Richard Ovenden: keeping Oxford reading

Richard Ovenden, Bodley's Librarian

Reading is at the heart of Oxford’s academic life. After all, students come up to ‘read’ their subject of choice, and read is exactly what they do. Oxford’s libraries enable much of that reading to take place. Their collections include millions of books and journals available for reading digitally or in print (tens of millions of downloads and loans from our collections are made each year), and they provide a space for that reading (and writing) in a conducive atmosphere for study, with access to associated services (such as scanning or printing) conveniently to hand.

Before the pandemic struck the Bodleian Libraries had around 2 million study visits per year, and college libraries were also heavily used. But much of Oxford’s reading takes place thanks to invisible digital infrastructure: systems, metadata, licences and workflows that enable those tens of millions of downloads of articles, chapters, theses, data and images by the entire Oxford community. This infrastructure has been carefully put in place over many years, and is managed and maintained by skilled library staff who have been determined to ‘Keep Oxford reading’ since the onset of COVID-19.

Allow me to share a few examples. We have put in place our ‘Scan and deliver’ service, providing free scans of journal articles or extracts from monographs (within the limits of copyright law) and have scanned over 650,000 pages for our community since June last year (currently c. 40,000–50,000 pages per week). Part of this remote support has been less industrial in its scale and more targeted at the individual needs of students and researchers whether using our ‘Live Chat’ service (staffed 7 days a week) or our mediated support service for access to Special Collections (over 100,000 scans provided). In June last year were able to pull off a great coup and provide our community with access to the Hathi Trust Emergency Temporary Access Service (ETAS), which gives digital access to 1.95 million in-copyright books in our print collections which would otherwise be inaccessible due to the pandemic (we are currently the only library in the UK giving this access). We also ramped up our online reading list service (ORLO), which has had rapid take up over the last year: with more than 100,000 linked references across almost 2,000 reading lists, it’s a service that is very highly rated by students.

Oxford has a wealth of study environments provided by its libraries, ranging from historic medieval reading rooms (like Duke Humfrey’s Library in the Bodleian) to award-winning contemporary spaces (such as the new library at St John’s). Getting a seat in these spaces has been very difficult since we were able to reopen them from August 2020. COVID-19 means we have had to drastically reduce seating capacity and put an online tool in place (Space Finder) to manage bookings. We have adapted and improved it based on user feedback, but our library spaces are constantly overbooked, and we eagerly await the time when we can ease some of these restrictions and allow unfettered access to Oxford’s amazing library spaces again. More availability in our reading rooms will come on stream ahead of Trinity term. In the meantime, we have put ‘Sounds of the Bodleian’ online – a series of recordings of the background hum in Bodleian reading rooms, which hundreds of thousands of people across the globe have streamed to help them concentrate while studying at their kitchen tables!

I have been very moved by the many messages sent to me by students and scholars, expressing their gratitude to the Bodleian over the past year, and these have helped sustain me and my colleagues through the toughest times of the pandemic: a great reminder of the centrality of libraries in the life of the University. Nothing is more motivating to a librarian (especially a ‘lifer’ like me) than the thought that we have helped someone get the information they need.

The Bodleian has had to change over the last year (sometimes very rapidly), but we have also remained true to our 400-year mission: the staff of Oxford’s libraries made sure that our libraries remained open, even when the doors to the buildings had to close. We are fully committed to ‘Keeping Oxford reading’.

Richard Ovenden

Bodley’s Librarian and Fellow of Balliol