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University of Oxford
Director of University Library Services and Bodley's Librarian

The Bodleian Library: the next 400 years

Presentation to the American Friends of the Bodleian, New York, April 1998


Let me begin with a warm expression of thanks to the University Club, for providing such a splendid venue for this evening's event; and my thanks in particular to Bill Buice, Shaw Kinsley and Andrew Berner, for making it all happen…

As far as we know, tonight's 'show' is a first, even for Oxford. Never before have two Bodley's Librarians appeared together as a double act on the same bill. So, while you're getting 'two for the price of one', I'll leave you to decide which one of us is the straight man, and which one is the stooge! But I can tell you that I'm personally delighted to be sharing the limelight tonight with my predecessor David Vaisey, and that we're both very pleased to have this opportunity to meet so many of our American Friends, and to be able to tell you about the Bodleian Library, its past achievements and its plans for the future.

David has spoken to you in his usual entertaining style about the history of the Bodleian in its first 400 years. And it's now my challenging task to share some thoughts about where the Library is heading in its next four centuries of existence. And the neat thing about any speculation I may make tonight is that none of us will be around to say I got it all wrong!

It's a tall order that I've set myself; but as the 'new kid on the block', it's an integral part of my responsibility to try to steer the Library on a forward-looking course, and to do what I can to ensure that its future is a secure and successful one. And, if I can't exactly be categorical about what the Bodleian will be like in the year 2398, I can at least say something about the directions we're already heading in.

The Bodleian Library is about many things, of course; but as far as my subject tonight is concerned, I'm taking it as read that one of the many important things the Library is about is the elusive concept of 'perpetuity'. I say it's elusive, because the practical definitions of perpetuity that I've heard, even within the library world, are surprisingly elastic, varying from as little as 30 years right up the scale to the notion of 'for ever'. So I guess, in those terms, that 400 years comes somewhere in the middle of the scale. I was talking to a CD manufacturer only recently, and I asked him how long he thought he could guarantee the integrity of that particular electronic medium as the carrier of information; and he proudly told me that his products would last 'a very long time', perhaps between 15 to 20 years if they were looked after properly! But I can promise you that we intend the contents of the Bodleian to be around for a whole lot longer than that…

Taking the long-term view

And the way that we approach the long-term view is to embed at least some understanding of 'perpetuity' into our institutional mission statement. Yes: like every self-respecting modern institution, the Bodleian Library has set out its mission in a set of grandiose paragraphs; but for tonight's purposes, the one I want to quote to you is this: "The Library's mission is to maintain and develop collections and services in support of the present and future teaching and research needs of the University of Oxford, and of the national and international scholarly community". As part of this long-term commitment to both present and future scholarship, we have recently embarked on a major strategic planning exercise; and that important activity is already helping us to clarify what practical outcomes will help us to secure the Library's future.

I won't bore you with all the detail of that exercise right now; but I can tell you that the Bodleian's future will be systematically built on its outstanding past. One thing above all else is certain: and that is that the Library's future will be a potent mixture of two key elements - continuity and change. Those two keywords formed the basic theme of my recent address at the annual Founder's Lunch when we met last month in Oxford to celebrate the Bodleian's first 400 years. And as we look forward to our next quatercentenary, I have no doubt that continuity and change will continue to work together to keep the Bodleian at the heart of the world's pursuit of research and scholarship, as it has been for centuries.

One of the current examples of these two key elements working together - the past and the future, so to speak - is the ambitious Incunable Catalogue Project, which we have recently fully funded thanks to the generosity of all those foundations and individuals who have responded in the last few years to our appeal for material support. The Project, based as it is on the earlier efforts of previous generations to describe our oldest and most precious printed books, will, when it is complete, provide many new scholarly insights into these important products of the 15th-century printing press, our collection of which is the largest held by any academic library anywhere in the world. This new catalogue, to be published by the Oxford University Press, will exist also in machine-readable form, and it will help to revolutionise the world's understanding of the printed book in Europe. It will form an important landmark in the Library's contribution to a better appreciation of our collective past, and of the great heritage which forms the basis for so much of the Library's plans for future development and service.

Continuing change

Mind you, Sir Thomas Bodley himself would be quite literally staggered if he returned to Oxford in this late 20th century to see the present scale of the enterprise to which he devoted the last 15 years of his life and the bulk of his personal fortune!

Bodley's early regulations for the Library required the Librarian personally to attend to every reader individually, and to fetch the books and manuscripts which they required for their work (I suppose that's what you call 'customer service'!) But today, we have tens of thousands of users; and with the best will in the world, it would be physically impossible for one single librarian to service all their needs. And just to give you some idea of how things have changed since those early days, my reader services staff told me recently that in the last week of this last Hilary Term an average of more than 2,000 items a day were fetched for readers out of the Bodleian stacks. This was, I understand, an all-time record; and you'll appreciate why it has long ceased to be the practice for Bodley's Librarian himself to deal with readers' requests in the original 17th-century way! With well over 30,000 registered readers (and rapidly rising), it's now a sad fact of my library life that the only readers I get to attend to personally these days are the ones who break the rules - and even then I often have to leave them to the University Proctors to deal with for appropriate punishment! (It's strange, isn't it, that even in a hallowed library like the Bodleian, there is still the occasional reader who behaves as if their personal underlinings or marginal annotations will somehow enhance a book's value for its next reader?)

Preservation for continuity

And that brings me neatly on to the first major aspect of continuity in the Bodleian: the all-important issue of the physical preservation of library materials. In Oxford, we are, as I'm sure you all know, the privileged custodians of a large and important printed and manuscript heritage. And I can assure you that we remain committed to its long-term conservation and care, and we regard it as a sacred trust that the writings entrusted to our care should be safeguarded for the benefit of generations still to come.

Mind you, conservation care and security don't come cheap these days. One of my other predecessors as Bodley's Librarian, the late John Jolliffe, once wisely said that "librarianship consists of the reconciliation of opposing objectives"; and nowhere is this more true than in the constant tension that exists between preservation and use. The ideal library, from the point of view of the long-term preservation of its collections, is a cold, dry, bank-vault, with no readers at all! You'll be pleased to know, I'm certain, that this is not what we're planning for the future of the Bodleian's collections. But one of the really big challenges that we're having to deal with on a long-term basis is how to balance the ever-increasing demands for access to our library materials with that 'sacred trust' to preserve those same materials for posterity.

The Bodleian, as you would expect in a library of legal deposit, has a major conservation department; in fact, it's the largest (and we like to think, the best), in any university library in the UK), and it has pioneered and developed many ingenious new techniques for the treatment of the whole range of library materials. But such treatments become ever more complex and expensive; and sometimes we feel as though we're fighting a losing battle in the face of escalating use and dwindling financial resources. It's like what we call in the UK 'painting the Forth Bridge' - it's a never-ending cycle of refurbishment and repair made necessary by the wear and tear of use and by the passage of time.

Only the other week, I was reading Sir Thomas Bodley's letters to his first Librarian, Thomas James, and I came across a fascinating reference to the age-old problem of bookworms. These voracious little pests were apparently affecting even the newest books in the Bodleian as early as the 1600s, but Sir Thomas took a surprisingly relaxed view of them, saying to his Librarian: "I hope those little worms about the covers of your books come by reason of their newness, and that hereafter they will away"…

These days, we take a much less passive stance in protecting the Library's books from pests of every sort - including human ones! - and we do a lot more than simply 'wishing them away'. And in the coming years, you can be sure that we will be using all our efforts to develop new and ever more sophisticated techniques to preserve our wonderful collections for the long-term, as we have hitherto.

The death of the book?

You will have gathered from all of this, I hope, that I am not one of those who believe that the death of the book is at all an imminent phenomenon. Nor do I believe that great libraries like the Bodleian will ever disappear. They may get renovated, physically; and they will certainly expand their collections and their services to move along with the latest new technology. But 'the book' as we have known it in its present form for centuries, remains a truly remarkable piece of user-friendly technology; and I'm convinced that it still has a long and bright future ahead of it, along with the major libraries that have collected it in such large quantities.

You may be interested to know, for example, that in spite of the digital revolution and the advent of the Internet, the number of hard copies of newly-published books and journals is still increasing every year. And by a strange kind of irony, it seems that this continuing increase is being fuelled by the advent of computer-typesetting and by the desk-top publishing facilities which are now within virtually everyone's grasp.

At the same time, of course, there is also a huge growth industry in the creation of computerised information; and this represents, not so much a threat to the Bodleian's continuing existence as one of its greatest new challenges for the long-term storage of information.

The challenge of preserving digital information

Digital information, and all the technology that surrounds it - the software and the hardware - is changing so fast and so often that its long-term preservation is becoming a really major concern for those institutions, like the great research libraries, whose very reason for existing is to act as a repository for information in all forms on a long-term basis.

'The book' has proved to be a relatively robust piece of archival technology - give or take a few bookworms and the 19th-century problem of brittle paper; but the technical experts tell us that the guaranteed life of electronic materials can only be expected to last decades rather than centuries. So this is a significant problem for us to tackle, while there is still time before oceans of digital information is lost for ever.

Of course, a lot of electronic information, like so much of our e-mail, is by its nature ephemeral, and it can be so easily deleted and lost in the ether. And you may think that most of your e-mail, or mine, is perhaps not worth preserving in any case! But what if you or I turned out in a few years to be an Einstein, or a T.S. Eliot? How on earth would the biographers or textual scholars of tomorrow do their detailed research if all your correspondence, and all the drafts of your major texts had become the victims of the 'delete' button? And even if you'd taken the trouble to save all your work to disk, and deposited it all in electronic form in a library, how would that library set about ensuring the readability of all those bits and bytes in a 100 years' time, when the basic underlying technology is so swiftly obsolescent?

You only need the human eye (aided, perhaps, by a good pair of reading glasses) to read a book or a manuscript. But the cost and the complexity of all the paraphernalia needed to access and read material stored in every possible electronic format are very daunting indeed. We are already facing the very real danger of cultural loss in the age of the word-processor, the CD ROM, and the dynamic database. And in libraries like the Bodleian we are already having to invest scarce time and effort in trying to find manageable and affordable ways of storing and preserving at least a representative sample of the growing volume of digital information.

The University of Oxford itself has already invested very large sums of money in a facility known as the Hierarchical File Server, which is designed in part to address this urgent problem. And the Bodleian, along with other the legal deposit libraries in the UK, is currently pressing the government to extend the legal deposit of printed materials to include electronic and other non-print media. The Bodleian is also part of an international approach to the problem of the long-term preservation of electronic information, and we are pursuing the whole question of digital archiving standards through our membership of the North American Research Libraries Group (RLG). Nearer to home, too, the UK Consortium of University Research Libraries (CURL), of which Oxford is an active member, has just been awarded a large research and development grant, from government funding, to establish guidelines for best practice in the long-term electronic preservation.

All of which will serve to show you that the Bodleian Library does not intend to be 'sidelined' by the computer age, or to become some kind of fossilised 'museum of the book' which merely cares for the physical artefacts of bygone ages. Like all major research libraries, we exist to serve the needs of scholarship and learning in all its myriad forms. And as those needs are increasingly based on digital communications, so we are positioning ourselves in Oxford to serve our readers in every possible way, including the use of the electronic networks. But I say again: it doesn't come cheap, and the best ways forward will take some finding!

Developing the 'hybrid library' of the future

But if the challenges of the digital world are great, they are also very exciting. For one thing, the availability of high-performance electronic networks means that we can exploit the new technology to bring our collections and our services to a global audience. We have come a very long way since the Library's first printed catalogue in 1605 (which was an innovation for its time). In the last few years, especially, we have made enormous strides in putting our book catalogues into machine-readable form, and in making it possible for scholars all over the world to do personalised searches over the Internet on a union catalogue of our library holdings. And this online public access catalogue, which we call OLIS (the Oxford Libraries Information System), includes not only the details of millions of books in the Bodleian, but also those of more than 40 other libraries in Oxford - colleges as well as faculties.

And if you explore the Bodleian's website, you'll find that we already offer a staggering array of electronic resources for the support of teaching and research. And we can only speculate about how much more rich and extensive these resources will become in five or ten years' time, let alone in 400 years!

What it does mean for the future, of course, is that the Bodleian will be - as it is already in fact - what for want of a better word we are calling a 'hybrid' library. That is, a library whose monumental collections of materials in the more traditional formats is being blended with, and supplemented by, a diverse and growing range of electronic materials. New formats have come along in the past to supplement the printed book, such as the microforms of the 20th-century; and they have always required new and slightly different techniques for handling and managing them. But, with the advent of the computer and of electronic information, we can now begin to manage, describe, and make all of our holdings available by means of the new technology. And that's why the hybrid library of the late 20th-century and beyond, promises a much more integrated and effective approach to all the work that we do as librarians, with every kind of material that we hold and deliver. And this new development path is something that we recognise we must follow if we are to keep the Library at the forefront of academic research support (which is where Sir Thomas Bodley first placed the Library almost 400 years ago).

Harnessing the new technology

Our computerised catalogue of Chinese and Korean materials is, we believe, a first of its kind anywhere in the world; and we are co-operating also with North American partners in producing sophisticated electronic finding aids and item-level descriptions for the vast quantity of archival material that we hold.

But to develop the hybrid library of the future, and to remain true to Sir Thomas Bodley's noble aims of making the Bodleian 'a library for the world', we are not just simply automating our catalogues and providing our readers with networked access to databases, to CD ROMs, and to electronic journals. We are now also actively moving beyond those all-important first steps, by providing electronic access to full-text, digitised versions of some of our most important original materials.

For example, Oxford's world-famous collection of Celtic and Anglo-Saxon manuscripts are available on the World Wide Web. Some of our most important antique maps, our 'broadside' ballads, and our huge collection of printed ephemera have also been digitised for the benefit of scholarship and research on a worldwide basis. We are planning the introduction of a digitisation-on-demand service, to enable our readers to select for themselves the most appropriate materials to put into electronic form to support their work. And all this is not only supporting existing scholarly needs: it is also enabling new forms of research and enquiry to flourish, as more and more people use the growing capabilities of the Internet to do things they have never been able to do before.

Whatever else may happen in the next 400 years, you can be sure that the Bodleian does not intend to stand still! In fact, we aim to be just as central to our users' needs in 2398 as we are in 1998; and the exploitation of the new technologies will certainly be one of the ways in which we will square the circle between change and continuity…

Maintaining the historic infrastructure

But continuity in its most obvious physical form is also all around us in the Bodleian, even as technology helps us to change not only the ways we do things, but also many of the things we do. The very fabric of our working lives in Oxford is bound up intimately with our glorious surroundings, and with the architectural heritage of the wonderful buildings that have helped to make the Library what it is today. Every working day, I am overcome by a sense of historical continuity as I enter the Bodleian's Old Schools Quadrangle. I never walk into Duke Humfrey's 15th-century library without feeling a sense of privilege that comes from knowing that I stand on the shoulders of other men's great achievements in the past. And I know that all my Bodleian colleagues feel it too.

And that's what is driving us to ensure that those great buildings continue in good condition long into the future. And in this 400th anniversary year of our Founder's declaration of intent to refurbish, to repair, and to rebuild a library worthy of our great university, that's why we have set ourselves the awesome task of preserving and renovating the buildings which Sir Thomas created; and that's why we want to do as much as we possibly can to see to it that those same buildings will still be there in another 400 years.

But the task isn't always easy, and there are sometimes setbacks. Last November, for example, the Trustees of the UK government's Heritage Lottery Fund decided in their wisdom not to help us financially with our plans to put the Old Bodleian into a better state of repair. We need to replace the worn-out copper roof of Duke Humfrey's medieval library; we need to eradicate its resident colony of death-watch beetles; and we need to bring significant improvements to the environmental conditions in this iconic library. Our proposal to the Lottery Fund included the restoration of the Upper Reading Room's unique Jacobean painted frieze, as well as a whole raft of works to bring these elderly buildings up to modern standards of repair and functionality. And yet none of this heritage work was deemed worthy of sharing in the vast proceeds of what has been trumpeted as 'The People's Lottery'. Instead, we learned to our great chagrin that such funds as were available would be going to create an entirely new museum of football in a depressed area of the north-west of England! Disappointment comes in every shape and size; but this was probably the biggest one of all for many of us.

And yet we did not allow ourselves to be downhearted, nor to be deflected from our determination to succeed. Instead, we have redoubled our efforts in seeking to replicate the great example of renovation which our Founder set four centuries ago. And the way our supporters have responded to our call for help has been truly magnificent in these last six months. For now we're at the stage where the Old Bodleian renovation project is well on the way to being funded by external donations, and we're already planning to make a start on site in September this year. There is also, perhaps, a kind of grim satisfaction that, like Sir Thomas Bodley's own restoration work, the new repairs to the Bodleian's infrastructure will be undertaken through private benefaction, and not with government help. And we hope it's not 'sour grapes' when, in thanking so many generous donors for keeping us on course, we look forward to the Bodleian being in good shape for very many years after the Heritage Lottery Fund itself has been forgotten!

Doing more for visitors

We're planning also to do a great deal more for our tens of thousands of tourist visitors than we have ever done before. The Bodleian's status as a great heritage site means that over half a million such visitors each year spend time in the surroundings of the Library; but we are conscious that all too many of them currently go away without really understanding either the history or the present work of the Library. And so our plans include the introduction of a professionally managed and self-funded Visitor Management Programme, by which far more will come to appreciate the true meaning of the Old Schools Quadrangle, of the Divinity School, and of Duke Humfrey's Library.

We have ambitious plans; and I can assure you that, whatever the setbacks and disappointments along the way, we intend to see them through, even if it takes 400 years to do it!

The continuing benevolence of friends

But in bringing my remarks towards a conclusion this evening, I want finally to take this opportunity to say a few words about the privilege that both David Vaisey and I have felt, as Bodley's Librarians, of being supported by so many friends. Thankfully, keeping one of the world's great libraries on a straight course towards a distant future, through all the (largely creative) tensions of both continuity and change, is not the task of one single person, nor even only the duty of many hardworking and loyal staff. The task is, happily, one that can be shared, and made that much easier, with a wide and growing army of benevolent friends.

The support of friends, indeed, has always been crucial to whatever the Bodleian may have achieved over the centuries. It has been a constant theme of continuity ever since Sir Thomas Bodley himself was helped by what he called that "great store of honourable friends" to set the Library on its way in 1598 and beyond.

Reg Carr
New York
April 1998