Sunday, 13 November 2011

Visit to the Bodleian Library

A couple of weeks ago I was one of a lucky handful of CDG members to visit Oxford’s Bodleian Library. Being the nerd that I am Oxford has always been a place of pilgrimage for me and the Bodleian Library my own private Disneyland. The Library is one steeped in the history of England from being used as a House of Parliament by Charles I during the English Civil War to providing a back drop for the filming of the Harry Potter films in recent years (see – nerd!).

The collection held (second to the British Library) was established by Sir Thomas Bodley at the turn of the 17th century and it was his agreement with the Stationer’s Company of London that is responsible for the size and breadth of the collection. This agreement ensured the Bodleian Library received a copy of every book published in Great Britain and Ireland. With 15,000 linear metres of archives and manuscripts the mind boggles as to the treasures held within.  During this visit we were lucky enough to attend an ongoing exhibition (open to the general public) entitled “Treasures of the Bodleian” giving the library a chance to share a handful of the wonders they hold within their stores. These include a copy of the Ashmole Bestiary (early thirteenth century), a beautifully illuminated scroll of the Bhagavad-Gita (eighteenth century), and an original manuscript of Jane Austen’s unfinished novel The Watsons (c.1805).  

The visit was broken up into a superb tour of the library followed by a Q&A session with three members of the Bodleian Library staff. The tour of the library combined the history of the library, along with anecdotes of Harry Potter filming and comments of the many treasures the Bodleian has within their collection. Walking around on the tour you can see how the Bodleian has adapted to the needs of academics and students. The most obvious example of this is the newer Gladstone link library found in the basement of the main humanities library. This is named such as it links the old Bodleian library with the reading rooms in the Radcliffe Camera. This area has been developed into a study space with flexible seating, computers and holds high use items on open access shelves.  The link provides a contemporary space built to recognise the changes in the way students work with space for group discussion and internet access and no strict silence code. This is a popular area for students and was being well used as we walked round.

One of the most interesting things to note about this visit was the balance the library staff has in terms of providing a comprehensive library service to students and academics whilst working as a living museum and tourist attraction. The day we visited was a wet Thursday morning and the entrance hall was full of students entering the reading rooms, tourists waiting for the next guided tour and twenty overly excited (on my part anyway) CILIP members! This precarious balance of use also became apparent in the Q&A session after our tour where time was spent discussing the need to apply for funding for ongoing projects and balancing the archiving and storage of the collection whilst also publicising the treasures within it.

A lot of the discussion at the Q&A focused on the Bodleian’s efforts to digitise their collection and the issues that surround this. Projects such as the digitisation of collections are subject to funding from different charities, commercial enterprises and arts councils. The other big question is accessibility to the collections once they are digitised. As this is still a relatively new area of conservation there is no one model or successful precedent to fall back upon. The Bodelian staff spoke about how they embraced digitisation relatively early but the challenge is now consolidating the many different programs used and providing consistency across the board. The real question is whether everything will become open access in time and if this happens how do libraries and museums fund the maintenance and conservation of these collections.

Being able to visit the Bodleian Library and speak to some of their staff gave me an insight into a truly unique working environment. I’ll leave you with a comment that one of the staff giving the tour said to us – I’m paraphrasing here because my memory is quite a sieve but she mentioned the need to pause every once and a while just to remember how lucky she was to work in such a hallowed building surrounded by the history of the nation. It was humbling to hear this and realise how hard the staff work to keep the traditions of Sir Thomas Bodley alive in their curation and development of collections whilst providing today’s students with current technologies in line with other academic libraries around the country and the world.

Thanks to CDG for organising a brilliant visit to an amazing institution. 

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