What are the treasures in your library?

At lunch today I met an academic who was visiting from Cambridge.  As we got chatting, he asked me “what are the treasures in your library?” and I answered: the staff – and the collections.

I think there is an assumption made of college libraries at Oxford and Cambridge that we will have substantial special collections or hoards of rare books.  However, as St Hugh’s is a relatively new college (founded in 1886) and it used to be a women’s college (and therefore doesn’t have a large number of higher-earning male alumni), it doesn’t have the same sources of income and bequests as the older, previously all-male colleges.

Rather than seeing this as a disadvantage, I believe that it allows St Hugh’s College Library to more precisely focus its mission and resources.  My collection management policy states that we collect to support undergraduate and graduate taught courses.  We have graduate research students at the college, but they and our academic staff are encouraged to use the faculty libraries of the University to support their research needs.

Having this clear aim allows me to manage the collection effectively, use the budget wisely, and for my team to feel confident in the niche occupied by their workplace the complex library ecosystem at the University of Oxford.  It’s important that we provide a good circulation service and a friendly enquiry point for all our users.

Good things to have in mind at this time of year as we prepare for the beginning of Michaelmas Term in October.  I always get excited about “back-to-school” time…

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New collections

The library lobby has been refurbished over the summer, and it looks really good now!

New lobby seating area

The friendly, informal space which has been created will now host our collection of print journals, general reference works and a few new collections:

  • New items – showing items recently purchased by the library.  A good place to stop and see what’s new
  • Written by Fellows of St Hugh’s College – home-grown works of scholarship which I hope will increase students’ awareness of what academics do when they are not teaching, and help promote their research interests in the college community
  • Broader Reading – a collection of books on a variety of subjects to give students a place to start when they want to learn about something outside their subject specialism.  This section includes many of OUP’s Very Short Introductions series
  • Learning & Study Skills – books about how to learn and study more effectively; covering areas such as referencing, revising and note-taking
  • Fiction – for students who want a break from their academic reading, this collection of prize-shortlisted books will offer them some light relief!

Collection management

Weeding the library - like thinning out saplings

Weeding the library - like thinning out saplings

This summer, I am working with tutors across all subjects to tackle weeding the library collections.  I began by extracting a huge amount of data from the library catalogue and subdividing it to show which books (by subject) had not been borrowed in the last 5 years or more.  Reference books are excluded because (in theory at least) they can’t be borrowed.  Excel nearly dies every time I open that document, so I’ve since broken it up into smaller reports!

I think it’s useful to see how many books have not been borrowed over a certain period.  Naturally, this won’t give an idea of how many books are used only in the library and then re-shelved, but nonetheless it still gives an impression of the extent to which the stock is circulating.

Weeding the stock in my library is vital because we have virtually no space for new books.  I am looking forward to being able to space the books out more comfortably on the shelves, and it will make the shelving assistants’ jobs much easier when they don’t have to struggle to replace a book.

Once it has been agreed which items will be removed from the library, there begins a labour-intensive phase of collecting up the items, deaccessioning them from the library catalogue and stamping ‘withdrawn’ over their bookplates and other markings identifying them as library property.

Last of all, the books need to leave the library.  Sometimes, it is possible to have a shelf or table for withdrawn stock which library users may take away, free or for a small charge.  This works well if there are tens or a couple of hundred items involved, and if there is a place to display them.  A bookseller may be interested in purchasing some of the stock.

Balancing act: books out as well as books in

Balancing act: books out as well as books in

This summer, there is a large volume of minimal resale value stock to be removed, so I have engaged a company to collect and process the books.  This company aim to resell or give to charity a percentage of the books they handle, and the remainder are recycled.

Managing the collection to ensure it is varied and relevant is quite a challenge; but  it is made easier as people become more familiar with the ongoing balancing act of books in as well as books out.