Do fidem me nullum librum vel instrumentum aliamve quam rem ad bibliothecam pertinentem, vel ibi custodiae causa depositam, aut e bibliotheca sublaturum esse, aut foedaturum deformaturum aliove quo modo laesurum; item neque ignem nec flammam in bibliothecam inlaturum vel in ea accensurum, neque fumo nicotiano aliove quovis ibi usurum; item promitto me omnes leges ad bibliothecam Bodleianam attinentes semper observaturum esse. (Leges bibliothecae bodleianae alta voce praelegendae custodis iussu). – Bodleian Oath
It is undeniable fact that the Bodleian Library at Oxford University is one of the most famous academic libraries in the world. It is also undeniable fact that Oxford holds the status of one of the oldest and most highly respected universities in the world. The point that I would like to make to start is likely to come out wrong, but I will try to explain it as well as I can. Dorothy L. Sayers’ 1936 novel Gaudy Night is, underneath the mystery story, a love letter to Oxford that uses the university and the Bodleian as a backdrop. It’s beside the point to get into an involved explanation of the plot of the story, but it is enough to say that the main character returns to her college to investigate disturbances and needs to come up with a cover story for staying. Chapter seven begins:
It was a matter of mild public interest at Shrewsbury College that Miss Harriet Vane, the well-known detective novelist, was spending a few weeks in College, while engaged in research at the Bodleian upon the life and works of Sheridan Le Fanu. The excuse was good enough; Harriet really was gathering material, in a leisurely way, for a study of Le Fanu, though the Bodleian was not, perhaps, the ideal source for it. But there must be some reason given for her presence, and Oxford is willing enough to believe that the Bodleian is the hub of the scholar’s universe.
I admit, I love the Bodleian. I get an adrenaline rush just thinking about its 11 million volumes on 117 miles of shelving, its fabulous collections of manuscripts and maps, and the famous writers and thinkers who sat down to work there. The point of including the above quote is that Oxford is perhaps a wee bit snobbish about the Bodleian. The idea is that if something is worth knowing, it may be known from what the Bodleian holds in its collection, and this is of course balderdash. Every library has strengths and weaknesses, and the Bodleian, though vastly bigger and older than most, is no different. Mind you, I think the bias is justified, but I am willing to acknowledge the presence of a certain degree of snobbery.
The library itself is centuries old. In its current form, it bears the name of Sir Thomas Bodley, who provided a generous endowment in the late sixteenth century to resurrect and expand upon the glory of the old university library which was in bad shape after some four or five hundred years of heavy academic use. Since the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the Bodleian has been one of the most extensive library collections in Great Britain, and now is one of six national repositories. Sidenote: the most famous Bodleian building, the Radcliffe Camera, is also one of the most iconic buildings in all of Oxford.
On the one hand, it is somewhat astonishing that a university as old and tradition-infused as Oxford should have a library that is so very linked into Web 2.0 tools as it is. On the other hand, it has survived for hundreds of years, so clearly the governing bodies have effectively evolved to remain relevant to the students and scholars of Oxford, England, and the world. The homepage is plain and clear, divided into lists of links describing policies and tools for using the library, what needs to happen before a visit, the exhibits, tours, and bookshop, means of supporting the library and what transformations are currently taking place. There is an entire section dedicated to media requests – how to get images or permission to film (If you’ve seen the first two Harry Potter films, you’ve seen Oxford – the main staircase was taken from Christ Church College, the hospital wing is the Divinity School, and so forth). The other aspects that the observant webpage visitor will notice include the links to RSS feeds on news and reader notices, twitter, ask a librarian, and most interestingly, a section entitled “BOD 2.0.” Underneath it are two links, “Read Bodleian Libraries Blogs” and “Listen to our Latest BODcasts.”
Clearly, the Bodleian continues to be top-notch. The first link takes the user to not so much a list of blogs, but a list of every single library branch and department with links to blogs, Facebook pages, Twitter, del.icio.us, YouTube, and many more social media tools. It’s organized alphabetically and is clear and easy to read through. I have no idea if this was up online when I was doing overseas studies at Oxford, but I wish I had known about it – it would have been fascinating to follow the blogs associated with my college or something like “Center for the Study of the Book.” The list is really extraordinary, though I can see how it might also be a touch overwhelming for the average user. It is probably most useful for those who have an idea of what they are looking for in the first place. However, it seems to fall prey to Oxford’s Achilles heel. While some categories are clear enough to figure out, such as “English Faculty Library,” others are only intelligible to the expert who knows what they are doing. Each institution is listed without any explanation of what it is, so someone who does not know Oxford might be confused by listings such as “University College Library” or the difference between “Bodleian Libraries” and “Oxford Union Library.”
I have to admit, the BODcasts caught my attention. I saw no evidence of podcasts released specifically by the Stanford or SFSU libraries – they may be there, but they were not publicized on the websites as far as I could find. The Bodleian has embraced iTunes U wholeheartedly. In the course of a two-minute search in the iTunes store today, I located several themed podcast series through iTunes U (Such as a series of lectures on J.R.R. Tolkien & Oxford, and Literature & Oxford), as well as a general podcast released by the Bodleian on their collections and exhibits. The BODcast library so easily found through the Bodleian website is even more extensive. The entirety of the first screen-length is taken up with links to different categories within the podcast library, each with a sentence or two of explanation. My poorly-hidden inner nerd rejoices at the sight of so much potential listening material and my fingers itch to download a much as possible, from “Magna Carta at Oxford” to “Hallelujah!: The British Choral Tradition” to “The Creation as told in the Torah, the Bible, and the Qur’an.” Even better, the list provided through the website (as opposed to iTunes) makes the files available simply as mp3 files, playable in any of the popular media players. Again, I have no idea if this was available while I was overseas, but I wish I had known about it if it was. I listen to my mp3 player pretty much every day, and I love listening to academic lectures. I have subscribed to three of the podcast feeds from the Bodleian, and plan to enjoy them fully over my upcoming vacation!
For a university that is so old and so richly steeped in tradition, the library is remarkably forward-looking. Its general Twitter feed may be a bit inane, but no more so than the UBC library Twitter feed – 90% useless, 5% interesting, 5% useful, and it’s completely duplicated in the Facebook page. But then, that’s better stats than most Twitter accounts, and I say that as someone WITH a Twitter account. It is hard to make Twitter fascinating, and it’s probably best to keep it as just one of a number of ways to communicate the same information. Facebook, however, could be improved. Whether Facebook or Twitter came first for the Bodleian is hard to say – the Facebook page apparently only has updates that are automatically posted there whenever there is a Twitter post. The Bodleian could learn from the example of the Stanford libraries’ Facebook pages and make it more substantial and interactive for the followers. Build it and they will come, as the movie quote goes.
Stay tuned – I’m going to hang out here in the UK for a bit longer, or at least long enough to venture north to the University of Edinburgh.
** Latin quotation and image of the Radcliffe Camera taken from the Wikipedia page on the Bodleian library. Quote from Gaudy Night taken from audiobook version of the text.