The Bodleian is one of the oldest libraries in Europe & the first copyright library, and I'm responsible for our 11 million-plus printed books (!) plus other collections like archives, maps, music, digital content, etc. Our founder Thomas Bodley was responsible for setting up the precursor to today's legal deposit agreement, which allows certain libraries in the UK and Ireland (e.g. the Bodleian, the British Library) to get a copy of every book published in their country. Many other countries, like the US (through the Library of Congress) now have similar arrangements.

Amid ongoing debates about the future of the book and libraries, I'm working with my colleagues to find new ways to preserve knowledge, help scholars access the information they need, and engage more widely with the with the public, both in the digital and physical realm. I'd love to take questions on our collections (we've got everything from Tolkien's archive to a First Folio of Shakespeare), our history or the future of the book or academic libraries – and anything else you want to ask about the Bodleian.

I'll be answering your questions live from 11.30am EST (4.30pm here in the UK) until 1pm EST. I’m looking forward to my first AMA.

Proof: Has been provided to mods.

Update: Time for me to sign off now - thanks to everyone who posted questions, sorry I didn't get round to them all, but really enjoyed the session. Feel free to follow me on Twitter: @richove.

Comments: 96 • Responses: 19  • Date: 

symes9 karma

With that many books in such an old library are there chances you can still find work hidden away you did not know about?

bodleyslibrarian16 karma

Great question! With huge collections like ours (and other major research libraries), scholars (and librarians) make discoveries all the time. Often these are things that people knew about before but have been forgotten about, sometime things which have been overlooked. A US scholar working with one of our Curators found an incredibly interesting and important map China and east Asia in our collections: but we had had it for over 350 years, and many scholars had looked at it in the 17th and early 18th centuries, but it got rather neglected until very recently. There are now two whole books and a dozen articles written on this map!

symes5 karma

Fascinating, thanks for answering. So I have a follow-up question then. Do you think digitizing the library would mean these hidden gems could be more easily accessed? Is that even possible with some of the material you have?

bodleyslibrarian8 karma

Digitizing definitely helps provide access -we are doing a huge amount of it here (over 200 million pages from our collections freely available online), including a nice website on the Selden Map of China. But it in now way replaces accessing the original books and manuscripts.

Hoobleton9 karma

Hi Richard, I graduated from Oxford recently and have a couple of questions:

First, the Law Library went to great pains to makes sure we knew it was actually the Bodleian Law Library, but I never understood what the significance of our faculty library being part of the Bodleian network meant aside from not being able to check books out. So my question is: what does being a "Bodleian Library" actually mean?

I'm not sure whether this second question falls under your purview, but I'll ask it anyway. The library of my college, Univ, was not part of SOLO, unlike most other college libraries. What do you think about this, and does the central library service try to persuade colleges like Univ to participate in SOLO?

Finally, I never got a chance to have a look at the Duke Humfrey's during my degree, will my Alumni Card get me in or would I have to make special arrangements to come see it?


bodleyslibrarian7 karma

Hi Hoobleton - being part of the Bodleian Libraries means that you can access all of the 30 libraries in our system and use materials which have been acquired (almost 12 million printed books and tens of thousands of e-resources). We also have brilliant staff who are specialists in all sorts of subjects, just waiting to answer your questions!

iNarr8 karma

Oxford grad student here. First, let me thank you for the work you and your team do, and also congratulate you on the full opening of the new Weston Library! Working with countless manuscripts is one of my favorite parts about being at Oxford, and you guys make that both possible and enjoyable.

I wondered if I could take you back a few years and ask about your time as Keeper of Special Collections and Western Manuscripts at the Bodleian. Any unusual stories you could share about the library's collections or its lenders?

During induction, we were told a rather grizzly story about a woman that bled on a manuscript a year or two back, and how that caused quite the emergency--not for the woman, mind you, but the manuscript. I had heard that one of the librarians had to hold it upside down to prevent the blood running down and further damaging the pages. What a weird call that must have been for the conservators. Any similarly bizarre things to share, either from your time at the library, or from stories you've heard from others whilst working here at Oxford?

bodleyslibrarian8 karma

Thanks for your kind comments about Weston Library, INarr - we are really pleased that people like it and are using it. Being Keeper of Special Collections was an amazing job to have. I dont recall the nose bleeding incident, but we did use the pelts of a thousand sheep to insulate the roof of the Old Bodleian (very sustainable material) and we found all sorts of things when we emptied the New Bodleian (which is now the Weston) including a dozen artificial Christmas trees (forgotten from Staff Christmas parties) and a perfect -but uncatalogued - copy of the first edition of Huckleberry Finn!

operation_hennessey7 karma

Fellow librarian here! I am just curious what a typical day is like for you?

bodleyslibrarian14 karma

Well I chair a lot of meetings, and have discussions on budgets and staff, but I do get to do more interesting stuff like working with our students and researchers here in Oxford on projects, discuss our digital work with our partners (e.g. the Vatican Library and Michigan (this, for example). I even met Stephen Hawking and David Attenborough (link) recently who came to open our current exhibition last month!

Databreaks4 karma

What is your stance on the view that "print is dying" and what are the rarest books your library has, or that you have personally read?

bodleyslibrarian6 karma

The growth of digital information, and of ebooks has been an astonishing phenomenon of the past few years, but despite this growth, print is far from dead. As a legal deposit library we continue to see lots of print coming in - its so much easier and cheaper to publish now! And readers (young and old) are still appreciative of the unique qualities of printed books. As to rare books - we are lucky to have hundreds of thousands of manuscripts in the Bodleian, some of them papyri which are millennia old. My favourite manuscript is Mary Shelley's manuscript of Frankenstein, written after a ghost story competition in Lord Byron's villa on the banks of Lake Geneva in 1816-17.

Hungover523 karma

What approaches are being made to record digital data (websites/pages, videos, et cetra) and preserve it?

What challenges have you experienced so far or expect will make this more difficult in the future?

What recommendations and criteria do you think are important for choosing what materials should be preserved, or at least prioritised?

(Thank you for doing this AMA)

bodleyslibrarian5 karma

Thanks for a great question Hungover52. Digital preservation is a really important aspect of the work of libraries and archives today. We are developing strategies and exploring ways of preserving and making accessible digital material - we have a Graduate Trainee programme at the moment to train the next tranche of staff with these skills. We also work collaboratively with other libraries to share expertise and knowledge and are part of a great organisation called the Digital Preservation Coalition (OK, I'm the President of this august body). We are also working with the British Library, Cambridge University Library, the National Libraries of Scotland and Wales, and Trinity Dublin to archive the whole of the UK web domain. Last year this generated 57 terabytes of data! We take the approach of archiving everything in the UK web domain to a certain level, and then having deeper collecting areas or 'special collections' for instance the current UK General Election. Hope this helps!

Hungover523 karma

What are the qualities that have served you best during your career that helped you become the Librarian of the Bodleian?

Are there other qualities you may see in applicants or people already working in library services that you believe are a detriment to their professional abilities?

bodleyslibrarian5 karma

You probably should ask the Vice Chancellor - because he gave me my job! But I always think that its good to have built up as much experience in working in different areas of librarianship as possible, trying to keep in touch with what other libraries around the world are doing, and keeping a professional network. Its also really vital to stay close to your users - they are who we do our jobs for after all. Being patient is often a good skill to have in any profession!

automaticgainsaying3 karma

You and your colleagues are caretakers of some amazing treasures. What item/object/document have you worked with recently that made you realize (again) what an amazing place the Bodleian is? Thanks for your time.

bodleyslibrarian9 karma

Well my colleagues have pulled together the most incredible exhibition - called Marks of Genius - you can see it for free in the library until 20 September - and there are some really amazing things in it. Just seeing J RR Tolkien's hand drawn design for The Hobbit, or the manuscript written by the young Princess Elizabeth (later to be Elizabeth I) which she wrote as an 11 year girl, to give as a New Year's Gift to her stepmother Katherine Parr, remind you of the power of books to connect you to some of the greatest minds and individuals who have ever lived.

misterjta3 karma

Hi Richard, thanks for the AMA!

My question is a two-part hypothetical one.

If all of the Bodleian libraries caught fire, and if the whole fire brigade was unable to attend, and it was just you on the scene...

If you could only save a single thing, what's the one object you'd rescue from the inferno? And how would you justify saving that, rather than anything else?

bodleyslibrarian7 karma

Oh dear misterjta, this is an impossible question to answer! It is one of the reasons we have invested in top notch fie suppression systems, plus we still have an oath we ask readers to swear - not to kindle fire or flame in the Bod! The priorities of the 17th century are sometimes still relevant today.

misterjta2 karma

Well I'm glad you've got a proper suppression system, I'd hate for anything to get lost!

(Apart from anything else I was a cataloguer in English Monographs years ago, before my old office got gutted for the Weston!)

I guess what I was really asking was "out of the entire holdings, what's your favourite item?"...

The idea of a librarian action-heroing it out of the Great Gate ahead of a fireball just seemed like a more exciting way to phrase it!

bodleyslibrarian6 karma

Got it! My favourite item changes all the time. Currently its the 8th century manuscript of the Rule of St Benedict - the oldest to survive. The script is unbelievably old and beautiful.

gdyetrauda3 karma

Thanks so much for doing this. I don't remember ever being so irritated that I had a meeting during an AMA before, so hopefully I'll catch you in the last few minutes-- what's your personal favorite book? And do you have that book in hard copy or have you transitioned to digital?

bodleyslibrarian4 karma

I still read (only) hard copy for pleasure, but read on a screen constantly for work! My favourite book that I have read recently is David Mitchell's The Bone Clocks. A really original and compelling book.

walking_not_crawling2 karma

When I did my degree, I think I only went to the physical library... twice (admittedly I did a science degree). With more and more resources going digital, is the old-fashioned "storing lots of books in a room" still the best way to run an academic library? And if not, what will "libraries" look like in 25 years time?

bodleyslibrarian12 karma

But libraries are so much more than physical spaces. The great libraries of today make it possible for people to access information and knowledge wherever they need to. Sometimes this is in beautiful ancient reading rooms (like we are lucky to have here in the Bod) and sometimes on a train or while you are waiting for a bus on your mobile device. Its all 'the library'. The digital stuff you used for your science degree is acquired, managed and preserved by librarians!

efs0012 karma

Hello Richard, I'm just about to finish my first year of library school in the U.S. I have been working in the manuscripts department at the special collections library on campus and I have fallen in love with working the reference desk there. I enjoy interacting with the patrons both at the desk and through email. I will be looking for a job next year and was wondering if you have an advice for someone trying to break into the field, especially someone who wants to work at an academic special collections library?

bodleyslibrarian3 karma

Good career choice. Try to get as much experience as possible in your special collections library - from acquisitions to cataloguing to exhibitions (for e.g.). Finish your library school course and perhaps think about some kind of research experience - in special collections you work with researchers all the time! It might help to have a special interest of your own that you develop skills and knowledge in - e.g. the history of book illustration. Or maybe a professional area like web archiving. Good luck!

operation_hennessey2 karma

What book is currently on your bedside table?

bodleyslibrarian1 karma

John le Carre's The Little Drummer Girl and Ruth Scurr's new 'autobiography' of John Aubrey (we have both the Le Carre and Aubrey papers in the Bodleian)

MissVancouver2 karma

Hi, reposting to this AMA as you requested..
I'm just a secretary at my firm, but, I've taken on the task of organizing our documentation/resources (paper as well as electronic). I find I'm really enjoying organizing all this knowledge.. is there anything a layperson can do to learn how to be an amateur librarian? Am I overreaching? Am I missing my calling?

bodleyslibrarian1 karma

Well, there's a lot that an expert can do (in this case, probably an archivist with a specialty in records management), but there is also a lot of best practice advice out there that you can use to get started. Some of it depends on where you're located, which will have an impact on legal and financial requirements - it's also about organisations needs and what you need to access! The National Archives in the UK gives a good intro, and there should be something similar from the US National Archives too.

foodandgigs1 karma

Hi Richard! I've visited Oxford University before; I was, and still am thoroughly fascinated by the Bodleian and the history associated with it, as well as the contents of it. I've always been drawn to the rare and esoteric; in your opinion, which book, or collection of books, are the most unfathomable in the library?

bodleyslibrarian1 karma

One of the things I have learned here is that no matter how esoteric you may think some books might be, that we have users for whom they are incredibly important!

NorbitGorbit1 karma

how do you decide which books to throw away?

bodleyslibrarian1 karma

we dont really do that here

Alukain1 karma

Hello, have you ever worked with Dr. Tim Graham?

bodleyslibrarian1 karma

No, but I admire his scholarship.