Scenario planning: the futures of Oxford’s libraries

Earlier this year, I took part in a scenario planning exercise which brought together a group of librarians from a number of Oxford libraries to consider the challenges that the future would bring and how we could best prepare for them.

Brainstorming factors affecting libraries in the future

We began by considering factors that could have an impact on our libraries in the future, and we came up with nearly 150 ideas.  Of this list, these were rated as being the most important and the most uncertain:

Factors affecting Oxford's libraries

“The right – the most robust – responses to these issues will have to take into account a wide variety of uncertainties – dynamics over which Oxford’s libraries have no control.”

Lawrence Wilkinson (facilitator)

These were further distilled to elicit that the two uncertainties that were the most important and the most uncertain – the dimensions in which the alternative futures are most different; and these were:

  • academia and the demand it serves – whose extremes are traditional and integrated vs reorganised, emergent communities
  • technology and content – whose extremes are closed, restricted and commercialised vs open and free

These two fundamental uncertainties are juxtaposed to create four divergent futures (or scenarios) for Oxford’s libraries.

Four alternative futures

The four divergent futures

  • “The Long and Winding Road” – a world with generally free and open access to information, and a familiar, traditional model of academic life.
  • “Magical Mystery Tour” – a world with generally free and open access to information, and academic life taking place in new kinds of communities
  • “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer” – a world with generally closed and commercialised access to information, and academic life taking place in new kinds of communities
  • “A Hard Day’s Night” – a world with generally closed and commercialised access to information, and a familiar, traditional model of academic life

Examples of early players in each scenario

  • “The Long and Winding Road” – arXiv.org, MIT
  • “Magical Mystery Tour” – Google, Khan Academy
  • “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer” – Kaplan, The Learning Academy
  • “A Hard Day’s Night” – Apple, CourseSmart

We then explored each possible future in more detail, and exploring what we would do if we knew this future were the most likely.

From theoretical actions to strategic steps

As the real future is likely to be a combination of the four scenarios, with a balance between them that changes over time, we considered the overall implications for our future.  We divided our (very long) lists of actions into strategic steps that would (a) work in all scenarios; and (b) be helpful in one future and neutral in another, and (c) be helpful in one future but harmful in another.  These actions covered every aspect of the libraries, including collection/service strategy, funding models, and physical plant (buildings).

The last stage of the process involved only colleagues from the Bodleian Libraries, who met one more time to consider how all of these ideas could contribute to the Bodleian Libraries’ new strategic plan, and translate them into action points for specific teams or departments.

My two cents’

As a college librarian, I was not involved in this last stage, but I was still thinking about how the libraries individually could respond to the challenges and opportunities that had been identified during the course of this work.  The main theme I kept returning to was the idea of a collaborative library strategy.  This is more difficult than it might first seem, because there are about 100 different academic libraries at the University of Oxford (the Bodleian Libraries group, college libraries, departmental/faculty libraries), and these groups are fully independent of each other (as are most of the individual libraries within each group).  Here they are on a map.

As a biologist, I like to think of the libraries as forming an ecosystem with a variety of niches and habitats.  However, without an over-arching plan, we may be competing for the same “market” (e.g. level of study; subject; resource type) and risk overlapping in some areas and missing others.  I’m wondering if it would be possible to define the niche of each library to help its staff and users to know what to expect from it, and to ensure that as a university, we’re providing as broad a range of resources and services as possible.

This could help avoid conflicting priorities about types of study space, by making different spaces available in different places, but accessible to all users.  Some libraries would focus on having lending collections to support taught courses, and others would specialise in research or special collections (thus focusing budgets in particular areas).  This already exists to some extent, but it’s not centrally agreed or managed.

I’ve done this at St Hugh’s College Library by introducing a collection management policy that states that we will:

Purchase/accept/retain primarily what can be identified as:

  1. Useful to an undergraduate/reference library, within the range of subjects taught;
  2. Interesting in terms of College History, Women’s Education and other research areas specifically connected with St Hugh’s;
  3. Contributing significantly to areas where the Library already has major strengths;
  4. Exceptionally rare or valuable.

and that

Duplication should be avoided, unless deemed desirable for study purposes.

This helps to inform my decisions about how to use the budget.  For example, most students’ book suggestions submitted via our online form are for books on reading lists, which matches this policy exactly = green light for purchasing.  However, if a DPhil candidate wants an unusual item for their research, I would direct them to their faculty/departmental library.  As well as focusing my book budget to support taught courses, it also avoids accumulating research materials in a college library which is a private library, rather than at a faculty/departmental library which usually has more generous access arrangements for non-college (not just non-University) members.

Because all of these libraries are independent, there can be no mandate from anyone to any of these libraries to force them to adopt such a strategy, but it may be that some of them opt to do it voluntarily.  Perhaps many of these libraries already have similar policies, but perhaps they are not formalised or publicly available.

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What does MA (Oxon) mean?

A blog post in which I attempt to unravel the meanings (in the Oxford context) of matriculation, graduation, undergraduate master’s degrees, postgraduate bachelor’s degrees, and the meaning of the mysterious “MA (Oxon)”.

Soon after arriving at Oxford, undergraduates attend a ceremony called Matriculation, at which they wear formal dress and are officially added to the register of members of the University.

Most undergraduate degrees at Oxford are 3 years (or 9 terms) long.  If a student has met the degree requirements* at the end of their course, they will then attend a graduation ceremony at which they are formally awarded their degree, and are then referred to as a graduate of the University.  Most UK universities award a BA (Bachelor of Arts) for arts and humanities subjects, BSc (Bachelor of Sciences) for sciences; but at Oxford, virtually all undergraduates are awarded a BA, even if they did not read for an Arts subject.  An exception to this is that undergraduates on some 4-year science programmes are awarded an undergraduate master’s degree, e.g. Master of Earth Sciences (MEarthSc), Master of Engineering (MEng)**.

At Oxford (and at Cambridge), members of the University may apply for a Master of Arts degree 21 terms (7 years) after matriculation.  There is no period of study or examination.  Graduates pay a small fee and attend another graduation ceremony in order to receive their MA.

This is very different from the MAs awarded by most other universities, which involve tuition (and tuition fees) and examination.

This distinction is represented in a person’s postnominal letters.  MA (Oxon) or MA (Oxf) after someone’s name means that they have an Oxford MA.  MA (Cantab) is the same, but for Cambridge.

Full disclosure: I have an MA, but it’s not an Oxon or a Cantab 😉

*these are academic (having passed relevant examinations) and also residential (students have to have lived within 6 miles (undergraduates) or 25 miles (graduates) of the city centre in Full Term throughout their degree

**a further peculiarity is that some postgraduate degrees at Oxford are bachelor’s degrees, e.g. Bachelor of Civil Law (BCL), Bachelor of Music (BMus)

Further reading

Degrees of the University of Oxford

Learning to “speak Oxford”

De-gendering academic dress at Oxford

Subfusc” refers to the clothes worn with full academic dress in Oxford.  Our students must wear subfusc for formal occasions including University examinations.

Following a campaign led by OUSU’s LGBTQ Officer Jess Pumphrey, gender references will now be removed from the stipulations of subfusc. This means that students will not be required to wear specific clothing based on their gender. Until now, gender-specific differences relating to the wearing (or not) of tights, skirts, types of tie and blouses vs shirts were in force.

This change was approved by the University Council and published in the University Gazette last Friday, and should be effective from Saturday 4 August.

The new subfusc requirements shall be as follows:

All members of the University are required to wear academic dress with subfusc clothing (and candidates who are not members of the University are required to wear formal clothing) when attending any university examination, i.e.

  • a dark suit with dark socks, or a dark skirt with black stockings or trousers with dark socks and an optional dark coat;
  • black shoes;
  • plain white collared shirt;
  • a black tie or white bow tie.

“Dress should be such as might be appropriate for formal occasions.
Candidates serving in HM Forces are permitted to wear uniform together with a gown. (The uniform cap is worn in the street and carried when indoors.)

In practice, this means that, whatever their gender, from 4 August onwards students can choose for themselves whether to wear a skirt or trousers or suit, and whether to wear the black string tie or the white bow tie. There will no longer be any enforced distinction in subfusc between genders.

From a practical point of view, students who were not attired according to the rules ran the risk of being refused entry to sit their examinations, as well as the potential for embarrassment or ridicule. As well as enabling equality for trans students, this change in the rules will allow all students to dress in the style of subfusc that they find comfortable.

I’m really glad this change has been made, and well done to all those who campaigned to make it happen.

See also:

OUSU passes motion for ‘more inclusive’ sub fusc Cherwell

Changes to sub fusc rules ahead The Oxford Student

Regulations relating to Academic Dress made by the Vice-Chancellor, as Authorised by Council which at the time of writing is displaying the previous rules

The Gender Inclusion Campaign blog – “campaigning for gender neutrality at the University of Oxford”

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:

Cooperation

  • 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

Collaboration

  • 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

Competition

  • 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!

Learning to “speak Oxford”

Working at the University of Oxford involves an awful lot of specialist vocabulary and acronyms.  On my first anniversary as a college librarian, here is my guide to what some of these mysterious words mean:

BA [Bachelor of Arts] – the degree awarded to undergraduates at Oxford, even if they studied Mathematics or Biological Sciences

Battels – a charge made to a member of college for accommodation or meals

Blue – a Blue is awarded to someone who has represented the University at sport

Bop – a college social event, typically involving dance and drink

Collections – college exams at the very beginning of a term.  Sometimes they are for everyone on that course, others are only for those whose marks are dropping and need to prove they can do well and continue their studies

Eights Week – a rowing competition in Fifth Week of Trinity Term

Encaenia – annual ceremony in June at which honorary degrees are conferred

Fellows – the Senior Members or academic staff of a college

Formal hall – a meal held in college.  Formal dress is usually expected.  Don’t forget to pass the port to your left!

Graduation – ceremony at which degrees are conferred

High table – in a college, this is the table in the dining hall (often on a dais) at which the Fellows sit for meals

Hilary Term – the second term of the academic year, from January to March

JCR – the Junior Common Room: the body of undergraduate students in a college.  The term can also mean their recreation room

Matriculation – ceremony at which students are formally admitted to membership of the University.  At matriculation, and for all exams, students have to wear sub fusc

MCR – the Middle Common Room: the body of graduate students in a college.  The term can also mean their recreation room

Michaelmas Term – the first term of the academic year, from October to December

Mods – this is short for Honour Moderations: exams taken in the first or second year by students in some subjects.  The results are classed as First, Upper Second etc.  See also Prelims

Oxford MA [Master of Arts] – if you have a BA from Oxford, you may apply for an MA in or after the 21st term  after you matriculated (equivalent to 7 years after matriculating).  You do not need to do any further study, you just have to pay a small fee.  Someone with “MA (Oxon)” or “MA (Cantab)” has this type of Master’s degree

Oxford time – before railways (which necessitated national time in order to operate a timetable), local towns had their own time.  Oxford Time is 5 minutes behind Greenwich Time.  It is sometimes said that you may be up to 5 minutes late for a lecture or tutorial if you explain that you were operating on Oxford Time, not GMT, but I’m not promising that this excuse will work more than once

Oxford Union – not a students’ union, but a debating society.  It even has its own library

Porters’ Lodge – the official entrance to a college, the Lodge is a combination of Reception and Security.  One thing the Porters don’t do is carry anything

Prelims – exams taken in the first or second year by students in some subjects.  The results are classed as Pass / Fail / Distinction.  See also Mods

Punting – a punt is a flat-bottomed boat with a square bow, propelled by pushing against the riverbed with a pole.  At Oxford, it is traditional to punt from the bow end (they do things differently in Cambridge).  The best way to go punting is to get someone else to wield the pole while you relax on some cushions in the sun and enjoy a bottle of wine

Scouts – a scout works in a college, and their duties are primarily as a cleaner.  In days gone by, the role of a scout was more like that of a footman or valet

SCR – the Senior Common Room: the body of Fellows in a college.  The term can also mean the room where SCR members can drink tea or coffee, entertain visitors or read the newspaper

Sent down – this means the expulsion of a student from their college because of poor academic performance or for a disciplinary offence

Subfusc – formal attire worn by students and Fellows on formal occasions (such as matriculation, examinations and graduation).   The clothes worn are dark in colour, and include an academic gown.  For examinations, students also wear a carnation: white for the first exam, pink for exams in between and red for their final exam

Torpids – a rowing competition in Seventh Week of Hilary Term

Trinity Term – the third term of the academic year, from April to June

Tutorial system – each undergraduate has an hour-long tutorial each week, usually 1:1 with their tutor. They often have to prepare an essay or other written work for the tutorial, and the hour is spent in detailed examination of the student’s grasp of the subject and related reading

Do you know any other peculiar Oxford words?  Let me know in the comments!