Rare books in college libraries

A few weeks ago, I emailed the Oxford college libraries’ mailing list, asking for people to respond to a short survey about rare books in college libraries.  Here is a summary of my questions and the responses I received.  I am indebted to the colleagues who took the time to reply to me and share some experiences of a little-documented aspect of college library life.

If you would like to know more about college libraries at the University of Oxford, you might like to read my post Visit from another college librarian.

1. Is there a theme or particular background to your collection, or is it a more eclectic mixture of books of varying ages or values?

Many collections are an eclectic mixture of books of a variety of ages and values.  Some collections have particular strengths (e.g. in a specific subject) or consist of a large donation from a single person (in such cases, the identity of the donor adds interest to the collection).

Some collections include objects other than books, such as globes.  The libraries of older colleges (that is, centuries old) often have medieval manuscripts in their rare book collections.

Rare book collections are usually housed separately from the main library.  Conditions vary greatly: sometimes the rare book collection is in a quiet corner and seldom used; at other libraries, investment in the room itself has created a beautiful reading room in which to consult the collection.

In many libraries, the rare book collection has not yet been fully catalogued.

Some college libraries have special collections, whose constituent items may not be rare or particularly valuable but which collectively form a set which is important to researchers in a certain field, and is not easily found in other libraries.

There is some doubt about how old or rare an item has to be before it qualifies for inclusion in a rare book collection.  Most agree that pre-1800 is rare, and there is some uncertainty about the status of 19th-century items.

2. Is your rare book collection accessed frequently?  May readers access titles simply by request?  Is the room or reader supervised throughout the appointment?

In most college libraries, readers must make an appointment to visit and consult a rare book.  This visit will usually be supervised by a member of library staff.  Such appointments are time-consuming for library staff who are then committed to remain with the reader until they have finished, and this may take many hours.

Sometimes these visits take place in the main library, so staff can continue their usual work during the appointment, but this is more difficult in a rare books room which is separate from the main library.

For most college libraries, such visits are infrequent (ranging from one a fortnight to a couple of occasions in nine years).  A minority of college libraries (probably those with more substantial rare book collections) have more frequent requests for access – some as many as one every day.

Some libraries have visits from small groups: sometimes a tutor and their students; or as part of a schools outreach programme.

3. Are any of your rare books used in exhibitions, whether in your college or further afield?

Many college libraries allow their rare books to be used in exhibitions within their college, and some loan items to external exhibitions (at the Bodleian and occasionally further afield).

Some colleges lack the resources for such displays, e.g. space, lockable cases, security and supervision.

4. Do you have a specific budget for rare books: whether for their cataloguing, conservation, acquisition or other?

Most college libraries have to fund-raise for specific cataloguing or conservation projects relating to their rare book collections.  Few have a specific annual budget for this work.  No colleges who responded to my survey have a budget for the acquisition of rare books.

Many college libraries outsource their conservation and cataloguing work relating to rare books.  A small number of antiquarian cataloguers work in college libraries, usually part-time or on fixed-term contracts.

5. Has the idea of selling or re-homing the collection ever been raised?  If so, what was the reaction?

Some college libraries have raised this issue and found that some academics were strongly opposed to the idea.  In a few cases, some individual items have been sold.

Collections maintained via grants are in a more complicated situation: no material may be dispersed without informing the grant-giving body.  Similarly, for collections consisting of bequest material, the library committee or college are considered the guardians of that material in perpetuity.

A few colleges have considered re-allocating material (e.g. collections of personal papers) to another library or archive which has the resources to commit to preserving them and making best use of them.  However, such collections are often in a college to begin with because the author or donor had a connection to the college so the material has an important role to play in the history of the institution.

It was noted that selling such items is difficult because a true valuation needs to involve an expert, and it can be difficult to ensure that this advice is impartial.

6. What is the role of your rare book collection in your library and in your college?  Has the collection evolved by itself or was it planned?  Is its value perceived as directly relevant to the academic activity of the college, or does it have a more emotional/historical role?

Most college library rare book collections have evolved via donations and bequests, rather than as a planned collection.  Many collections are not directly relevant to the academic activity of the college, and the rare book collection is seldom perceived as an important part of the library’s development strategy.

However, rare book collections are valued as an important as part of the college’s history and heritage.  They have a strong emotional pull and prestige for many members of the colleges, and are seen as adding to the academic reputation of individual institutions.  In colleges lucky enough to have staff with the necessary skills, the rare books collection is seen as having a definite purpose and occupying a central role in college life.  One respondent commented: “Without things like special collections a College is just a glorified hall of residence of a type which you could get anywhere else more cheaply.”

It was also noted that there is a risk that special or rare book collections can be taken for granted and there may be a lack of understanding of how much expertise, time and money it takes to keep such collections in good condition and make them available to college members or visitors.

Gather ye data while ye may

Many of the tasks librarians do are now becoming better-known outside the profession:  reader services (managing lending and dealing with enquiries), technical services (cataloguing), making decisions about purchases and deselection, teaching information literacy, administering budgets, working on policies, marketing the library and its collections and services…

However, gathering data is a really important part of running a library, and I would like to give it some attention today.

Collecting information about how a library service works is important in order to evaluate its effectiveness and inform its future direction.  Much of this information is captured in numerical form.

At the moment, I am creating data snapshots of the following:

  1. How fast returned books are re-shelved.  Measuring how many books library staff can re-shelve in an hour allows me to plan my team’s time and adapt to busy periods by increasing shelving hours when I know that rates of return will be high (at the end of the academic year, in particular).
  2. Usage of print periodicals: in my library, we take around 40 academic journal titles in print form (as well as online).  By asking library users to return a paper slip each time they use an issue of a print periodical, informed decisions can be made in the next budget year about the cost/benefit of maintaining each print subscription.
  3. Demands of enquiry work on library staff.  In my library, we do not have a reference/enquiry desk, but the library office door is always open and students are encouraged to come and ask us for help.  We also respond to queries via email and phone calls.  The absence of an enquiry desk can give the impression that the library does not handle enquiry work, so keeping a record of the types of enquiries and time spent answering them is useful when compiling a summary of the work done by library staff each year.

Gathering data is a time-consuming activity, so I aim to create data snapshots by measuring certain factors during particular intervals, for example 2 weeks out of a given term.  Although it is difficult to choose typical periods to monitor, and there will always be some confounding factors, I find that it helps the team to focus on the data-gathering projects for short periods rather than having to record data on everything we might measure every day.

For data which can be extracted from the library management system, I do record a variety of statistics throughout the year, for example:

  1. Checkout and checkin stats by membership group and material type – these numbers show how many items of different types (e.g. books; DVDs) are borrowed and returned by different segments of the library user community (e.g. undergraduate students; academics)
  2. My budget! I keep a master spreadsheet of all expenses and a very few incomes relating to the library budget.  Each amount is given a cost code which indicates its sub-budget e.g. Books, Periodicals, Library Materials.  Within the Book cost code, each amount is further broken down by subject area.  All of this information is then included in a pivot table in Microsoft Excel, which I use to see the balance remaining in each cost centre.

One of the things I enjoy most about my work is tidying up a messy collection of information in Excel and producing a clear summary of what it means.

Ned, I take your point that by only measuring what is happening in our physical library spaces, we are not taking account of changing behaviour and increasing use of libraries’ online facilities.   However, the role of my library as a physical space is still its most important aspect, so I’m starting with that for now.