If there is one thing that libraries in Oxford are always short of, it’s space. The Bodleian Libraries receive around 1,000 new items per working day and now hold more than 13 million in total. This means ever more publications are vying for limited space on open-access shelves at individual libraries such as the Sackler.
Over the years, the Bodleian Libraries relieved some of this pressure by storing books in a variety of places. These ranged from below ground in the centre of Oxford itself, to offsite facilities at Nuneham Courtenay (5 miles outside Oxford) and even a disused salt mine in Cheshire. These were replaced by a new large-scale Book Storage Facility (BSF), which opened in 2010 after a three-year build and the Bodleian’s biggest ever book move, which you can read more about here.
Situated on the outskirts of Swindon, the BSF is designed to house and conserve less-frequently-used items, while making them available to Bodleian Libraries’ readers on request. As a trainee on the Bodleian Libraries Graduate Trainee programme, I visited the BSF earlier in the year. This was a fantastic experience that really helped me appreciate the logistics involved and see how the Sackler Reader Services team fitted into the bigger picture.
When you enter the main storage area at the BSF, the scale of it strikes you immediately. The building itself is huge, resembling an aircraft hangar from the outside. Inside, the shelving units are 11.4m tall in aisles 71m long, making a total of 230km of shelving. Every book or item is stored with others of the same dimensions, so they fit into archive-standard boxes that look like long magazine files. Every shelf, box and individual item has its own barcode so items can be tracked.
The BSF’s computer system is vital to the logistics of books entering and leaving the facility without being ‘lost’. The system logs book requests that Bodleian readers place via SOLO and calculates the most efficient order for ‘picking’ the requested items on any given day. The BSF staff work through the list in order, fetching the books and scanning each one with a handheld device as they go. They do this using machinery that is part forklift truck and part cherry-picker, which can move down the aisles swiftly (but safely) and enable staff to reach the top of the high shelves.
Once all the books have been fetched, BSF staff sort them according to which library they have been requested to arrive at, such as the Sackler. Staff put into each book a computer-generated white slip identifying the destination library and reader, and pack them into blue crates. A dedicated Bodleian delivery team then delivers them by van.
The BSF deliveries are an important part of the work done by Reader Services staff at the Sackler, with two deliveries coming in each day. Each delivery consists of multiple crates (with ten or more crates during peak demand in term time). While still helping readers with circulation and enquiries, staff at the desk make it a priority to process the delivery efficiently to help readers have access to their requested books as soon as possible.
To do this, we unpack the crates and scan each book in before putting it on the reservation shelves behind the desk ready for collection. We also add a friendly green slip reminding readers that the books must be returned to the desk when not being consulted.
As with normal loans, each book has a due date for return to the BSF. The BSF computer software generates a list of due books and sends it to us every morning. We take each book on the list off the reservation shelves, scan it using the computer again, take out the green slip to be reused, and then pack all the books into crates to be collected by the delivery team and driven back to the BSF.
Art, archaeology and architecture books — the primary areas of study at the Sackler — are notoriously heavy. As a result, our deliveries are consistently heavier than other libraries’ and are a serious manual handling issue. Tuesday mornings are when we receive the longest lists of books to return to the BSF. On one term-time Tuesday morning, I counted and weighed the books we returned to the BSF so we could get a snapshot of the kind of materials people are ordering to our reading room. That morning, we sent back 58 items which weighed 38.57kg in total (meaning the average weight was 0.65kg), with the heaviest weighing 2.48kg and the lightest, a small pamphlet, just 0.01kg. As for the books coming in, our highest number of crates to reach us in one afternoon’s delivery was fourteen.
The BSF delivery system makes available for readers a huge variety of items, and it is always fascinating to see what has been ordered. While many of the items are directly related to the subjects covered by the Sackler’s open-shelf collections, some items are on more unexpected or intriguing topics, as demonstrated by the images in this post.
The deliveries are a great daily reminder that readers are working on cutting-edge research topics, and using the Sackler Library as a preferred working space – not just a place where books happen to be housed. For me as a trainee, it also reinforces the idea that a vital aspect of librarianship is enabling and extending people’s access to the resources they need.
Graduate Trainee Librarian