It's Not About Us: Un-Sucky Design and the 21st Century Library

My User Interface and Web Site Design class this past semester allowed me to get reacquainted with an old web design site I'd lost touch with: Web Pages That Suck. And then when the updated, "Biggest Mistakes in Web Design 1995-2015" article came out, I had a minor epiphany. Take a look at mistake number one:

These ladies are laughing at you. Why? You designed your web site for your needs, not their needs. It gets worse. After they stop laughing, they’re going to one of your competitors’ sites and buy something. ...

  1. The only reason my web site exists is to solve my customers’ problems.
  2. What problems does the page I’m looking at solve?

Too many organizations believe that a web site is about opening a new marketing channel or getting donations or to promote a brand or to increase company sales by 15%. No. It’s about solving your customers’ problems. Have I said that phrase enough?

Now, this is definitely something that's important to keep in mind when you're designing the web page or online catalog for your library, but how about expanding the idea just a bit and applying it to the library as a whole?

  1. The only reason my library exists is to solve my customers’ problems.
  2. What problems does the library service I’m looking at solve?

How many library services and/or programs exist to solve library customer's problems, and how many of them exist to solve the librarian's problems? And how many of those services that we think exist only to solve our customer's problems are designed in a way to make the service easier for the customer to use (not easier for the librarian, easier for the customer)?

  • Is your signage written in library jargon, or is it written in language the average human is able to understand?
  • Is your self-service holds pick-up section arranged by something your average customer is likely to instantly understand, like the customer's last name, or have you just used your library's standard classification system? (I'm looking at you, University of Arizona Library)
  • Is your self-checkout system easy enough for the average person to figure out, or does it require some not-readily apparent "magic gesture"? (I'm looking at you, Pima County Public Library)
  • Is your nifty new WiFi service public, or is it only available to library card holders (and then only after they've entered their 15-digit, impossible to remember library card number)?
  • Are your online databases directly available to folks who are logged into your WiFi network, or do they still have to enter their 15-digit impossible to remember library card number (again)? (Even if they wouldn't have to do this if they were using one of the library computers.)

I could go on, but I think those examples make my point.

Oh, and for the folks who dispute that the library exists solely to solve our customer's problems, and say that it also exists to preserve the information, knowledge, and wisdom of the world, I will say this:

Why is it so important to preserve all this information, knowledge, and wisdom?

Oh, that's right. It's because somebody will need to use that information, knowledge, and wisdom someday....

Seminar Retrospective - Monday, 22 May - Ideas Stores & Special Collections

The seminar's weekend was unscheduled free time for us participants. I know several people went away for the weekend, but I stayed in Oxford. I spent Saturday wandering around (many of my photos of Oxford were taken that Saturday), and I spent Sunday nursing a head cold (which you probably don't want to hear about, so I'll say no more about the weekend). Monday was a return to the more regular seminar schedule of presentations and tours, and after a quick debrief about what did and didn't go well the first week we were off and running.

Ideas Stores - The New Face of the Public Library

The first presentation was by Heather Wills, Ideas Store Programme Director, London Borough of Tower Hamlets who explained the concept of the Ideas Store, which some public libraries in Britain are converting to in the hopes of increasing library use.

The Ideas Store concept is the result of an intensive market research effort to discover what kind of atmosphere and services library patrons (and perhaps more importantly, people who weren't library patrons) wanted to see libraries offer. The result was to create storefront-style libraries in major shopping areas (because that's where people congregate) and to offer computers for patron use and expansive educational opportunities (for all ages - kids to adults). These libraries still have traditional collections and services, of course, but they're just as focused on being centers for community gatherings as on being lending libraries.

The concept has been particularly sucessful in the area of East London that Heather Wills oversees. This is an area with a large immigrant population that did not make much use of the old style libraries. However, as libraries are being reformed to the Ideas Store concept, library visits have increased dramatically, proving that understanding and providing for the needs of the community is a good thing. If you'd like to know more about Ideas Stores, head to the following website: http://www.ideastore.co.uk/

I think what I found most interesting about this presentation though, was how much Heather Wills reminded me of Tucson's own Public Library director, Nancy Ledeboer. Both are some of the best public speakers I've encountered, and both are passionate about improving library services so that libraries better serve the communities they're based in. I think more libraries need folks like this in charge (not just public libraries, either, all libraries).

Rare Books from the Bodleian's Collections

Monday afternoon's presentations focused on various special collections that the Bodleian possesses. It started out with 3 people (Alan Coates from the Rare Book Section, David Helliwell from Oriental Collections, & Martin Kauffmann from the Western Manuscripts Section) from the Bodleian showing off some of the items in the particular special collection they work with. The rare books and the western manuscripts section folks both brought manuscripts (ie from the days before printing) of religious texts, although I can't tell you exactly what because I didn't write it down. These were nifty, although since my knowledge of such things is miniscule, I'm not sure I was in the best of positions to appreciate what I was seeing. The item from the oriental collection was a Chinese book made using the Chinese printing technique. This was really nifty - and I know enough about Chinese printing that I could appreciate what I was looking at.

Next we split off into seperate groups to get a tour of some of the other special collections areas of the library (well, to some extent, one of the tours was of technical services, which wasn't exactly a special collection, but I didn't go on that tour). The tour I chose was of the John Johnson collection of printed ephemeria. John Johnson was printer to the university and collected a great deal of printed material (both his and other's, if I'm remembering correctly). The collection itself is quite a bit of a mish-mash - it contains things like playbills, resturaunt menus, advertising broadsides, leaflets, and so on. The tour was conducted by Julie Anne Lambert and we got to see quite an array of items from the collection. However, my memory of specifics is a little fuzzy - I was still in the midst of my head cold at the time, and by mid-afternoon my energy level was seriously waning.

One other cool thing about the collection though - they're in the process of digitizing part of it (it's large and their budget is small, so I'm not sure they'll manage to digitize the whole thing for awhile). Anybody who's interested in seeing what they've got so far can point their browser to http://www.bodley.ox.ac.uk/johnson/

Seminar Retrospective - Friday, 19 May - Preservation & Emergency Planning

Friday was an eventful day at the seminar, with two scheduled presentations (one on preservation and one on emergency planning for libraries) and a tour of the botanic gardens. I also managed to get in on an unexpected tour... but I'm getting ahead of myself. How to Have Fun in Libraries Without Killing the Collections: The Role of Conservation at Oxford

The most amusingly named presentation of the seminar was given by David Howell, Head of Preventive Conservation and Research, Conservation and Collections Care, Oxford University Library Services (he may also have had about the longest job title, too).

The presentation was good, but unfortunately my notes are not (not having a particular interest in conservation myself, I was less careful about my note-taking than I might have been otherwise). So here's a brief, rough approximate version of what I remember.

A lot of the issues in preservation have to do with maintaining a stable climate with respects to temperature, humidity, light, air quality, and so on. This can be a bit tricky in Oxford, particularly in buildings that were not originally built with modern climate control systems in mind. The other major problem with preservation are all of the things that people can do to materials - either through intentional vandalism or unintentional mishandling (which in some cases can include previous attempts at conservation).

Developing an Emergency Plan for OULS Libraries

This presentation, given by Kristie Short-Traxker, Preventive Conservator / Emergency Planner, Conservation and Collections Care, Oxford University Library Services, was also quite good, and considering what happened to the libraries in New Orleans when Katrina hit last year, a very timely subject.

With luck, one thing all American libraries learned from Katrina was that having an emergency plan is a good idea. Not every library lies in hurricane territory, but every part of the world is prone to some disaster or other - natural or man-made.

What was interesting about the Oxford emergency plan was the library system's attempt to develop a general plan that was broad enough to cover all the libraries in the system, and could then be tailored to individual libraries needs without too much difficulty. Given the diversity of libraries in the Oxford system, that must have been a tall order, but from the sound of it, they are doing fairly well in meeting this goal (they're not entirely finished with this planning process).

The point was also made that just having a plan in place isn't enough - you've also got to make sure that people have followed up to the point of buying any necessary emergency equipment (and keeping said equipment operational) and making sure that personnel are trained in emergency procedures. (See, there is a point to all those fire drills, after all.)

Special Access

The day took an interesting turn for me and three other attendees when we ran into Kristie Short-Traxler in the lobby before we were due to have lunch and she invited us to take an informal tour of J-Floor (which is the highly-restricted access floor where they keep a lot of valuable and fragile material - although additionally, there's also a safe where they keep the really irreplaceable stuff, which we did not see). I think we all kind of stared at her in disbelief for a second (because, really, what kind of good luck was that?) and then unanimously answered, "yes, we'd love to." It meant skipping lunch, but no one cared, opportunities like that do not present themselves very often.

The tour was interesting too - one of the big projects the conservation department is working on at the moment is figuring out how to preserve all the wax seals adorning many of the charters and other legal documents in the collection. Many of these seals are little (and not so little - some of the bigger ones are the size of a dessert plate) works of art, and they're starting to disintegrate. We also got to see one of the conservation rooms (which reminded me rather strongly of visiting my Dad's anthropology lab when I was a kid - although with different sorts of objects under study) and talk briefly with the conservators (much of which, I must admit, I didn't understand, preservation/conservation not being my particular field).

The World of Plants

We did make it back in time to meet up with the rest of the group for the tour of the botanic gardens, conducted by Kate Pritchard, Assistant Curator, Greenhouse Collections. It was a nifty tour, however, because I am... botanically challenged (to put it mildly) and was slightly fuzzy from having missed lunch I did what I tend to do on tours like this - namely wander around thinking "ooo, pretty" while everything the guide said went in one ear and out the other.

Don't get me wrong, I really, really like botanic gardens (I'm am death to houseplants, so I stand in perpetual awe of folks who can look after plants without killing them). I'm just probably not the person you want to have recount tours for you, since about all I can usually manage is, "It was pretty, there were flowers - oh, and ducks."

Seminar Retrospective - Thursday, 18 May - A Visit to the British Library

Thursday was our excursion to London to take a tour of the British Library, and it was interesting to see the contrasts between it and the Bodleian. While both the Bodleian and the British Library are legal deposit libraries and both have major research collections (and to some extent, a similar focus in offering their research collections), the two libraries are a study in contrasts.

Although it is obviously making a great effort to modernize, the Bodleian still has very much the feel of an old fashioned library. The British Library feels much more contemporary. Part of the reason for this, of course is that the British Library is more contemporary - it's current main public branch opened in 1998, and it is very much a product of its time: Modern brick exterior and a light, open interior (complete with furniture that looks like it came from Ikea). The newest of the Bodleian's buildings date to the 1940's, and the buildings themselves feel very much like old buildings. Not that the feel of being in an old building is a bad thing, mind, it's just different.

It was also obvious after the tour of the British Library that a great deal of thought and care went into designing the new building, and again it feels very much like a library that has been designed from the ground up with current users in mind (power for laptops, WiFi, lots of meeting space in the public areas, lots of computer terminals in the reading rooms, cafe & restaurant). And again, looking back at the Bodleian, it's obvious that the buildings were designed with very different uses in mind. (Although I think they've done a good job of retrofitting: power for laptops is available, and I think University students can get network access, either via WiFi or Ethernet.)

All this has left me thinking that perhaps the biggest design challenge for library buildings isn't in designing the perfect "new" building, but in renovating older historic buildings. That's a challenge the Bodleian's going through right now as it struggles to modernize some of its facilities while keeping the historic feel of the library intact. It will be interesting to see how well they answer the challenge.

There's one other obvious difference in focus between the two libraries: public outreach. As I've already mentioned, the British Library is making a big push towards making its collections more available to the public, while increasing public access is less of a focus for the Bodleian (at least, at the moment). This makes sense, as a National Library, the BL is (at least to some extent) a public institution, while the Bodleian is a university institution, rather than a public one. This also shows in the fact that the British Library keeps a large number of its more famous holdings on public display (if you'd like a virtual tour, head to this site: http://www.bl.uk/onlinegallery/homepage.html), while the Bodleian keeps it's collection off limits to the public (as far as I could tell).

In all, perhaps the most striking thing about the two libraries is that even though they're both very different in character, they both "work" - they're both great libraries. I must confess that of the two, I'm fonder of the British Library - I like the fact that there are things to do there besides sit and study/research: You can wander through the gallery and drool over all the rarities, you can have a snack or a meal, you can meet friends or business contacts - it's a public space in the best sense, accessible and multi-use (and I'll admit it, the modern design suits my personal tastes better). That said, for a researcher, both libraries are gems: they are both possessed of amazing collections, helpful staff, and up-to-date facilities. I hope that both libraries keep their unique characters for a long time to come.

After the British Library tour, the rest of our day in London was free time. One of my fellow seminar attendees who had been to London before was kind enough to give me and another attendee (who like me, had not been to London before) a brief orientation tour (and Philip, if you're reading this, thanks muchly) before we went our separate ways and made our leisurely way back to Oxford. The only thing that marred the day was the fact that it was windy in London that day and the air was filled with some sort of nasty, fuzzy, tree buds (or some such) that stung the eyes and irritated the sinus cavities, which made being outside a bit unpleasant.

Seminar Retrospective - Wednesday, 17 May - Library Careers in Britain & The British Library

Wednesday was actually a fairly light day for the seminar, there were only two presentations (although one was quite long and involved much group participation). Overview of Qualification Routes for UK Librarians/Career Paths

The first presentation concerned qualifications for librarians in the UK and was officially presented by Gill Powell, Staff Development at Oxford University Library System, but also included the chance to talk with several librarians working in Oxford. These folks were: Isabel Holowaty, Faculty Librarian; Diane Bergman, Egyptology Librarian, Gillian Beattie, whose title I didn't catch; and Sue Killoran, Librarian for one of the Coileges (don't remember which).

The UK is actually kind of interesting in that in addition to the route for librarianship we have here in the states (i.e. go get a MLS), they also have several additional/alternative certifications (think of the sorts of certifications they have for, say, accountants or engineers here and the states and you'll get some idea of what I'm talking about). The certification is done through the UK equivalent of ALA, CILIP (The Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals).

However, this is where things get complicated. Really, really complicated. After a morning of talking about librarianship in the UK and the various ways to have your professional qualifications recognized, mostly what I wound up with was a slightly dazed feeling of nearly complete confusion. For those of you who wish to delve further into this subject, head to http://www.cilip.org.uk and wander around CILIP's website for a while. (And if you manage to understand how all the qualifications fit together, perhaps you'd be kind enough to enlighten me.)

It was interesting to hear the different takes the various librarians had on the whole certification system (which if I understand correctly, is relatively new - or has recently been overhauled). Some folks think it's good for the profession, some folks think it's more or less a waste of time, particularly considering that many jobs don't require the certification (the ones that do tend to be in public libraries). This reminds me a bit of the debate that seems to be going on in some circles of librarians here in the states (particularly us younger folk) who don't see that ALA is doing a particularly good job of representing either us or the changes that are occurring in the profession (a perception not helped by our immediate past president - but I'm not going to go off on that rant here, besides, his term is up, so he's a bit of a non-issue now anyway).

More interesting than the talk about qualifications and certifications was the chance to talk to the librarians. Of particular interest to those who may wish to cast a wide net when seeking employment was the fact that one of the librarians we talked with was American (yes, it is possible for us yanks to get jobs in the UK), and for anyone who might be considering career hunting across the pond, here's the advice we got. The Americans who tend to get hired for jobs in the UK (at least in the Universities) are the folks who apply for jobs that are very similar to jobs they already hold and excel at. So, I'd take this to mean, find a job here in the states that you like and are good at, then keep an eye open for similar jobs in the UK.

The British Library: Preservation and Innovation

The second presentation of the day came from John Tuck, Head of British Collections at the British Library. Like the libraries of Oxford University, the British Library has also been undergoing a lot of changes of late. The most obvious change is their recent move to a new facility in London (the new building opened in 1998, according to my Lonely Planet guidebook). However, the library is (as I think I've said before) also making a serious effort to make their collections accessible to everyone who has a need to use them. Part of that is seen in the fact that it's relatively easy to get a Reader's Card for the British Library (heck, they gave me one), something that used to be quite difficult, apparently. Another part of this can be seen in their digitization projects and their document delivery services (and anyone who's poked around the BL website has probably noticed that their document delivery services are extensive).

As an example of one of their more interesting digitization projects, we learned a little bit about the British Newspapers Project, which is digitizing a large number of 18th century national, regional, and county newspapers from all over the UK and providing providing online access to this collection for colleges and universities. For the interested, further information can be found here: http://www.bl.uk/collections/britishnewspapers1800to1900.html

The British Library is also active in digitizing their sound archives, and is taking a small step into achieving the impossible: they're attempting to archive the web. Because copyright issues in the electronic world have yet to be completely sorted out (that is, no one's entirely sure if anyone has the right to just go out and archive web pages without the owners permission - although the BL is a legal deposit library, that legal deposit right does not extent completely into the virtual world) the archiving is fairly small scale at the moment. They're only archiving the sites of people who have agreed to participate in the project at the moment, but there is a hope that they can eventually preserve much more.

(Given the constantly changing nature of the web, I'm personally dubious that *anyone* can actually archive it in its entirety. Think about it - would you want to have to archive every separate permutation of a website that contains many rotating ads? You'd have to catch every variation to technically have archived the whole thing. However, I gotta say, I'd love the see the server farm that could hold that much data.)

On the preservation side of things, one of the big ongoing projects is the preservation, digitization, and research on the Codex Sinaiticus, one of the two earliest Christian Bibles (dated to the 4th century, according to the presentation). This is being done in partnership with St. Catherine's Monastery, Leipzig University Library, and the national Library of Russia, who all hold parts of the text. Anyone who wants to know more about this project can take a look at this press release: http://www.bl.uk/news/2005/pressrelease20050311.html

This presentation was also intended to act as an introduction to the British Library itself, because Thursday's only planned activity was a trip to London to get a tour of the main London branch, of which more shortly.

The Dewey Binary System

So, what do geek librarians in training do on a rainy Friday afternoon? We translate the Dewey Decimal System into Binary, of course! (For those of you who are unfamiliar with binary numbers, the following article from Wikipedia will tell you more than you probably ever wished to know: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Binary_numeral_system) So, here I present the much simplified Dewey Binary System:

0 - Fiction 1 - Non-Fiction

You may now commence to debate amongst yourselves about wether it should be 0 - Non-Fiction and 1 - Fiction instead.

Seminar Retrospective - Tuesday, 16 May - Oxford Libraries, Physical and Virtual

The second day of the seminar provided an interesting mix of presentations. We got to hear about how Oxford's libraries are updating themselves for the 21st century, how to design a good library building, and got a crash course in how to use the somewhat antiquated electronic catalog for the Oxford University libraries. Oxford Libraries in the Digital Age

Ronald Milne, Acting Director of Oxford University Library Services, started our day off with a presentation called "Upholding Bodley's Vision: The Challenge of Managing Oxford University's Libraries in the Digital Age." The library system of Oxford University is in the middle of a fairly massive reorganization at the moment, and this presentation was an overview of what's being done and how far along they are in the process.

The management of the library system has already been reorganized, using a subject-based approach, placing 40 separate libraries (currently) into a single system. Part of the reason for this consolidation, I'm sure, is that, like many other library systems, stagnant or shrinking budgets are forcing them to "do more with less" but there is also a real hope that by merging into a single system, they can better serve their users. And given that a single (if admittedly complex) library system for the university as a whole seems a bit less confusing than having to deal with (potentially) 40 separate libraries, I think they may be on to something.

There has also been some physical consolidation as they've merged several previously separate collections into larger collections (most notably the creation of a Social Sciences library). There are expected to be some additional changes to the physical library buildings in the near future. The biggest change on this front is that they're planning on building a large repository to help hold their ever-expanding collection (which, if you remember, I mentioned grows at a rate of 3 miles of additional material per year). Once this opens, there are also plans to renovate the New Bodleian Library building (which is in need of some major renovation).

On the virtual front, there are plans for expanding the library system's electronic collections (which have not received as much funding as they might have, and as a result are a bit behind the electronic collections of other major research universities), and for rolling out a major update to the library system software (of which, more later). Then of course, there's the big news on the virtual front - Oxford's participation in the Google Library Project.

Unlike some of the other participants (I seem to remember hearing that Michigan is hoping to digitize everything in their collection), Oxford is limiting their participation to the digitization of about 1 to 1.5 million items of 19th material (chosen to ensure that they don't have to deal with copyright issues, as this material is already out-of-copyright, and so it won't overlap with other digitization projects that the university is involved in). There is more to say about the Google project, but as it was also the subject of another presentation, I leave the rest for later.

For those of you who really want to learn more about the reorganization of Oxford University's libraries, I have two sources for you:

The University itself has a 20 page PDF file available that outlines their strategic plan for the library, which can be found at: http://www.ouls.ox.ac.uk/__data/assets/pdf_file/5064/OULS_Strategic_Plan.pdf

There was an article published in the July 2005 issue of Library Quarterly by Barbara B. Moran, called "Continuity and Change: The Integration of Oxford University's Libraries" that you might also find interesting.

Designing the Perfect Library Building

"Library Buildings and Good Design" was presented by David Perrow, Acting Deputy Directory of Oxford University Library Services. This is a rather more difficult presentation to sum up, since it consisted largely of a class-participation exercise that I don't think I can recreate online. But here's a taste of what you have to keep in mind if you ever find yourself on a library building design (or remodeling, for that matter) committee.

  • Know why you're building (or remodeling) the library, have a clear purpose in mind.
  • Know the building site (there are additional challenges involved with building in earthquake zones or floodplains, for instance).
  • Know what facilities you need to include. How much space for physical materials? How much for IT facilities? Is space needed for individual or group study (or both)?
  • Open stacks or closed stacks? Having now personally experienced two very large closed-stacks collections (the Bodleian and the British Library), I now appreciate how much this particular issue can impact a library's design.

These points, of course, are just the tip of the proverbial iceberg. If anybody out there wants to know more, e-mail me. The presentation included a long list (too long to list here) of references I'd be happy to pass along.

Navigating Oxford's Electronic Library Catalog

Sue Pemberton, the Librarian for the Continuing Education Library, was our final presenter on Tuesday with, as I said, a crash course in how to use the electronic catalog. This is another presentation that's a bit tricky to sum up - mostly on account of the fact that come August, when the new library system software is rolled out, the current catalog system will be replaced with something that should be a bit easier to use than what they have now.

At the moment though, Oxford's online catalog is pretty old school. So old school, in fact that using it brought back memories (both fond and otherwise) of telnetting into my local public library's online system back in the olden days of the internet (circa 1993). There is a web-based interface for the catalog, but it's not as powerful or as useful as the text-based interface.

The catalog does have one very cool feature though (one I'd love to see implemented in more special collections) - the Automated Stack Request. For those of you who have not made use of a library's special collections material (which frequently resides in closed stacks not directly accessible to library patrons), you generally have to go to the library and fill out a form on-site and then wait for whatever you've requested to be brought to you. The Automated Stack Request lets you make your request online, so the material is waiting for you when you arrive. Nifty!

Evening's Entertainment

Oh, and lest you think we were all work and no play, Tuesday evening's planned activity consisted of a very nice tour of Oxford's many historic pubs. However, since I could write an entire post on the pubs I visited in England (and plan to), I'll say no more about that here.

Seminar Retrospective - Monday, 15 May - A Day of Introductions

Hello all, In preparation for posting more about the Oxford library seminar, I'm reposting my review of the first full day, newly edited and now with pictures!

- - - - - -

Like the first day of any class, the first full day of the seminar was mainly one of introductions. We introduced ourselves, and we also got an introduction to Oxford's history and to the Bodleian Library.

History Introduction

The introduction to Oxford's history was given by Chris Day, Director of Academic Programmes at the Department of Continuing Education in Oxford (the department that oversees this seminar along with the University of North Carolina).

The presentation was interesting, informative, and extremely visual - it was based around a lot of vary good slides of Oxford buildings (and many other pictures as well). I didn't take enough photos to give as good a slideshow, but I can give a brief summary of the presentation.

Merton College: Chapel Tower Despite the fact that many of Oxford’s University buildings are built in a fairly similar style (namely, I think, Gothic or Neo-Gothic), they weren’t all built at once. The university grew over a period of a few hundred years as more and more colleges opened their doors. The town of Oxford has (probably) been around since sometime in the 10th century, and the university (according to my travel guidebooks) was founded in 1167. Both town and university have been growing rather organically ever since, and they're still growing.

Relations between the town and the university (town vs. gown) have not always been pleasant. The 13th and 14th centuries in particular seemed to involve a lot of nastiness, including riots, lynchings, and the running out of town of many university folk (some of whom, again, according to my travel guides, went off to found Cambridge University).

At the moment Oxford University consists of 39 colleges, which largely function as separate, autonomous entities (more independent, I think, than the colleges that make up American universities). The University is still better known for its Arts programs than its Sciences - traditionally, it seems that Oxford turns out the writers and politicians and Cambridge turns out the scientists - but the study of Sciences is becoming the major focus these days. The University at the moment seems to be in the middle of balancing its traditions with continuing evolution as it tries to keep up with the modern world. Which I suppose makes like many universities here in the states.

Library Introduction

The other major introduction we got was to Oxford University Libraries in general and the Bodleian Library in particular. This introduction came in two parts: An introductory classroom style session, in which more statistics than one can easily digest were given to us, and a tour of the Bodleian, in which more stories and history than one can easily digest were given to us.

The introduction was presented variously by Kate Alderson-Smith (Theology Librarian for Oxford University Library Services), Gail Merrett (Head of Staff Development for Oxford University Library Services), and Bill Clennell (a retired member of the Bodleian staff who might very well know more of the library's history than anyone else). These folks (particularly Kate and Gail) were also the primary organizers of the seminar, and its success is largely due to their hard work.

I have some of the statistics at hand (and after two weeks of hearing variations of them repeated in several other presentations, I finally managed to wrap my brain around them), so here are some numbers:

  • There are over 100 libraries in the University, when all the individual college and departmental libraries are added to the libraries that serve the university as a whole.
  • The University’s collection contains about 11 million items (which apparently shakes out to about 155 miles of materials).
  • There are currently about 45,000 users of the library system.
  • About 3 miles of material gets added to the the university library system every year.

In short, they have a lot of books, a lot of users, and a rapidly expanding collection.

The Bodleian Library has been around since 1602, and acts as the main library for the University as a whole. It’s not the first university library Oxford has had, the first was started in 1320, but it never quite got off the ground. A second library was started when Humfrey, Duke of Gloucester donated a number of manuscripts to the university in the 1440s. “Duke Humfrey’s Library” was built above the (then) Divinity School and opened in 1488. However, this collection was dispersed less than 100 years later.

Bodleian Library: Divinity School The Divinity School and the Duke Humfrey’s library building still exist, however. The Divinity School is no longer a divinity school, it's simply another part of the Bodleian building now. It was the location of a very nice reception for the seminar at the end of Monday’s activities (and for those of you who might care, if you get out a copy of the first Harry Potter film, you can see it - it also acted as the set for the infirmary). Duke Humfrey's Library no longer houses the collection that it was originally was meant to, but it's still used as a reading room (and is the one that has the most “old-fashioned library” feel to it - beautiful space).

The Bodleian itself was the brainchild of Thomas Bodley, who, among other things, came up with the clever idea of stocking the library by having the printers in England each send the library a copy of every book they published. Amazingly, he actually managed to get the printers to go along with this, and thus was the first legal deposit library (and the basis of copyright, well, at least one basis of copyright) formed. The Bodleian is still a legal deposit library, which is a big part of the reason for its exponentially expanding collection, although if I understood one of the presentations correctly, it is now a selective one (it doesn’t have to take everything, it gets to pick and choose, but it still chooses quite a lot of stuff).

There’s one other interesting aspect to the Bodleian. It isn’t a lending library. It’s more like one of the world's largest Special Collections libraries. As with most Special Collections, if you want to use the collection, you have to use it on-site. And they are very, very serious about this point. When you are issued with your Bodleian Reader’s card, you are asked to read aloud (and adhere to) the following declaration:

I hereby undertake not to remove from the Library, or to mark, deface, or injure in any way, any volume, document, or other object belonging to it or in its custody; not to bring into the Library or kindle therein any fire or flame, and not to smoke in the Library; and I promise to obey all rules of the Library.

which tends to put one in a rather… reflective… frame of mind when handling library materials. (For the record, I was extremely careful with every book I made use of, and I don’t think I caused any damage to any of them.) These restrictions make sense too, when you realize that they tend to only have one copy of each edition (though if a book has gone through multiple editions, they do have multiple copies), and that copy has to last, theoretically, forever.

All this seriousness can lead one to imagine that the Bodleian is a forbidding library to make use of (and being housed in an imposing Neo-Gothic building and possessed of much decidedly old-fashioned interior design does not do much to ally this). However, it’s not, really, though it does have its quirks. Much of the collection resides in closed stacks, so you can’t just go picking things straight off the shelves, but the people who work there are some of the friendliest and most helpful folks I’ve met in the library world.

I actually found reading there a more pleasant experience than in my own university library. You can bring your laptop with you to work, and they even provide you with power sockets (one of my peeves about the UA library is that you have to go hunting for an outlet for your computer) and (I think, I never tested this) network jacks for internet access. It is quiet (a feature that is rapidly disappearing from the modern American academic library, somewhat to my dismay). The catalog is a bit… tricky (more on this later), but once you get the hang of things it’s an easy library to use, and a nice space to study in.

More can be said about how the Bodleian fits into the University Library System as a whole, but since that was the topic of one of the presentations for Tuesday, I'll leave that for the next post.