Saturday, January 9, 2010

Travels with Alex in British libraries, Part 1: Oxford

In which we learn much about Alex's criminal tendencies, customer service, good lighting, the universal horrors of Brutalist architecture, whole collection RA, and interactive museum exhibits.

Oh, Oxford. Why must you keycard the doors to university libraries? I suppose the goggle-eyed proletariat does confound students trying to study, but really, how elitist. I did scamper up a back staircase in Christ Church College Library... See, I had my eye on this unsuspecting young girl in front of me. I figured we could pass for study mates and I could tail her in when she swiped her card. I just didn't count on:
  1. The heavy, heavy door that thudded emphatically shut within 1.2 seconds of her entering
  2. The crisis of guilt I had at second 1.1.
Also, I could hear my aunt asking Kris incredulously, "did she go up there?," and figured on day 2 of the Re-uniting With Family trip, B&E (or at least, E?) would not be a good first impression.

Luckily, my cousin Sim sensed my frustration and took me to Blackwell's, whose Norrington Room (160, 000 books on 3 miles of shelving!) made up for some of the closed doors of the day.

In the evening, after a day of college wanderings, Kris and I meandered around non-university Oxford, taking in shops and the local public library. Yes, even in shops I can find library inspiration: I would like to shout out to Timpson's for excellence in customer service. I picked up two of their little "Campaign for better service" cards. Like a comment card/suggestion card, but more elaborate, actually saying "Sorry you had a problem," asking how the problem was dealt with, and the likelihood that a customer will recommend Timpson (notice the question is not "will you return?" but "will you recommend us?" I thought that was interesting. Word of mouth is everything!). The cards are signed by John Timpson, another personal touch that I thought showed a certain respect for customers. Not to mention they have a monthly draw from the cards (which are thematic: the ones I picked up were "Have we amazed you?" and "Sorry you had a problem") for prizes. Hello, incentive. Anyway, a good customer service idea. I also liked that they were Business reply mail postcards.

On to Oxford Central Library (Can you tell I was stalling?). Right. So, if you don't already know, British public libraries are woefully under-funded, and some sketchy bureaucratic decisions recently mean people are starting to threaten to close libraries, or at least get rid of the pesky books. Just read The Good Library Blog (by Perkins, library cat, who today threatened to run someone through). So, on the one hand, things are quite dire; on the other hand, great gobs of money are spent on library-esque buildings like the Idea Stores (stay tuned for later post about that) and the Norwich Millenium Library (anything located at "the Forum" is not getting off on the right foot with me... pretentious, much? I reserve further judgment until I hear from my uncle Ralph, who lives there, or I visit him and the Forum *snort* myself). I have very mixed feelings about those endeavours (and I had an interesting conversation about them with my uncle Ralph, aunt Jackie, and her friend John - more later).

So, Oxford's Central Library is Siamese-twinned with Westgate Mall (home to Primark; across from M&S). You enter via a rather desolate lobby (security guard nods; Alex and Kris nod), with flyers about city services, elevator and staircase. Up you go, to the 2nd floor main library entrance, which looks like this:

"It's just like the old Rideau Branch!" I exclaimed - that lovely CHOOSE YOUR PATH idea that I find so intimidating in libraries. Circ desk that looks like a battleship: check. Right for entry, left for exit, and woe to anyone who isn't party to those cultural norms: check. I'm not being mean, Oxford: my library looked like this until one year ago. Many of us are guilty of similar architectural crimes, often perpetrated by architects, not librarians!

Oxford Central Library is open 57 hours a week, and is home to regular collections (books to Blu-ray, with a smattering of public use PCs), a Children's Library, a Music Library, Oxfordshire's Adult Learning Centre, and a local studies collection called Oxfordshire Studies. Unfortunately, the building is staggeringly ugly, all cement, orange carpet, and poor lighting. I had to drill pretty deep into the county website to find a passing reference to the Westgate re-development project, which is currently on hold, and may be dropped, due to the economic crisis. Wikipedia tells me the project would have included "a prominent new three-storey glazed entrance for Oxford’s County Library." No one can tell me when the library and the mall were built, but I blame the Brutalists for the library, at least. I was very disappointed that I arrived too late to visit the Oxfordshire Studies room (it closes 30 mins before the library proper). I did see an old card catalogue through the window to the OS room, which filled me with glee.

Some things I quite liked at Oxford Central Library:
  • More customer comment cards: most interesting question, "Do you feel you were treated fairly?"
  • "Naming" the bays with letters (see photo): far easier to say "Bay H" than "English drama - 822!"
  • Quick reads display: "easy to pick up, hard to put down."
  • Screen reads display of books in the media room - brilliant! Whole collection readers' advisory! Ten points for you, Oxford!
  • The magnificent Oxfordshire Studies sign (word cloud!) as well as their tasteful banners hanging down to the main reading room.
  • I think the Children's Library did the best they could in a gloomy space. Staff were working on a lovely creative mural when I was there.
From the literature I picked up, I was somewhat confounded to see that their application form asks about ethnic origin. Is this common? I see the merit, on the one hand (and they do say, "...This information will help us to plan and provide better services for library members") but couldn't they get general info from demographics? Wouldn't they want to know also the ethnic backgrounds that aren't visiting the library? I can't see that it's worth it to offend some to gain limited info. I did like that "Mixed" is the 2nd option on the list. I also like that if you register online, they will mail your library card to you!

I love that the brochure for young people includes benefits of membership, including "having fun" and "chill out." I also love that it mentions "Puzzle books" in the same breath it does "Picture books" - I wonder if that's a reflection of how popular they are, as they are here?! The application form is also available in other formats for those with disabilities, including (unusually, and quite interestingly) on audio-cassette, computer disk, or by e-mail.

The charmingly-named brochure, "your library - what's in it for you?" (man, when did not using capitals become synonymous with cool? Although I guess I am guilty as charged in e-mails to friends all the time) led to a startling discovery: No fines for children under 5 at Oxfordshire Libraries! In fact, "We'd like children to have fun when they come to the library so we don't mind if they make a little noise. We know that getting books back on time can be difficult sometimes, so there are no fines for children under five. We don't worry if books occasionally get damaged; there are no charges and we can find other copies." Bullet points about children's services below this statement include "Children and babies are never too young to join." Damn straight! I also liked that they emphasised having "books and films you won't find on the High Street."

All in all, horrid building housing some lovely services and collections. I hope they get a face-lift, Westgate re-development or not. In a city full of such astoundingly beautiful places, it is a shame to see such a jewel in a setting that does it little justice.

Non-library observation of note: The Ashmolean, Britain's first public museum, (1683) is amazing, with a respectable collection of Pre-Raphaelites and a sumptuous new display space for them, as well as "the only significant Minoan collection in the UK," and "the greatest Anglo-Saxon collections outside the British Museum." The whole museum re-opened only days before our visit after a massive reno; it now set up according to a new display approach they call "Crossing Cultures Crossing Time." The idea is to reveal "how the civilisations of the east and west have developed as part of an interrelated world culture."

One thing the Ashmolean (and, come to think of it, the Imperial War Museum - maybe it's a British thing?) does very well is exhibit the everyday objects that really make a big impact on visitors: eg. Pashmina gloves, India, 1700s, belonging to the Governeur-General of Bengal. Amazing. Another thing I loved was the interactive stuff: they had an interactive display on, entitled "Writing the spoken word," which involved making your own hieroglyphs. I was also oddly captivated by this magical bowl, which is a propos of nothing, really.

Bonus observation for the day: I loved this idea to clean up a messy bulletin board, from *I think* Balliol College... Would be great in a teen area....


  1. Love your blog, Alex. Just found out about it in the CLTA newsletter, of all places. I agree with those who see the "Idea Stores" phenomenon as a brand failure - funding and facilities so bad that the successor had to be created under a different name altogether.

  2. I like the book bay lettering. It makes the labelling easier when you have to shift the collection. It makes so much sense.

  3. I like the book bay lettering, too. I wonder if it would get stolen? I didn't check if it was secured...

    PS Thanks Wendy!