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:

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.