25 APRIL 1931, Page 7

The Bodleian Library


THE national, and even international, importance and reputation of the Bodleian Library give a special interest to the report on Library Provision at Oxiord which has just been published, and which will be discussed by the Congregation of the University at the beginning of the summer term. The report is the work of a small Commission appointed by the University, which through the wise liberality of the Rockefeller Foundation was enabled to visit nearly all the most important libraries in Europe and America. The task of the Commission was, after seeing the greatest libraries of the world and all the newest developments, to advise the University how best to deal with the special problems of Oxford.

There are no two opinions as to the need for some drastic extension of the Bodleian. All who are familiar with it know that the book storage is grossly congested ; that the staff work in conditions of overcrowding which can be paralleled nowhere else ; and that there is no space for any of the developments needed in a modern library. Two main solutions have been before the University of recent years : one, to build a wholly new library on a new site ; the other, to build an annexe to the existing library on a site at the disposal of the University on the further side of Broad Street, in the angle between Broad Street and Parks Road, facing the Clarendon Buildings. On this issue the Commission are unanimous. It has been contended, by those who advocated the policy of a new library, that this site (just over an acre in. extent) was inadequate for the reasonable future needs of the Bodleian, and that its adoption would be only a make- shift. The investigations of the Commission, supported by actual plans showing one possible method of utilizing the site, make it clear that with this extension (which would be linked to the present library by a subway with electric conveyers) provision can be made for a library as large as can conceivably be needed by Oxford, and with a very- considerable amount of reserve accommodation available for such subsidiary services as the University may think it desirable to provide for. The present Bodleian contains about 1,500,000 volumes. The esti- mated storage capacity of the future Bodleian (including an enlarged Radcliffe Science Library) is 6,300,000 volumes. As the majority of the CoMmission observe " It is difficult to believe that a central library of some six million volumes, with ample provision for reading-rooms and other working accommodation, will not suffice the University for an indefinite time," without having recourse to the possibilities of further underground extension and of a reserve dump on the outskirts of Oxford, which are indicated as ultimate potential reserves. In these cir- cumstances it would be criminal to .sacrifice the central position and the historic traditions of the Bodleian ; and this conclusion will be welcomed by none more warmly than by those American students who in increasing numbers visit the Bodleian to work there, and who realize the charm of its buildings and its atmosphere. It may be hoped, therefore, that the proposal to remove the library to another site is dead.

There remains, however, the further question, how the future library may best be organized ; and here the Com missioners are not entirely unanimous. There are, in fact, two methods of library organization which, although some composition can be made between them, cannot be wholly reconciled. According to the one method, the students sit in a reading-room, and (except for such pro- vision of books of reference as the room can contain) have the books that they require brought to their seats by attendants. According to the other, the students are seated in small rooms or cubicles adjoining the main bookstack, to which they have direct access, and fetch their books for themselves. The former method is exemplified in the fullest degree at the British Museum ; the latter (for graduate students) in the newest American libraries such as Harvard and Yale. It is on this point that the difference of opinion occurs. The majority of the Commissioners definitely prefer the reading-room prin- ciple, with a very generous supply of the most needed volumes on the shelves of the room. One Commissioner prefers the method of free access to the shelves for all qualified students, and would make provision for them in cubicles in the stack itself.

The difference is fundamental and irreconcilable, because the reading-room method implies the presence on the reading-room shelves of the books in most active and constant use in all the principal subjects of study, while the open access method requires that these books should be dispersed about the bookstack in those portions to which they are assigned by an elaborate method of subject classification. The open access system depends on the use of some such method, and its theoretical attraction lies in the supposition that the student can see gathered together all the books bearing upon his subject and make his search among them. Actually this advan- tage is subject to large deductions, which become more serious the larger and more miscellaneous in contents a library is. A single volume may bear on a dozen different departments of knowledge, and can so appear in a dozen different bibliographies ; but it can only stand on one shelf. Actually, therefore, the student cannot be sure that all the books hearing on his subject aye, gathered on a single group of shelves.; and when further deductions have been made for the rarer and more valuable books, which cannot be exposed to the risks of open access, the advantages of open access are very greatly reduced. The method has real advantages in a small or a selected library ; but the larger and more general a library is the less is its value and the greater the waste of time which it entails. At the British Museum it would be frankly im- possible and also useless (experto crede) : in the larger American libraries (though most of them are selected libraries) it has already certain definite drawbacks. The Bodleian is a large library (though not larger than some in America) and, having copyright privileges, it is a general library. It also contains a high proportion of rare and valuable books which could not be placed on open shelves. The majority of the Commission, there- fore (while allowing for access to the stack for special reasons, such as occasional consultation of long " runs" of periodicals), deliberately recommend the retention of the reading-room principle, but qualify it by a great extension of the volumes directly accessible on the reading-room shelves. They propose that the larger part of two floors of the Bodleian quadrangle should be devoted to reading- room accommodation, with 100,000 volumes (five times the number accessible in the British Museum Reading Room) on open shelves, and a separate reading-room (as at present) for undergraduates in the Radcliffe Camera, and with rooms available for seminar use or corporate study by organized groups, as may be found desirable.

Space does not permit reference to the further recom- mendations of the Commission with regard to faculty libraries, to the Taylorian and Ashmolean buildings, and other questions affecting the teaching methods of the University, which are mainly of local interest. But the main issues (on which the recommendations of the Com- mission have already been endorsed by the Hebdomadal Council) are now before the University ; and the solution offered, if the money (estimated at about £950,000 in all) is forthcoming, will provide it with an ample library and provision for modern developments of study, on lines suited to the methods of Oxford, and without sacrificing those traditions which are precious to Oxford and to the world of students at large.