Oxford's Bodleian Library is facing an acute shelving crisis. According to the chief librarian David Vaisey, it needs new buildings if it is to meet the requirements of students and scholars in the 21st century, and the idea of "a virtual library" is being discussed.
Over the past year the library has been subjected to mounting criticism from academics. Top of the list of complaints is the slow delivery of books to the reading rooms - up to two days. Some dons have driven to Cambridge, claiming that even with a five-hour return journey, they can access a book more quickly at its university library. There are also complaints that the service is unreliable.
One story circulating the Bodleian reading rooms is of a library slip returned with the note "too high". According to Helen Cooper, a fellow of University College, "the Bodleian is in a mess, and something very big needs to be done".
More book fetchers have been hired, and a plan for the year 2000 is expected to be published next week, but in the long term, Mr Vaisey says a brand new Bodleian building is the answer. The central buildings date back to 1602, when Sir Thomas Bodley endowed and enlarged the still extant Duke Humphrey's library of 1450. Yet the current problems originate in the 1930s, when the decision was taken to build a new Bodleian nearby. Mr Vaisey says: "It was built with the 1930s in mind, rather than the 21st century. It is now no longer equal to the task. A closed access library on a central site is no longer sensible."
Sixty years ago, the library contained two million volumes, admitted 1,450 new readers each year, and produced 151,597 items from the closed access areas. Today, the library contains 5.75 million volumes, admits 10,000 new readers each year, and produces 335,700 items from the closed access areas and 257,000 from the New Bodleian library stack.