The Bodleian: One of the Largest (and Most Confusing) Libraries in the World

A special collection room in the Bodleian

Inductions into university libraries are usually fairly simple. There is one building, one online catalog system, and you can find and check out the books you need.

Not at Oxford University.

First, there are three different library systems. Oxford is comprised of 44 different colleges, and each one has its own library. But you can’t just use any of these libraries—you can only use your own college’s library. This means that I can check out books from the Wycliffe Hall library, but not from the libraries at Christ Church or Trinity college.

Next is the faculty libraries. In America, “faculty” means staff. In England, “faculty” means department. So the English and Philosophy faculty libraries aren’t just for teachers’ use, but they will only carry books in that discipline.

Finally, there is the Bodleian, the massive library owned by Oxford University and located right in the middle of city centre. This library has 9 million items, so there’s a pretty good chance that if you need a certain book, you can find it here.

There are two issues that make the Bodleian difficult: first, the whole library is reference only, meaning that you can’t check anything out. You have to sit in the library and read the books you need. The other problem is that because the Bodleian owns so many books, most of them are kept in huge warehouses 20 miles out of Oxford. If you need any of those books, you have to pre-order them a few days before you intend to read them at the Bod.

So now comes the fun part. I’m writing a paper on Queen Elizabeth I, and needed to see a certain book on Elizabethan portraiture. The catalog showed the book in two places at the Bodleian: the history faculty library (in the basement) and the closed stacks (one of those off-site warehouses). Not wanting to deal with ordering the book, I headed down to the basement to find it in the history faculty library.

It wasn’t there.

What was down there were a lot of library staff members, who informed me that most of the books in the history faculty library were being moved, so I couldn’t get the book.

Strike one.

So I headed to the reference desk in the Bodleian’s upper reading room (this means three flights of stairs). Luckily, someone else had ordered the book from off-site, so it was actually in the library at the moment.

But that person was currently reading it. “Come back in an hour,” the reference librarian told me. So I headed back downstairs to where a friend and I had set up shop for the afternoon.

I trekked back upstairs an hour and a half later. The book was available! But there was still a problem: I had to read it in that room, because I wasn’t the person who had originally ordered the book and had first priority. If she showed up wanting to see it, I would have to give it up. So I went back downstairs, packed up my stuff, and headed back up to see the book. By the time I actually sat down with the book, it felt like some kind of literary celebrity that I had managed to steal a few precious minutes with. Thankfully, it turned out to be a good source for my paper.

Moral of the story: don’t assume that a bigger library makes things easier. It might just mean more hassle, and lots of stairs.

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