Beyond the Blurb – resource discovery services conference

A resource discovery services (RDS) is a type of software that allows a library user to search multiple catalogues from a single search interface.  It is sometimes called “a Google-like search” because the front page is normally simple, with a central search box.

This conference in Bath brought together librarians, library systems people, and systems vendors for an exploration of the issues in selecting, implementing, and operating an RDS.

And here’s that joke again:

A library systems vendor dies and goes to hell.  He’s ushered into the great hall of suffering, where he sees people writhing in torment and smells the sulphurous brimstone and feels the scorch of flames on his face.

He turns to the imp at his side and says “Wait a minute.  This isn’t what I was promised when we made our deal.  Where’s the party?  Where are the beautiful women and the delicious food?  Where’s the music?”

The imp replies, “Back then you were a prospect. Now you’re a client.”

Reflections on ‘the other place’

Earlier this week, Oxford hosted a conference of college librarians from the universities of Oxford and Cambridge.  The theme of the day was ‘co-operation, collaboration and competition’: we had speakers on this topic in the morning, followed by a choice of library/archive visits in the afternoon and time for networking.

The college libraries combine providing information for students and academics like a higher education library; within a physical environment which is part museum, part den; and an atmosphere which is generally more permissive and accommodating than the faculty libraries.  I think our college libraries are quite unique in this way, and it is a great help for us to get together to share ideas in a context that recognises our peculiar situations.

At this event, I spoke about my experiences of working at the Bodleian Libraries compared with working in a college library, and where the main areas of co-operation, collaboration and competition are:

The Bodleian Libraries group is a large organisation (some 750 employees, full-time-equivalent) and I enjoyed the big community aspect of working there.  By contrast, working in a college can be quite lonely, and I’m glad that I came to my current role with experience of working in Oxford libraries, so I have professional contacts close by.

On the negative side, because the Bodleian Libraries group is so large and has so many layers of management, the process for making decisions can be cumbersome and slow.  Also, there have recently been many staff changes at a high level in the organisation, which can bring problems such as a lack of continuity and stability if not handled very carefully.

In the college environment, I enjoy the budget freedom that I have from being the head of my department.  There is top-level support for personal and professional development, which I find very encouraging.  When a decision is made, for example at Library Committee, the decision will generally be backed up and not challenged further after it has been made, which is a great spur to getting things done.  Although colleges and their libraries vary considerably in many respects, we can benchmark against each other.  Bodleian Libraries do not really have any comparable organisations (not even Cambridge, as their libraries as less integrated than at Oxford), but it should not be assumed that this means they are automatically the best at everything.

The working environment in a college is much nicer, especially as college staff have a free lunch every day, and tea and coffee are provided in the mornings and afternoons.  We also have all-staff social occasions at least once a year.

However, colleges are very hierarchical places to work, and I find that social differences such as separate common rooms and lunch arrangements for staff of different status reinforce the divisions between us and can act as an obstacle to everyone working together effectively.  It can also take a long time to become accepted in an organisation that is by nature conservative and resistant to change.

Another interesting point is that as a college librarian, you have to be multi-skilled because you need to cover a great range of skills in a very small team.  I think it would be interesting to develop more skills-sharing between colleges, and if anyone wants me to come and show them how to navigate SFX/OUeJournals or MetaLib/OxLIP+ more effectively, I would be glad to!

I have now had three different jobs at the University of Oxford, and I have sometimes been surprised at how low the expectations can be.   Broadly speaking, the expectations seem to be that keeping a service running is sufficient; not improving or developing it.

Before I moved to Oxford, I expected that the libraries here would be leading the way in user education, resource discovery and the use of space in libraries, but I often worry that we are in fact falling behind other UK higher education libraries.

Finally, here are some examples of co-operation, collaboration and competition between the Bodleian Libraries and the colleges:


  • Graduate trainee scheme: trainees from colleges and Bodleian Libraries participate in the scheme together, and there is a mutual benefit to learning about each others’ roles and experiences
  • Most Bodleian staff development and training events are open to college library staff at no cost
  • During the current decant of closed-stack Bodleian items from Oxford to Swindon, the college libraries have helped readers by allowing them to access texts in college libraries when the Bodleian copy is in transit and inaccessible


  • In the summer of 2011, the OLIS library management system is being switched from GEAC Advance to Aleph.  The steering group for this project has Bodleian and college library representation
  • Circulation Forum and Cataloguers’ Forum involve staff from a range of libraries
  • There is a wide variety of skills in our combined staff pool e.g. cataloguing, conservation, management, social media – and we could make even more use of this


  • E-resources cancellation fees: the fees incurred when college libraries cancel subscriptions to print periodicals are not paid by the colleges but by Bodleian Libraries.  Colleges have made very small contributions to this cost in the past, and discussions are now under way to increase this amount in order that colleges provide a fairer proportion of the total cost
  • Non-Bodleian libraries which use OLIS pay an annual subscription which stayed the same for many years, and an agreement has now been reached to bring this charge up-to-date with current costs and include a proviso for future review
  • The Bodleian has very strict cataloguing standards for adding records to OLIS.  This is because much of their material is in closed stacks, so readers need detailed records in order to judge if the item is what they require, as they cannot browse the shelves; and as a legal deposit library, OLIS catalogue records are regularly exported to other databases so the standard needs to be high as other institutions will be copying these records.  However, this standard is rather over-the-top for a college library such as mine, where students can access the vast majority of our books on open shelves, and are usually looking for items from a reading list, so a simple author and title search will normally suffice.  I would be keen to develop a system whereby I could create simpler catalogue records for items unique to my library, and have a filter applied so that these records are excluded from the exporting pool.

Note: ‘the other place’ is a term used by people at Oxford or Cambridge to describe those at the other; and perhaps from now on, to be used in the same way by people at Bodleian Libraries or colleges!

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.