Feature: The Bod’s Secret Underbelly

by Henry Clarke PriceI had a slightly strange fixation when I was younger. In the mind of mini-Henry, it was all about tunnels. The London Underground, the Channel tunnel, deep-level air-raid shelters: if it was a hole, I loved it. Freud would have had a field day. This obsession was, er, channelled during my adolescent years. But it wasn’t to last. Along came Oxford and the Bodleian Library and myths of its labyrinthine tunnels stretching out to all four corners of Oxford. Tales of a nuclear shelter made me salivate like a rabid dog. My dreams were filled with elaborate conveyor systems stretching through miles of tunnel, while the unsuspecting world above continued unawares. So when the invitation to delve into the Bodleian’s subterranean book stacks arrived at the office, I basically assaulted my editors until they let me go.

One editorial assault later and I was met in the Old Bodleian by Sarah Thomas, the library’s charming American director. She arrived in Oxford only eight months ago, one assumes as part of the larger sort of Amazon order. Almost immediately she launched into an ardent spiel about the new depository at Osney ‘flood plain’ Meads: this, clearly, is the purpose of today’s visit. Get a little positive PR from the student press by satisfying their unconscious desires. To be fair, she really did sell the depository well. After all, it involves robots – but we can save that for later. One boyish fantasy at a time. With the ‘convince student press it’s sensible to build on a flood plain’ box ticked, we entered the Radcliffe Camera, slyly descending a staircase hidden behind the staff desk in the northern end of the lower reading room. “Ha,” I mocked the mere readers, “while you idly pore over your books, I’m going to the source of the knowledge.” I may also have entertained images of killing a minotaur. Oh, hubris. I’d always imagined the book stacks to be luxuriously-decorated thirty-foot affairs in chamber-like caverns. The kind of place where you’ll trip over the Magna Carta and fall into Shakespeare’s first folio. Perhaps I had set myself up for a fall. Still, the unpainted door wouldn’t have looked out of place in a druggie squat. And once you go through it, the ceiling is only six feet high. It’s more palatial in the back of Argos. You know what really takes the biscuit? The grumpy worker midgets I’d been promised were nowhere to be seen.

With hindsight, my Aeneid-cum-Harry-Potter fantasy was prejudicing my judgement somewhat. After all, it says something for the efficacy of storage that it doesn’t feel like these stacks under the Camera hold over 600,000 volumes. Radcliffe Square was still above us, full of students on fag breaks and tourists taking pictures of each other ‘in front of Oxford University’. I had full faith that David Perrow, our new guide, would re-inject the sense of magic that surrounds the bookstacks. “Between us and the square is a membrane that keeps the water out. When they cobbled the square, they breached it and it had to be replaced… here [pointing to a nasty stain on the ceiling] is where water actually came in, and we had to dry a few damp books.” Magical. Not only was my fantasy lying in tatters, but we were one DIY fuck-up away from being drowned. Well, perhaps that’s a little melodramatic: the water table in this room falls at about waist height. But all it would take is for the pumps that keep this room dry to fail, and we – along with several hundred thousand volumes – would be drenched.

Despite its appearances and imminent risk of soaking, this is nonetheless the site of a great innovation. Here, underneath Radcliffe Square, is the first example of mobile shelving suspended from the ceiling, reputedly designed by Prime Minister Gladstone (although it was not implemented in his lifetime). While it might seem obvious now to make maximum use of the space between shelves, Gladstone Shelving is one of those masterstrokes born of a dire situation. Sadly, no similarly pioneering solution to diminishing space has since been devised, which is one reason why the Bodleian’s least-used volumes are sitting in a salt mine in Cheshire. Through the next door, we reach the first of those much-craved tunnels. This is the passage way which leads to the Old Bodleian. One line of track embedded in the concrete floor marks the path that a railway used to run to transport books between the Radcliffe Camera and the main Bodleian. The conveyor system that serves the New and Old Bodleian libraries doesn’t extend here, much to the annoyance of the stack workers.

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“The Camera, although it’s a very popular space, is quite difficult to serve books into, especially with Health and Safety legislation,” explains Perrow. Books and stairs are not the friends of Mister Inspector. Or one’s back. The Radcliffe Camera’s charming good looks do not help the Bodleian staff one bit. It’s under the Old Bodleian that we meet up with the conveyor system. The little cars that run in the cage are mind-boggling. Our guide tries (in vain) to explain the intricate system of knobs that tell a car where to stop. Letters from A to L are marked on the side of the car, and the slider can be set to any of these. It just seems amazing that this eccentric machine is relied on to deliver thousands of books every day. But despite being over six decades old, it still works (just) – although there is no practical way for it to be extended to the Radcliffe Camera. As part of the New Bodleian’s refurbishment (another project on top of the Osney Mead depository), it would be torn out and a new system installed. If you want an idea of how much that would cost, the Radcliffe Camera extension alone of a new conveyor would be £2m. Still, probably cheaper than the health insurance of the bookstack workers. The tunnel winds round and down at this point, as we move under Broad Street. The cage containing the conveyor system (and, alarmingly, what appear to be several water pipes) is to our right. The unpainted concrete walls and ceiling, along with the institutional strip lighting running the length of the tunnel, give the passageway the feel of some Cold War bunker. The notices stuck to the door of the New Bodleian certainly give that paranoid feel. “Have you told a colleague where you are going?” asks one notice. “Emergency evacuation or lost in the stack? Follow the yellow lines on the floor and they will take you to an exit.” That’s right – as if the imminent threat of flooding weren’t bad enough (and the bitumen tanking under the water table is frequently breached here too), these books also risk going up in smoke.

In the New Bodleian, Perrow points out where the sealant around girders has deteriorated. If there were a fire, the holes between the ceilings and these girders would act as a chimney, feeding the flames. National Archives, the authority that decides whether the Bodleian can be trusted with materials of great cultural relevance, is so concerned that it has only temporarily renewed the University’s license to house collections for the nation. Until the New Bodleian incorporates proper measures for fire protection and suppression, it will never satisfy the catchily-named BS 5454:2000, the standard for storage of library material. And if the University loses its license, not only would it be banned from holding manuscript material deposited in lieu of Death Duty, but its chances of attracting any more materials of significance would be nil. Researchers, so integral to the workings of Oxford, would be discouraged from working here. And let’s face it, who wants to study at a University whose collections are either sitting underwater or are one step away from feeding the most excruciating bonfire known to man?

The New Bodleian desperately needs deep refurbishment if Oxford is to maintain its National Archives Approved Status. For this to happen, its 3.5 million volumes need to be ‘decanted’ (a technical term, perhaps deriving from the fact that running this place is enough to drive you to drink). Loath as I am to promote the party PR line, the Osney Meads depository is the only realistic place that this could happen. And while Congregation mulls over it, more and more books are arriving. Far from tolling the knell for printed works, the onset of the digital age has heralded an explosion in publication. Which is great for academia, not so fantastic for librarians. When the New Bodleian was built between 1937-39, the intention was that the library’s intake for the next century would be catered for. But with three decades still to go before we reach that hundredth year, it is already 130% full (based on its original envisioned capacity). With this unexpected surge in incoming volumes, the University’s libraries have had to make rushed, piecemeal expansions. In 1974, Nuneham Courtenay, 8 miles from the Central Bodleian, was converted for use as book storage. Planning permission to expand the Nuneham site was comprehensively refused in December 2003, and books literally started piling up in the New Bodleian, so much so that access to certain stacks was completely blocked off. Subsequently, the University placed its least-used items (dubbed “Bod X” material, but disappointingly unpornographic) in commercial storage in Wiltshire and Cheshire. Dumping books in a cave might sound like a cheap operation, but in 2005-6 it cost the University £110,000, and this cost has been increasing by around £10,000 each month. “We told the University ten years ago that we were out of space,” says Perrow. “We should be opening the depository today instead of talking to you about it.”

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So, about those robots I promised earlier. The new depository would sport a system called ASRS which, apart from looking like “arse”, stands for Automated Storage and Retrieval Systems. Within seconds of a stack request being made, the system swings into action to find and deliver the volumes. Because it’s a robot rather than a person at work, bookstacks can be higher and more densely packed than usual. ASRS is six times more efficient with space than Gladstone rolling shelving, and ten times more efficient than conventional shelves. My experience with photocopiers – one which involves tugging and tearing paper out of the depths of a machine while getting covered in toner – made me wary of this system at first. But ASRS (nope, still looks like “arse”) is a proven technology, and when delegates from Oxford University Library Services went on a jolly to America they saw it work and not chew up priceless books. When I ask Sarah Thomas what the Bodleian staff feel about being replaced by robotic claws, her response seems sensible enough: “One of the things that we’ve planned here is a natural wastage, or normal attrition… These jobs have relatively high turnover, so no-one is going to lose a job because of the depository.”

And what about this floodplain business and the dreaming spires? On the first count, I fail to believe that David Perrow and Sarah Thomas, who work with such zeal to care for Oxford’s collections, would happily send millions of volumes to their doom. Far from it, they’re keen to save the Bodleian’s collections from the fiery or watery demise that seems increasingly likely in the New Bodleian. The 22-metre thick defences of the Osney Meads depository are designed to withstand a 1 in 5000 year flood. That’s with climate change factored in. As for the dreaming spires, the depository (as far as I can see) has a negligible effect on the landscape. At the risk of sounding direfully emotional, we should remember that the Bodleian is one of the primary reasons that Oxford has grown to be the great city it is today. If we neglect its collections in favour of a postcard picture, we neglect the very reason tourists come here – and the very reason why Oxford remains one of the greatest academic institutions on earth.