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

Modernising Oxford's Libraries: Blending the Old and the New

Lecture to the Rhodes Scholars during the Rhodes Trust Centenary, Oxford, 4 July 2003

[Click on the images for larger versions]

Modernising Oxford's Libraries

It's my very great pleasure, as Director of University Library Services, and as Bodley's 23rd Librarian in an unbroken line since the year 1600, to welcome you all here today, and to thank you for coming to hear this presentation about the University's ambitious multi-year programme to renew and reposition Oxford's central library system.

When we in Oxford talk about the University's 'central library system', we are specifically not referring to any of the College libraries; and I want to make that issue crystal clear at the start of my talk ('for the avoidance of doubt', as they say). The colleges of the University are, as you probably know, legally and administratively independent institutions, and the central University has no managerial control over the colleges, nor over their libraries. The various college libraries have their own local responsibility to serve their undergraduates; but access to the college libraries is generally restricted to the members of each college, and they are not central facilities for the whole University. Although I do all I can to encourage co-operation and collaboration between my own central library staff and the library staff of the colleges, my own formal management remit does not run beyond the front doors of the colleges, and I thought it was important to make that clear at the outset.

But there are also over 60 non-college libraries funded in various ways within the central University; and, until my arrival in Oxford in 1997, many of those libraries were, like the college libraries, operating largely independently of each other. And that is one of the main reasons why I was brought here. In fact, in the mid-1990s, the University came to the view that it needed to take some more systematic oversight of what was, in many ways, a rather inefficient and somewhat disjointed central library sector. And so, during 1995 and 1996, the library system was reviewed by two successive committees - the first chaired by Sir Keith Thomas, and the second by Sir Anthony Kenny. The two basic recommendations which emerged from these two committees were: 1) that the centrally funded libraries of the University should be managerially integrated, and 2) that this major task should be entrusted to a new Senior Officer, who should be empowered to operate as Chief Librarian to the University.

I was personally honoured when the University offered me the chance to come to Oxford from the University of Leeds (where I had been University Librarian for over a decade) to take on this monumental challenge. The Oxford central library system is by far the largest and most complex in any UK university (for comparison, it's about the same size as Harvard's - though it's by no means as wealthy!), and Oxford's libraries have always been known as difficult places in which to introduce change, or to get new things done quickly and effectively. But I was always one for a challenge; and so I came to Oxford in January 1997 as the first Director of University Library Services and Bodley's Librarian.

I was given three years to devise detailed proposals for bringing all the University's centrally-funded libraries into a single governance and management structure; and those proposals were approved by Congregation in February 2000. So from that date, a new umbrella organisation (the Oxford University Library Services - the OULS) was formally established under my direction. And since then, the OULS has been systematically engaged on a major programme of change and renewal, and it's that that I want to tell you about today.

The Library Modernisation Programme

In broad outline, our modernisation programme has three principal strands.

The first of these is Integration itself, which is the major catalyst for a radical restructuring of all the management processes in the libraries of the OULS, and which covers strategic planning, the finances, the staff, the collections and the services.

The second major strand consists of a forward-looking e-Strategy. We have identified the sophisticated application of IT to everything we do as a library service as a vital and long-overdue area for development and modernisation. We are addressing this strategy under the general umbrella of what we call 'The Hybrid Library' approach; and I'll be referring again to this important concept, and our plans for modernisation under this umbrella term, a little later on in this presentation.

The third major modernisation strand consists of putting the library estate into good shape, and this involves a long-term blueprint for the reshaping of the extensive range of inefficiently distributed spaces currently occupied by the OULS libraries. Our library buildings in Oxford have just grown up like mushrooms over the years, without any systematic overall planning; and, in far too many cases, there has also been serious dilapidation and under-investment in many of the buildings. And that's why the need to put the whole library estate into better shape is such a key development priority for us now.

So those are the three strands which form the basis for all our current forward planning in the integrated library sector.

Integration (1)

Let me then talk about Integration first, with a sequence of three slides which help to summarise what it's all about.

The aim of Integration was set out clearly in the Thomas Report of 1995: Integration is not simply about administrative or managerial reorganisation for its own sake - it's primarily about improving services to readers; and that's the touchstone against which everything that we are doing is being planned and judged.

And the principal objective of Integration is to use the resources at our disposal more effectively: to deploy them more efficiently, and to use them to better purpose, in order to enhance the library service.

And our main task to enable all this to happen is the creation of a unified central library system, which we're achieving by welding together lots of historically separate libraries into a single new management structure. So that's what Integration is all about, in a nutshell.

Integration (2)

My second Integration slide summarises the Integration process so far.

As I mentioned earlier, the new governance and management structures were formally approved by the University in February 2000; so the OULS has now celebrated its third birthday. In other words, it's really still only quite young toddler, and it's still finding its feet! The OULS began with 25 libraries, and we have since added seven further ones. There are still more to come - including the many small scientific and medical departmental libraries. In fact, a recent University Council review of the first three years of Integration has recommended that we should incorporate all of these additional libraries into the OULS by no later than the year 2007 (which will be no mean task!). But when that has been achieved, there will truly be only one single library system at the centre of the University, supplying a fully integrated service to all parts of it.

Integration (3)

So what has Integration achieved so far? Well, this slide summarises the areas in which we have been particularly active since the OULS was established; and, although it's proving quite a challenging task, at least we now have, for the first time in the long history of the University, a five-year strategic plan for the University's libraries, which we have called the Vision for 2008.

And, as a key part of our strategic planning, we have already taken major strides towards an integrated financial strategy, which includes a ground-breaking activity-costing exercise. By this means, we are beginning to achieve a quite unprecedented degree of budgetary transparency in our accounts (and we intend to do much more to improve our understanding of our costs, and to enhance our accountability). We have already taken some baby steps, too, in the strategic reallocation of our resources; and there will be much more of that in the future, as we become smarter at using our resources much more effectively.

We have also embarked on a thorough review of our very large and diverse staffing establishment. With over 700 staff in the OULS, we are now the largest department in the University, and our staff represent our biggest single resource. So it's our aim to deploy our human resources to the best possible effect. And in this context, we're beginning to use a range of benchmarks to help us determine the most appropriate staffing levels within the library system, to remove the various grading anomalies, and to find ways not only of improving services to our readers, but also of making running cost savings in what is, after all, the largest part of our budget.

In close consultation with our academic users, too, we have recently drawn up a Collection Management Policy Framework; and this will help us not only to eliminate any unplanned duplication of materials within the library system, but also to fulfil our ultimate aim of 'having the right book in the right place at the right time'.

We have huge collections here in Oxford - certainly the biggest and the best in any academic institution in Britain - but we really must put them to more effective use. And that includes taking better advantage of the phenomenal benefit of our status as an institution of legal deposit, which enables us to claim a free copy of everything published in the UK. So our new approach is partly based on the determination to make our legal deposit materials work even harder to earn their keep…

And finally, Integration is helping us to introduce a common approach to key reader services across the whole University library system. We've already introduced an integrated approach to such things as admissions procedures, photocopying facilities, and opening hours; and we've developed an automated stack request system that is proving hugely popular because it enables users to save oceans of time by pre-ordering materials from anywhere in the system, even when the libraries themselves are closed. And there's a great deal more like that to come in due course, because that's the main aim of Integration - to improve our services to our readers.

The e-Strategy

But one of the areas of strongest demand, which we hear constantly from our readers, is for the expanded provision of electronic information, and for the development of an electronic library approach

So we are responding to this need for increased technological sophistication through an ambitious e-Strategy, by which, when the strategy is fully implemented, all of our materials (whether printed or digital) will be electronically accessible through a single Hybrid Library interface, which will be networked across the whole University, and which will be available to users outside Oxford via the Internet.

And this e-Strategy will involve completing the conversion to machine-readable form of all our existing manual catalogue records (and we still have millions of those to convert!); it will see us scanning many of our most important collections into digitised form, through the Oxford Digital Library initiative, which has so far been largely funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation; the e-Strategy will enable the electronic delivery of a very wide range of materials to our users'desktop machines (wherever in the world those machines may be located); and, as we contemplate the likely extension of the UK's present legal deposit arrangements to include electronic as well as printed materials, our e-Strategy is also taking on board the key challenge of digital archiving for the long-term future.

All of this, as you can imagine, is a huge development task: but it's one that we have set ourselves to accomplish; and it's a task that we must achieve if the University's core teaching and research is to be given support of the quality that it needs to remain world- class. Because the fact is, in the library and information sector as in any other, if you stand still, you automatically fall behind. That's how important all of this really is…

Putting the estate in good shape

But perhaps the toughest challenge of all (because it's the thing that will require the biggest effort and the largest up-front investment of financial resources) is 'putting the library estate in good shape'.

In my first four or five years in Oxford, we managed to raise and spend around £5 million on refurbishing and 'modernising' (in inverted commas!) the ancient buildings of the central Bodleian. And the result of all that effort is that Duke Humfrey's 15th-century Library, the Upper and Lower Reading Rooms of the Old Bodleian, and the Lower Reading Room of the Radcliffe Camera, have all been put into pretty good shape, with new technology very much more in evidence, and with all the historic infrastructure in much better condition. Duke Humfrey's Library has had a new roof and a new floor (even though you can't tell the difference at a glance!); all its woodwork has been treated for woodworm and death-watch beetle; its glorious Jacobean ceiling panels and stained glass have been restored; its windows, its lighting, and its ventilation have been expertly renovated or improved; and its precious contents have been carefully conserved. The whole project, in fact, has been hailed as a triumph of restoration, and it's now in the tip-top condition that such an icon of the library world really deserves.

But there is still a great deal more to do across the whole of the newly integrated library sector (over 50 million poundsworth, in fact!); and all of these other major capital developments that we have set ourselves to achieve over the next 4-5 years are now contained in our long-term accommodation strategy, which forms such an integral part of our strategic plan.

And this integrated accommodation strategy has enabled us to give new impetus to our existing programme of offsite storage repository building. Just to give you some idea of the scale of the continual growth of our collections, the headline figure to remember is that the central library system acquires about 375,000 printed items every year - that's more than 1,000 items every day! And, with storage space in central Oxford very severely constrained, this massive and seemingly endless deluge of physical materials means that we have to build a new storage repository module every 18 months just in order to accommodate it all…

For the last 15 years or more, these new storage facilities have been constructed out at Nuneham Courtenay, on the University's estate, 7 miles to the south in the peaceful Oxfordshire countryside. But planning permission for these storage modules is now getting harder to obtain, and the expansion programme has fallen behind schedule, with the result that we have been experiencing severe problems of overcrowding on the central sites. But now we are planning to build three new modules in a single go, on a new site, just half a mile to the west of Oxford railway station, on the Osney Mead industrial estate, where planning restrictions are much less stringent, and where our storage needs can be met much closer to central Oxford. This new approach should also have the added advantage of speeding up the delivery of offsite materials to the library system's many central reading rooms. So, if you should ever hear anybody claim that 'the book is dead', you can tell them that, on the basis of our experience in Oxford, it just isn't true!

And, quite apart from our ongoing repository building programme to accommodate this ever-rising tide of published books and journals, we are also still building new libraries in Oxford itself. In the last two years alone, we've built the Sainsbury Library in the new Said Business School; we've added the Sackler Library of Classics, Archaeology and Ancient History, on Beaumont Street; and we've opened the Vere Harmsworth Library of American Studies, in the splendid new Rothermere American Institute. But most important of all, perhaps, we're right now in the process of building a wonderful new Library for the Social Sciences, on the St Cross site at Manor Road. Having drawn virtually all the libraries serving the Social Sciences into the integrated system in the last few years, by this time next year we will have completed the construction of a new Norman Foster building, which will physically incorporate the staff and collections of all these smaller libraries. And this new building will give the University very much more effective support for teaching and research in the Social Sciences, with services at least equal to those in the London School of Economics, where they have recently spent almost £30 million on their specialised library facilities.

On the buildings front, too, but a bit further into the future, the recent purchase by the University of the Old Radcliffe Infirmary site, on the Woodstock Road, is giving us the opportunity to plan for the creation of a new Humanities Lending Library, in which, by 2008, we will be aiming to bring at least five or six of our existing Humanities faculty libraries under a single new roof, in order to give the Humanities Division - and especially its large numbers of undergraduates - the kind of consolidated support that we will soon be providing for the Social Sciences at St Cross.

But, most important (and most ambitious) of all, as a central element of our long-term accommodation strategy, we have also launched a major Capital Campaign, to raise the large sums that we shall need in the next few years to put the rest of the libraries' estate into really good shape. And this is such an important part of our overall renewal and modernisation plans for the library system that I want to spend the rest of this presentation telling you (and showing you) more about it.

In fact, we've made an 8 minute video about the Campaign, and I want to end my presentation today by sharing the video with you, because I think you'll enjoy it, and because it says much more, in words and pictures and music, than I could possibly convey in such a short time.

The Libraries Capital Campaign

But first, just let me say a few words about the Campaign, by way of introduction to the video.

To say that the Capital Campaign is a 'key enabling task' is something of an understatement. It is, in fact, an absolutely crucial part of our modernisation programme for Oxford's libraries; and its success is perhaps the greatest library need that's ever been identified since the days of Sir Thomas Bodley himself. We launched the Campaign this time last year, in the Bodleian Library's 400th anniversary year; and, with an overall target of £57 million, what we really need to do is to find the Thomas Bodley of the 21st century. So, if you have any bright ideas for major donors we might approach, then do please let us know!

But, happily, and in spite of the recent downturn in the world economic climate, we have already been able to raise just over £21 million towards our ambitious, but very necessary, target, including major gifts from the University itself, and from the University Press. We launched the Campaign in North America last October with a Gala Dinner at Sotheby's world headquarters in Manhattan; and, thanks to some wonderful support in New York, and with the attraction of a stunning, one-night-only, display of over 50 treasures from the Bodleian Library, we managed to raise $1.5 million dollars in connection with the event, which was attended by about 300 paying guests. It was a really wonderful evening; and we're currently planning a similar fundraising dinner for this coming November, in San Francisco.

The Capital Campaign itself is designed to support 8 key projects, which together represent the remaining major priorities in our physical modernisation programme. As you'll see in the video, these projects are: the radical transformation of the 1930s New Bodleian Library; the creation of an offsite library support facility at Osney Mead, to house a new state-of-the-art Conservation facility, a Digital Imaging Studio, and expanded accommodation for our back-of-house Technical Services and Systems departments. The Campaign also includes the Hybrid Library project, aimed at modernising our electronic services; a new Medical Information Centre on the Churchill Hospital site; an extension for the Taylor Institution Library; an upgrade for the Bodleian Law Library; the complete refurbishment of the Clarendon Building; and the completion of the renovation of the Radcliffe Camera.

The whole thing is designed to help us move the integrated central library system into the 21st century, blending the best of the old with the most important of the new, and to give this great University the world-class library services which it needs if it is to remain at the very forefront of scholarship and research in an increasingly competitive global environment.

But, I should stop talking now, and leave you to watch and enjoy the video. And as you do, I hope you'll feel the same sense of excitement that we all have about our great historical heritage, and about our even greater future! So thank you all once again for coming today, and for allowing me to share these exciting developments with you. It's been a pleasure and a privilege for me to talk to you ...

Video Advice


Reg Carr
4 July 2003