Friday, July 16, 2010

Oxford standard: Bodleian tour

To round out our week of travel, we journeyed to Oxford to a visit to the Bodleian library. I am embarrassed to admit that in all the years I've visited the UK I had never been to Oxford. Honestly, I'm not sure why--the folk festival at Towersey is a stone's throw from the University, and it's not a bad train ride, but I guess it never occurred to me to visit for a day trip. Now that I'm a Library Science student, I couldn't imagine a better place to spent the day--or a career.

Knowing that we had only ninety minutes scheduled at the Bodleian I took it upon myself to schedule two additional library site visits, the History Faculty Library and the John Johnson Collection, that will be discussed in additional blogs.

The Bodleian library surpassed my expectations. From the stonemason's carvings to the rows of ancient texts, the library was exactly as I hoped. The tour might have been geared toward the general public rather than library professionals, but our guide did an excellent job pointing out things of interest to librarians--including the request system, the history of the catalogue, and their standards (Dublin Core).

As part of the oldest English-speaking university, the library opened in 1488, only to be dismantled by the English Reformation when Henry VIII removed all of the books, numbering about 455, as potentially damaging to his new position as head of the English church. The history of Oxford's libraries is linked not only to the success of graduates, but also to the political changes that affected England. For more information see the Bodleian website.

The guide reminded us that most of Oxford's benefactors give to their college--not to the University at large. The Bodleian exists because a few men (in the early days it was all men), Duke Humfries (1439) and Thomas Bodley (1602), made bequests to Oxford University rather than the individual colleges. Without these bequests, most likely, there would be no central library at Oxford. There are many other libraries at Oxford including the College libraries and the Faculty libraries, as well as some subject libraries: most of these libraries have restricted access: members of a college have unlimited access to their college's library--other students or faculty must obtain permission to use the collection. The same holds true for the faculty libraries.

Thomas Bodley's 1602 donation allowed Oxford to revamp and restart their library (which had basically been defunct since the 16th century). His donation came with some strict statutes: the library was to be for reference only and there could be no fire of flame, which meant that there was no artificial light until the installation of electricity in 1928. Great for the books, not so great for the researchers. The Radcliffe Camera (pictured below) and built in 1740s was not subject to the Bodleian statutes and therefore, once incorporated into the Bodleian in 1860, served as a reading room.

As for the "reference only" limitation--it even applied to the king: a private reading room was built in the main gallery for the King when he came to the library to read, but even he could not take books out.

The Bodleian is one of the world's leading research libraries with over 11 million volumes located between the Old and New Libraries and storage facilities at Osney Mead,and the Cheshire Salt Mines, along with a new state-of-the-art facility to be located at Swindon. Like many libraries we have visited in the UK, climate-control is an ever present concern--buildings are seldom fitted with central air conditioning meaning that books are subject to fluctuations in temperature and humidity. The library is one of the UK's Legal Deposit Libraries, which allows library staff to acquire a copy of any book printed within the UK free of charge as long as they request it within a year of publication. Like the National Library of Scotland and Trinity College Dublin's Library, the Bodleian is not required to accept all published materials--they can pick and choose what best matches their collection development policy. The Old Library (Duke Humfrey's Library/Selden's End) where we visited houses the Bodleian oldest books (that are not in conservation or a vault). All 14,000 items date from the 16th and 17th centuries and are all shelved in their original order.

The modern Bodleian library's collection is composed of many smaller donations: the most famous being from John Selden (8000 books in 1650) and Francis Douce (18,000 books, 393 manuscripts in 1834) as well as those books gained from Bodley's original agreement with the Stationer's Office to acquire copies of all printed books. The collection is especially strong in pre-1500 books as well as the academic subjects studied at Oxford with over 35 major subject categories within the catalogue. The Bodleian is, at heart, an academic library for the use of researchers and students at Oxford and throughout the world. They participated in the GoogleBooks project and have a strong digital collection and have conducted both in-house and joint digitization projects to make resources more available. Perhaps the best evidence of the Bodleian role as an academic institution is it's usage: over 50,000 readers tickets are valid on a given day with over 2000 in use each day. It is the significance of the collection that drives researchers to complete the steps necessary to become a reader at the Bodleian.

On an unrelated note: I saw this image and thought you might all enjoy sharing what passes for graffiti in Oxford:
It must be said that others saw much ruder writing/images in the city but I was left with an overwhelmingly positive impression of Oxford...though we didn't meet any of the students.

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