Libraries in fine fettle

May 28, 2015

G. R. Evans argues for more funding for Oxford library staff. As a former Oxford librarian, I can only applaud her sentiments (“Oxford libraries in disrepair”, Letters, 21 May). Sadly, she follows this with a series of assertions that should be challenged.

Evans claims that a 2005 review “began by arguing that the integration of the libraries had resulted in too many ‘over-graded’ academic librarians”. I was a member of the review panel, and what it actually says is “In a small library…the required flexibility [of working] is only achieved if…academic-related staff also undertake clerical duties. There is a great deal of talent and experience in site libraries which is currently under-exploited.” Library integration did not result in the downgrading of academic librarians but freed them to do more to support academic staff and students. Just two individual subject specialist posts (out of nearly 200 academic-related staff) were deemed to be overgraded in their role.

Evans continues: “It is now difficult for students and researchers to find a librarian with the relevant expert knowledge in a given field.” The Bodleian’s subject web pages name and give contact details for 53 subject specialist librarians covering 99 identified subject areas. How many does she want?

To test Evans’ third assertion, that “a series of highly paid management roles have been advertised and filled with professional ‘managers’ who conspicuously do not spend time in the libraries”, I reviewed all the senior Oxford library appointments advertised in 2014. This is necessarily an imperfect tool as vacancies arise for any number of reasons and most are not new appointments, but it is at least based on data, not prejudice.

First, I looked at all those whose grade qualifies the post holders as senior members of the university. There were just six. One was a straight administrative post, an accountant. Three were specifically “librarian”: an archivist, the deputy librarian, and an open-access librarian. The other two posts were a library services manager for the science library (directly meeting reader needs) and a systems post. As that may seem too small a sample, I then looked at the nine advertisements for the next grade down. Here, there was one subject librarian (history) and the other eight were not managerial, but required digital expertise, including a specialist in digital manuscripts (excuse the apparent oxymoron, it is accurate), one dealing with digital preservation and curation, and one directly supporting digital scholarship. This points to the real direction in which libraries are moving and the Bodleian is leading – it is to embrace not managerialism, but the digital revolution.

Blanket assertions are all very well but not when the facts contradict every one of them.

Michael Heaney

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