Students returning to Oxford for Michaelmas have found the system put in place over the summer by the Bodleian Libraries increasingly impractical. With library slots often not available for three days or more in advance, issues were exacerbated on Friday of 0th Week when the History Faculty Library at the Radcliffe Camera cancelled its Click and Collect service due to an inability to “cope with term-time demand”. Any slots already booked were also cancelled at short notice.

Although the Radcliffe Camera is the site of the History Faculty Library, students of all disciplines have been allowed to book slots. The Bodleian Libraries have advised students not to book multiple slots in a week, but there is no restriction on doing this and an information sheet at desks in the Bodleian Libraries references students booking “back-to-back” slots. Many of the Bodleian Libraries are also still open to those who are not residents of the University, including the Radcliffe Camera and the Bodleian Old Library. 

History students have been frustrated by the lack of priority given to them by their subject library. Grace Beckwith, a third year who, like many historians, would generally use the Faculty Library several times a week, told Cherwell: “So far the current booking system is making my life quite a bit harder. I’m doing my Special Subject this term, and although a lot of my set texts are digitized, I still need to access a lot of texts that are only available in the Rad Cam. I tried to order some books via the Click and Collect service, but the History Faculty have cancelled the service. To get books, I now have to book Browse and Borrow slots which are a bit difficult to find. It just seems chaotic. It would be useful to have some sort of priority system.”

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Furthermore, the potential lack of provision of central university libraries presents a wide range of accessibility problems. Speaking to Cherwell, Leo Gillard, Secretary of DisCam, said: “The limits to more flexible library use will undeniably have an adverse impact on disabled students. The highly restricted number of spaces available for studying and browsing libraries is a particular difficulty, as well as allowing non-disabled students to use disability-related equipment such as riser desks. Additionally, for students with variable conditions booking library slots in advance is much more difficult, as they more not know if they will be well enough to work in a library weeks in advance.”

Other issues are presented for students from a working class background. Sofia Henderson, Co-Chair of the SU Class Act campaign, told Cherwell: “Access to adequate workspaces is a class issue that has only intensified during the pandemic. When faced with a full Oxford term from home, working class and low income students found it difficult to work alongside their parents, siblings, or housemates, and were forced to only use texts which were accessible online. Now that most students are back in Oxford, the University and Oxford colleges must make sure that all students have access to a comfortable working environment and have access to the texts that they need. In many cases, students have been forced to order books themselves, because of the difficulties of being able to get to a library, with some college libraries being closed and faculty libraries having limited copies of texts. While some may be lucky to go to colleges which provide academic or book grants, many students will be left behind and find it difficult to access the same resources as their more privileged peers.”

While college libraries can, in some cases, fulfil the gap left by a lack of access to central facilities, this varies. Even where there is a good provision of books, many college libraries also require booking an advance while some, such as Merton’s, have not reopened at all.

Speaking to Cherwell, a Bodleian Libraries spokesperson said: “The Bodleian Libraries aim to offer as many physical reader spaces as is possible in Michaelmas Term, given the constraints of physical distancing as dictated by Public Health England and University guidance, especially the requirement to maintain 2m physical distancing. This means that we will be able to accommodate 80% of our usual capacity during Michaelmas Term.”

The spokesperson explained that the 80% figure was reached through patterns of usage from previous years rather than assuming maximum capacity. In the Upper Bodleian, just one in four desks are available for use. They continued: “Our Space Finding app is just getting ready to launch and this will enable readers to book slots across the library in a much easier way, including slots to just browse and borrow as well as booking study space.”

On the various accessibility issues surrounding the current system, the spokesperson clarified: “During the booking process, Readers can request any extra provision including a standing desk through the ‘Other Information’ text box on the booking page, these are allocated to registered Readers with access needs on a first-come, first-serve basis. We have responded to feedback and made this easier to book spaces such as these over the summer. Each library has a disability contact who can help facilitate and provide more information about a specific library site. Their contact details can be found on each library page on the university Access Guide.”

Image credit: David Iliff/ Wikimedia Commons