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Not “safe or sustainable”: Bodleian Libraries’ reading rooms remain open

Staff at the Bodleian Libraries have spoken to Cherwell regarding the Libraries’ reading rooms remaining open, claiming that conditions are unsafe for staff and students.

One library assistant told Cherwell: “libraries are essential to research but access to reading rooms is not”, citing the number of students who are studying at home this term –  “by keeping the rooms open, they cannot provide for those students who were unable to return or are self isolating by scanning material for them”. The Bodleian has already initiated a return of the Hathi Trust Emergency Temporary Access Service. However, an email shown to Cherwell has revealed that the Libraries have already had to suspend Scan and Deliver services in 2021 due to “extremely high” levels of demand. On 6 January, they “turned away over 475 requests for Library Scan alone”. As term begins, demand will only increase.

Another member of library staff insisted that “having readers in libraries isn’t safe or sustainable in the current pandemic” given “how serious the rates of infection, hospitalisation and deaths are at present”. During the first lockdown, the Bodleian Libraries closed, claiming that “the health, welfare and safety of readers and staff is our number one priority”. The staff member continued:  “The only way to keep us safe is to immediately close all open libraries and move to remote services only, with measures put in place to minimise the risk of travel”. The University of Cambridge has adopted this model, announcing that their library would “close for in-person visits and study” (but students would still be able to collect reading material or use Scan and Deliver Services) in an email to all students on 6 January.

A member of staff who was afraid for their health spoke of conditions within the library: “we share desks… they’re cleaned by us, but it takes one to be sick or careless”. They claimed their concerns “have been dismissed [by management] by quoting the risk assessments done before Michaelmas”. In these risk assessments, the new variant – which may be up to 70% more transmissible – was not considered. They urged the Bodleian Libraries to focus “on scan and deliver and opening our collections more through a reviewed click and collect service”.

Multiple library staff members raised the issue of individuals not wearing face masks in the library. One member of staff told Cherwell: “we are very constrained in terms of our ability to police mask usage due to central university policy, so there is no way that we can guarantee a safe workplace for those sitting in communal areas”.

The Gladstone Link and Radcliffe Camera were originally planned to be open as hub libraries. However, on 6 January, the Bodleian Libraries tweeted: “The Radcliffe Camera is currently closed. Readers with bookings in the reading rooms this morning should not come to the library”. The History Faculty confirmed that this closure was due to a “shortage of staff”. The Radcliffe Camera, Vere Harmsworth Library, the Sackler Library and Gladstone Link LIbrary will now be closed from 18 January while the Old Bodleian and Cairns Library reading rooms will remain open. Library staff were told that their concerns were given “real weight”.

The Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals, the leading professional body for librarians, information specialists and knowledge managers has urged libraries to shut their doors. They declared that “we consider that the benefits of providing face-to-face services are lower than the risks of prolonging the pandemic”. They explained their reasoning: “given that our original guidance on the safe handling of library materials was provided on the basis of advice from PHE, that this advice has been questioned by the US REALM study and no new guidance has been received in respect of the ‘new variant’, we cannot currently state that the risk from materials is negligible”.

A Bodleian spokesperson responded: “Oxford  University’s  highest priority is the health and well-being of our staff, students and the local community. The Bodleian Libraries are currently following government guidance by prioritising remote services rather than physical ones while continuing to offer a limited physical service to students who are currently resident in the city. This is in line with a range of libraries across the university sector. We are asking readers to only book a reading room space if they don’t have access to other suitable study space. When using the library, readers are required to wear a face covering unless exempt under government guidelines; if arriving without a face covering, readers will be offered one by library staff. Readers are reminded to follow all health and safety measures including social distancing, washing hands thoroughly, and staying away from the libraries if they have any coronavirus symptoms. The libraries are acutely aware of the need to balance the needs of students and researchers who are in Oxford, and those who remain at home, and will continue to adjust services to strike the appropriate balance.”

Photo by DAVID ILIFF. License: CC BY-SA 3.0

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