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!