It's a matter of shelf esteem

Fears of a Starbucks future raised as Oxford debates Bodleian changes. Matthew Reisz reports

November 22, 2012

Credit: Getty
Frothing at the mouth Bodleian staff 'embarrassed' by coffee shop-style badges

Large bright badges offering help to customers may have become a common sight in coffee shops.

But the wearing of them by librarians at the University of Oxford has been seen as the latest insult in a row over changes taking place among the dreaming spires' famous research collections.

Anger has been growing in the past few months over developments at the Bodleian Libraries that have led to vast humanities collections being rehoused, including the History Faculty Library being incorporated into the main collections. Matters came to a head last week with a discussion in Congregation - Oxford's academic "parliament" - about "the libraries and their future".

Sarah Thomas, Bodley's librarian, described how "since 2000 six new libraries have been constructed and 19 libraries have been merged into larger...units". But Hugh Doherty, a fellow in history at Jesus College, Oxford, worried that current trends threatened to turn "a multiplicity of integrated libraries, specialised, browsable and staffed, into a series of flagship book depositories, clean, cheap and faceless".

Georgy Kantor, tutorial fellow in ancient history at St John's College, Oxford, warned that "if we do not take care with how we're changing our libraries", it risked their losing their "attractiveness".

Kate Tunstall, university lecturer in French, wanted to see "an end to any downgrading and dematerialising of the humanities in the libraries".

However, the changes are not without their supporters.

Frances Cairncross, rector of Exeter College, Oxford and a curator of the university libraries, said that before she started as a curator, the New Bodleian had been "a perilous firetrap", while "2 million books were stored at huge expense in salt mines in Cheshire".

But away from the discussion, it is the suspicion that Oxford is being transformed by consumerism that seems to provoke the most ire.

Gill Evans, emeritus professor at the University of Cambridge and a regular user of Oxford's collections, noticed at the start of term that staff in the reading rooms with "embarrassed expressions" were sporting big yellow badges saying "ask me". "They were issued with T-shirts too, though a fair few of those could be seen discreetly hung over the back of chairs."

But the library responded that the badges and T-shirts were not worn under duress and were designed to "enhance the visibility...of staff" and aid "apprehensive" users.

"We wanted to find a simple way to reduce that apprehension and encourage readers to seek assistance when needed," a spokeswoman said.

Letters, page 34.

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