for example, something saved on a 3.5-inch diskette in 2003. This will also change the way we understand the development of our subject in years to come.
The decisions we make as scholars and librarians affect the way our subject is studied in the future. The way we document these decisions will inform future scholars and librarians and their own perspectives and interests. This is one of the things that continue to intrigue and excite me about my role and about the future path of Classical scholarship.
Subject Librarian for Classics & Classical Archaeology
 The Packard Humanities Institute (PHI) was founded in 1987, and provided searchable digital texts of Classical Latin authors and epigraphical texts. In the 1990s and 2000s, these were issued on CD-ROM and had to be loaded onto individual computers, although they later became networkable. The PHI still exists as a web-based searchable database
 The Research Excellence Framework (REF) is an evaluation of British universities conducted by the national research funding bodies to assess the research carried out by these institutions and inform their future funding allocations.