The Weston under wraps, July 2012. Original image copyright Bodleian Libraries/Nick Cistone.


ARE you sitting comfortably? Here is the Story of the Decline of the Academic Library.

Once Upon A Time libraries were the gatekeepers to most of the information students and academics needed. Books had the information and libraries had the books. Then one day the Big Bad Internet came along and made hundreds of millions of books, articles and manuscripts freely available to anyone with access to a computer. The library was no longer the only game in town. Most of today’s students have used computers since a young age and Googling is second nature to them. Why would they go to a library when they could find the answers from the comfort of their own home — or Starbucks?

But like all good stories, there is a twist. Something strange is happening in Oxford. In 2014, the reading rooms of the University’s Bodleian Library were at their busiest since records began. And on 21 March it will open the Weston Library, an £80 million refurbishment of a Grade II listed building in the centre of Oxford. How has the Big Bad Internet not blown the house down?


THE stereotype of ‘shushing’ librarians has haunted generations of students. ‘Some academic libraries is what are known as “self-policing,” admits a former Oxford librarian. ‘I was asked to keep my voice down on more than one occasion.’ But in this busy age of information and distractions, is silence drawing people to the library even though they may not need its books?

‘It has become increasingly hard to find a place of quiet, even in Oxford,’ says the Bodleian Libraries’ Dr Christine Madsen (@mccarthymadsen). ‘There is nowhere you can sit down and have a quiet conversation except somewhere you have to pay a lot of money for a drink.’

Listen carefully next time you are in an academic library. Silence hangs thickly in the air, broken only by the occasional cough or turn of a page — or more recently, typing. Occasionally you hear the slap of heels along the corridor, getting louder as they approach your desk and receding to an echo after they pass. In Oxford, this sound has barely changed since the Bodleian was founded in 1602.

The Weston Library’s reading rooms were carefully designed so that this unique sound would not be lost. ‘Everything was very carefully chosen and arranged, from the choice of wood to the lighting,’ says Richard Ovenden (@richove), the head of the Bodleian with the historic title of Bodley’s Librarian. Even the chairs have been specially designed by BarberOsgerby (@barberosgerby), designers of the 2012 Olympic torch, to make the occupant tilt forwards slightly towards the desk with little creak or noise.

The Bodleian Libraries chair design competition invited a designer/manufacturer team to create a new reading room chair for the institution’s Weston Library. Copyright Jamie Smith.

On a wet March evening in Oxford, I asked users of the Weston Library why they liked silence. Some said the absence of distractions made it easier for them to concentrate. One said the sound of other people turning pages or typing faster than them scared them into focusing. Others said being in a historic library reminded them they were part of 400 years of tradition which made them feel hard-working. ‘I’m particularly aware of that coming from California where nothing is very old,’ Christine Madsen agrees.

Why does a library encourage concentration? No one is better qualified to find the answer than Professor Charles Spence (@xmodal), an experimental psychologist at Oxford who discovered that the atmosphere of a shop has a big influence on how much people buy, and that different environments can affect the sensory experience of drinking whisky by as much as 20%. He also found that hot chocolate tastes better in an orange cup. That is not relevant to the academic library, but it’s irresistible to know. Professor Spence suspects libraries might encourage concentration because they are a way of separating home from work life.

‘Working from home could be stressful when it comes to sleep time,’ he says. ‘But to test this one could make recordings from within the library and play it back to people working in other environments to see whether it aids concentration.’

You can try Professor Spence’s experiment for yourself by accessing the Sounds of the Bodleian wherever you are. There are currently two Reading Rooms to choose from with more coming soon including the Weston.


Celsus Library in Ephesus, Turkey. Copyright: Shutterstock/muratart

THE Library of Celsus was built in 135AD in honour of a Roman senator. It stored 12,000 scrolls and those who wished to read them would travel long distances to visit. They would stay until their work was complete, sometimes for weeks at a time, and were given a place to eat, sleep and do some sort of athletic activity. Now that so many students use the library as a place to do their own work, libraries are thinking more about how to accommodate the varying needs of their users.

The Weston Library has a coffee shop and breakout spaces for those who want to chat. Neither of these are revolutionary but they have been noticed by students. ‘When I moved to England in 2008, the idea that you would one day get an excellent flat white in the Bodleian’s cafe would have seemed too good to be true,’ says Ben Mountford, a Junior Research Fellow in Modern British History who studies in the Weston. ‘I was able to work in the coffee shop for a whole afternoon which felt simultaneously like you were just relaxing with a cup of tea and in a serious academic environment,’ says Joseph Fell, a music undergraduate. ‘I didn’t feel like I was being judged if I had a five-minute break on Facebook.’

In a tiny public library in Pasadena, California, a young Christine Madsen would pull books off the shelves and read them sitting on the floor. As an adult, she started working in an art library in San Diego then moved to Harvard to digitize their rare books and manuscripts. Before joining the Bodleian as Head of Digital Programmes, Dr Madsen wrote a doctoral thesis on how digitization is changing the relationship between a scholar and their library. She thinks academic libraries need to look to the Library of Celsus as a model for their survival.

‘For the last 150 years academic libraries have seen themselves as information-centred storehouses of books and I think that was a mistake,’ she says.

‘We need to return to the original purpose of the library, which is to support all the various needs of the scholar and provide him or her with a place to come up with ideas and make breakthroughs that would not otherwise have happened.’

Christine says the Weston Library is a step in the right direction. ‘Providing scholars with access to our collections is one thing, but here we can also provide access to experts in manuscripts relating to their subjects, spaces to sit and chat, and exhibitions that challenge and provoke them can all lead to serendipity and research breakthroughs. You have the space to actively and deeply engage and focus on your work, but also the space to sit back and reflect over a coffee and sandwich with a colleague. And to do good work you need both. And the library can provide both.’


ON the morning of Wednesday 4th March, a photograph of a weasel straddling a flying woodpecker was plastered across the newspapers. On Twitter, the Bodleian (@bodleianlibs) posted an image of a weasel riding a basilisk, which was painted in the Ashmole Bestiary, a 13th-century manuscript in the Bodleian’s collections. ‘We’re not at all surprised to see weasels on other animals,’ they tweeted. Within an hour, 250 people from around the world had retweeted the image. ‘Well played, Bodleian, well played,’ replied a Twitter user from the Gulf Coast of the USA.

Libraries want to show the public their collections, their conservation and their research, but without disturbing their users or endangering the fragile manuscripts. Social media is one means to that end. ‘We began to use social media quite early, I didn’t know of anyone else that was doing it at the time,’ says Liz McCarthy (@mccarthy_liz), who has run the Bodleian’s social media accounts for more than four years. Liz’s brief is to raise awareness of the work of the library and its collections. ‘We extend access to the Libraries, letting people see bits of it they would not otherwise see,’ she says. ‘We are giving people a taste for what happens behind the scenes.’

The Weston Library lets the public come further into the Bodleian than ever before. The design of the original building by Sir Giles Gilbert Scott in the 1930s suggested a desire to keep people out of the library. But a public entrance has now been created on Broad Street where a large door flanked by columns almost begs you to enter. Step inside and you are greeted by the Blackwell Hall, a high-ceilinged atrium with a cafe, shop, lecture theatre and two exhibition galleries.

1934 drawing of Giles Gilbert Scott’s New Bodleian Building

Are academic libraries responding to the digital age by trying to reach a wider audience than just students and scholars? Dorothy Fouracre, a former graduate trainee at the Bodleian, wrote her master’s thesis at UCL on exhibitions in major academic libraries. ‘20 or 30 years ago exhibitions were usually open books with captions which could make it hard to get people interested for any period of time,’ she says. ‘Sometimes books have nicely painted pages or funny animations but not many people care about seeing a title page that was printed in 1501. Now libraries are increasingly taking a theme and approaching it from different and interesting angles and borrowing objects from museums.’

Section through the Weston Library showing, on the left, the public entrance and high-ceilinged Blackwell Hall. Copyright Wilkinson Eyre.

The first exhibition in the Weston looks at the theme of genius. It will display a 1217 copy of the Magna Carta, Tolkien’s illustrations for the first dust jacket of The Hobbit, and a painting Mendelssohn made to accompany his composition Schilflied (Reed Song). There will be video and digital displays on big monitors.

‘We want more visitors seeing higher quality exhibitions with digital interpretation, borrowed objects from other institutions, and student involvement in the curation of the exhibitions,’ says Richard Ovenden.

Last year the Bodleian had 250,000 visitors to its small exhibition room. The Weston Library should easily surpass this number, putting it ahead of most museums.

‘The focus on exhibitions is not new,’ cautions Richard Ovenden. ‘The Elgin Marbles were first given to the Bodleian and we displayed them in a sculptured garden outside the library in the 17th century. We bought our first exhibition case in 1837. But it is certainly a new scale and a higher quality of exhibition than ever before.’


LET’S return to the Story of the Decline of the Academic Library. It says that with personal computers, iPads and mobiles, library users will not need books any more. The rows of bookshelves will be surplus to requirements and their contents will gather dust. So how do we explain the three floors of bookstacks which have been built below ground in the Weston Library?

Section through the Weston Library showing the below ground bookstacks. Copyright Wilkinson Eyre.

The Weston places its special collections at the heart of the library — that is to say, its core treasures of rare books, manuscripts, archives, music, ephemera and maps.. State-of-the-art fire suppression and climate control systems have been installed so the building is fit to store these precious documents. These items were previously stored in different locations across Oxford and beyond but they are now in the same place for the first time.

This allows students and researchers more contact with original material. Academics can book teaching rooms in the Weston Library and request that a manuscript is brought up for a lesson.

‘The Weston Library could change the way we teach,’ says Nicholas Cronk, professor of French literature at Oxford and the Director of the Voltaire Foundation.

‘I can ask a curator or conservator to talk about a particular manuscript to a class of graduate students. In the past libraries were a little like supermarkets. Now they are more like laboratories — you can go in there with students to research and teach from the special collections.’

‘Teaching students how to handle the collections has never been possible in this way,’ says Dr Martin Kauffmann, who heads a team of curators who specialise in the Bodleian’s Early and Medieval manuscripts. ‘Generations of students here have studied the Chanson de Roland — one of the great works of French literature — without realising that we have the earliest manuscript to survive in our collections.

‘Now we have students in their first term here turning the pages of books from the 16th Century. Whether they are inspired to become academics or they become venture capitalists, it is a really valuable experience.’

Could this endanger the books? ‘The handling is supervised but actually you tend to find that undergraduates are incredibly careful with the books because they are scared of damaging them,’ Martin says. ‘There is probably more danger from world-renowned professors who are so comfortable and familiar with the manuscripts! A lot of libraries worry about the over-handling rare books and manuscripts but the danger of under-handling is just as great.’

When it became possible to cheaply reproduced paintings and drawings in books and magazines in the early 20th Century, philosopher Walter Benjamin predicted people would no longer feel the need to visit the original Mona Lisa. The opposite happened. ‘I hope the more material we digitize online, the more people will be drawn into the library to see the physical things for themselves,’ says Christine Madsen. ‘It is really important that people still have access to the original physical material and that it doesn’t become for the elite.’

A short film from about digitisation at the Bodleian

Nicholas Cronk is determined to pass on his enthusiasm for original manuscripts to the next generation of researchers. ‘I recently came across a scan of a Voltaire play from the 18th century and I could not understand the writing,’ he says. ‘So I went to an archive in Paris to see the original and it turns out Voltaire simply wrote in black ink and someone responded to him in red crayon. The scan I had seen was in black-and-white.’ There are other advantages to seeing the original. Being able to feel the page not only gives a sense of the cost and quality of the paper, but it can also reveal whether or not a page has been replaced, which might suggest the original was censored. ‘It is vital that we do not lose these skills,’ says Nicholas.

A page from Mary Shelley’s original manuscript of ‘Frankenstein’. Copyright Bodleian Libraries


Looking out of Richard Ovenden’s office is as close as you can get to standing in a postcard. Christopher Wren’s Sheldonian Theatre looms in one window, Oxford’s iconic Broad Street in another. With his back to both, Bodley’s Librarian explains that his literary interest was piqued at age 14 in the more modest setting of a second hand bookshop in Kent. ‘I stumbled across this bookshop by accident and bought a history textbook for around 50p because there was something in it that struck a chord with me,’ he says. The book happened to be the one his history teacher used to plan his lessons. ‘Since then I’ve always appreciated the sense that having access to knowledge and information keeps you one step ahead.’

Richard says knowledge is also what keeps the Bodleian ahead as it negotiates the modern, digital world. ‘We have staff who are world experts in particular fields and this has allowed us to become an active agent in research, coming up with ideas and suggesting them to our colleagues in the academic departments,’ he says. ‘It is probably the biggest change in the Bodleian, though in some ways it returns to the 17th century tradition of the scholar-librarian. One of my predecessors, Thomas Hyde, was Bodley’s fifth librarian but also Oxford’s Regius Professor of Greek and a Professor of Arabic.’

Conserving John Gower’s Confessio Amantis. Copyright Bodleian Libraries.

The geography of the Weston Library means researchers in the reading rooms can walk down a corridor to ask a specialist curator or conservator for advice. ‘If someone is looking at an Anglo-Saxon manuscript and notices an inscription or a mark in the margin which was done by the printer, they can ask a conservator who will often recognise it as belonging to a particular printer,’ says Richard. ‘That is something Google really struggles with.’

‘There are 10,000 western Medieval manuscripts in our collections, some of them unpublished,’ says Dr Kauffmann. ‘As curators we are always learning things about the collections, and we publish what we find in books and on our website. So while we learn a lot from the expert academics who come to see us, we are able to help them too.’

The Weston Library also has a designated space for digital scholarship, where experts advise researchers on using digital tools to support their research in ways that would not have been possible 50 years ago. This ranges from large-scale digitization of manuscripts — such as the ongoing project to scan million pages from the Vatican’s collections and half a million from the Bodleian so that they can be viewed and searched for free online — to tailored projects that can change an entire field of research.

‘A great example of an innovative project is our work with Howard Hotson, a professor of intellectual history at Oxford, on his project Early Modern Letters Online,’ says Christine Madsen. ‘The Bodleian had a catalogue of cards summarizing 50,000 manuscript letters exchanged between great thinkers in early modern Europe. We scanned these cards and are combining them with further records from around the world to create maps which will allow you to see who a particular intellectual was writing to, at what time, from where, and what else they were publishing or doing at the time, how one such network interacted with others, and much more.’

Professor Hotson says this is just the start. ‘The greatest significance of Early Modern Letters Online may be to show how combining the Bodleian’s marvellous collections, Oxford’s scholarly community, and state-of-the-art IT can situate the University at the centre of emerging digital infrastructure not just in this field but many other ones as well,’ he says. ‘Digitization can aggregate hundreds of thousands of tiny little points of data – in our case we took a letter written at a specific time and place and tagged it to two specific individuals, but you could do the same thing with dates of book publications, locations in a travel diary, anything really. Applying a similar approach to the Bodleian’s matchless collections could help transform significant aspects of research and teaching throughout the humanities.’ Christine says the possibilities extend to science as well. ‘We have archives of diaries which mention the weather on a particular day, or doctors’ notes,’ she says. ‘These could be marked up and tagged to give insights into climate change or disease.’


The Story of the Decline of the Academic Library has not reached its conclusion but it seems to be missing some chapters: the tale of the library as engine for research, the tale of the library as a place for public engagement, the tale of the library as silent refuge in a noisy world. Time will tell whether the story needs to be confined to the fiction section.

Sir Charles Mackerras Reading Room in the Weston Library. Copyright John Cairns.

Further information

History of the Bodleian
The Weston Library

The Bodleian’s opening of the Weston announcement
Christine Madsen’s ‘new theory of academic libraries’
Inside the Bodleian: Building a 21st Century Library, a short film from 2013


Written by Matt Pickles, News & Information Office, University of Oxford
Additional reporting by Georgina Brooke, Digital Communications Office, University of Oxford
Design by Christopher Eddie, Digital Communications Office, University of Oxford