Wednesday, 29 July 2015

Thinking about access at Oxford University

Dateline: June 30
Place: The Bodleian Library, Oxford University
Time:  7:30 a.m. - 3:30 p.m.
Temperature: 30° C
Song of the morning: Marian the Librarian by Robert Preston

Just as religious pilgrims travel from around the world to experience the Camino Trail or visit the great city of Mecca, so too will librarians and library students make their way to one of the “holy grails” of libraries: the “Old Bodleain Library” at Oxford University. 

Here we are on the steps of the Bodleian Library.

While we may be dazzled by the architecture and the priceless collections, I think it’s also important to be attentive to some of the philosophical issues that are raised by the history and practices of this institution. In particular, the history of “the Bodley” raises questions about the role of librarians in providing access to information--are we primarily gatekeepers or facilitators?

Waiting for our tour in a group study room:
but not a study room like ours!

The history of the Bodleian Library--at least the “old” library--is not unfamiliar. The original library was founded in the early 1300s.

However, despite a period of growth in the 1400s that included a significant donation of books and manuscripts from the Duke of Gloucester (Humphrey), by the late 1500s most of the Duke’s collection had been destroyed and overall the collection was poor.

As such, the library did not adequately meet the needs of students or other scholars. 
As our tour guide, Naomi (a fabulous storyteller), explains, in 1598, Sir Thomas Bodley was a “17th century IT guy” who recognized the need to revitalize the library so that it could become a reference library that would be a centre for research for international as well as British scholars. 
To fulfill this vision, Bodley created an institution that functioned in some ways that seem familiar to those of us working in 21st century libraries: there was collection development, access services, technical services (i.e., cataloguing) and reference services. And a librarian was hired to oversee the daily operation of the library, albeit that no specialized training was available then for this profession.

Our group with Bodleain tour guide Naomi (back row, centre).
In terms of collection development, Bodley invested his own books, manuscripts and money into rebuilding the collection, encouraged others to the same and, most strategically, made an agreement with the Stationers' Company in London to ensure that the library received a copy of everything printed in Britain.

Thomas Bodley
(Oxford University Press)
To provide access to this collection, he hired Thomas James in 1602 as the first librarian. As Mary Clapinson, a former Keeper of the Western Manuscripts at the Bodleian, explains Bodley expected James to be “present whenever the Library was open,” which seems to have meant every morning (8 to 11 a.m.) and afternoon (2 to 5 p.m.) of the week except Sundays and major “festivals” (Clapinson, 2006, p. 36). And James was the sole employee--he had no help until an assistant was hired in 1610 (Clapinson, 2006, p. 36)--imagine trying to “shush” everyone like Marian, the librarian from The Music Man?

In addition to being available virtually every day, James also took it upon himself to produce catalogues that would help the library’s readers make use of the Bodleian collections. 

According to Clapinson, he produced the first catalogue in 1605 that included an index of authors and later also produced subject catalogues for certain topics including theology, medicine, law and arts (Clapinson, 2006, p. 40). 

These catalogues were intended not only for senior scholars but also for undergraduate students, when they eventually were given permission to use the library.

All of these efforts suggest that the library significantly increased access to information for 17th century (and future) scholars--a goal that seems ahistorical. However, in some important ways access to the Bodleian collection was also highly restricted. For example, initially only senior scholars (graduate students and faculty) were permitted access to the library--undergraduates did not have general access until 1611 and, even then, only those with “two years’ standing” who came from aristocratic families (Clapinson, 2006, p. 33).

And books were chained to shelves and could not be taken from the library, as Bodley believed that lending out materials would lead to their destruction (Clapinson, 2006, p. 38). As such, despite his work on library catalogues, James’s role could be described as being that primarily of a gatekeeper who ensured that access to the collection was limited.

Hilda Gifford.
(Carleton University Archives)
This approach is very different from of 20th century librarians such as Hilda Gifford. Gifford was hired as Carleton University’s first librarian in 1948 and she believed that her role as an academic librarian was to bring books and readers closer together. Thus, she designed lending libraries where all faculty, staff and students--undergraduate and graduate--could easily browse the shelves which held the general and take books home for their research.

Being a facilitator was very much a core element of her practice as a librarian (Attridge Bufton, 2014, p. ?) and it is certainly the model that currently I follow in my work at the Carleton library. However, Miss Gifford did restrict access to some materials, such as those in the reference collection and today, these materials not circulate nor do those in the university’s archives and research collections.

These similarities make me realize that although we might think of early forms of librarianship as being very different from those practices today, some thinking around access to information spans the centuries and reaches into modern-day practice. 

And, unfortunately, with good reason. 

Twenty-first century librarians still share Bodley’s concern about the risks associated with lending out materials, especially those responsible for special collections and rare books. These risks include natural deterioration but also the temptation felt by some readers to "borrow" items and not return them.

Attridge Bufton, M. (2014). "A Honey of a Union Deal: Gender and Status in the Labour
    Action of Carleton University Librarians, 1948-1975." In J. Dekker and M. Kandiuk (Ed.)
    In solidarity: Academic librarian labour activism and union participation in Canada
    (pp. 63-79). Sacramento, CA: Library Juice Press.

Hilda Gifford. (n.d.). Carleton University Archives. Retrieved July 28, 2015 from

Clapinson, M. (2006). "The Bodleian Library and its Readers, 1602 - 1652." Bodleain Library
     Record, 19(1), 30-46.

Oxford University Press. (2015). "Five Facts about Thomas Bodley." OUPBlog. Retrieved
     July 28, 2015 from

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