Charlotte Goodall shows us behind the scenes in the Bodleian.

The Bodleian as things were…

I remember clearly the day I realised that the COVID-19 situation was going to change our lives completely. I had taken the train into work that morning and noticed how suddenly and unusually quiet the carriages were. In the library that morning, there was a sense of nervous anticipation. The Prime Minister had “advised” staying at home, but the actual lockdown had not yet been announced. In the library, we knew that it was only a matter of time before we would be told to close, and we had to begin to think about how we would be able to serve our readership in the interim.

We did not have much notice or time to prepare before the Vice Chancellor directly announced the closure of all university buildings. We would be working from home for the foreseeable future. I had a scramble to set up the IT access I knew I would require and make sure I could see the files I needed. In retrospect, I naively assumed we would be back at work as normal in a matter of weeks, and I certainly never thought that nearly six months later I would still be working primarily from home.

During the first few weeks of lockdown I spent much of my time going through reading lists and bibliographies, trying to acquire anything we could in electronic format where it was available. It became clear to me that, while for some courses there was good electronic access, for others there was little or none at all. I remember looking at a long reading list for a Roman Archaeology paper and realising with a sinking heart that absolutely nothing on it was available in electronic form.

From my perspective as a Classics librarian, electronic provision of academic monographs has been supplementary to our physical collections, and most useful for teaching purposes where multiple lending copies are a priority. Due to the nature of a lot of Classics research, reading off a screen is not always the easiest. This is especially true where, for example, diagrams, plans or drawings are used, and particularly for close reading of Greek and Latin texts and apparatus criticus, which can be extremely tiring and awkward to read off a screen for long periods of time.

As such, at least in our collections, in the pre-COVID era, my focus has been on purchasing electronic books for teaching and more general reference, and maintaining our physical collections for more advanced research. I also think that it is clear that publishers also focused on this model for their output, leaving huge gaps in electronic provision for certain areas of Classical research.

Many publishers mobilised quickly and succeeded in releasing large amounts of content to match the sudden requirements of the libraries and universities. The copyright restrictions that cover the reproduction of published works, were relaxed by certain major publishers, to allow more material from a given source to be scanned (and this has been extended further to July 2021). This allowed us to make more use of our scanning and online reading list service, giving access to material within the copyright restrictions to students who otherwise would not have been able to use it. As well as this, we were given access to the huge collection of electronic books from the Hathi Trust, which, although temporary, did help to ameliorate the situation and provide materials that otherwise would not have been accessible in any way.

We decided to extend all lending periods on books that were out on loan, which was necessary as in many cases students and faculty were scattered all across the world. As the Summer advanced, planning started for providing a “scan and deliver” service. This was the first step towards some form of library activity as some staff had to come back into the buildings to do the scanning. After this we were able to offer “click and collect”, whereby books could be ordered and borrowed from the library. Finally, in August, the reading rooms began to reopen in a limited capacity.

To allow for social distancing within the buildings, and due to the nature of our reading room design, the number of seats that could be offered was very limited and an online booking system was established. It swiftly became apparent that demand for seats was very high. An analysis of the various subject areas served by the libraries shows that Classicists have an exceptionally high use of library buildings and facilities. While online provision has been welcome as an emergency while the libraries have been inaccessible, clearly for our subject, the need to physically be in the library using “real” books is as great as ever. Until we can completely reopen the libraries and return to our previous level of provision, the tension between keeping everyone COVID safe and meeting the requirements of scholarship and research is very difficult to resolve.

In my sixteen years as a Classics librarian, I have seen many changes in the nature of our work and in the focus of scholarship and teaching within the subject area. I can easily say that this COVID period has been the most difficult and challenging I have ever faced, and it has forced us all to interrogate our working patterns and assumptions. The support from my academic colleagues has been incredible, as has the recognition of what my librarian colleagues have accomplished to maintain the levels of provision that we were able to achieve. However, at heart I am an librarian, and what I want more than anything is to walk through the Greek room of the Bodleian Library, and see every desk taken, all the LSJs in use, trollies piled high with books ready to be resehelved, and to hear again the wonderful sounds of scholarship and learning that we all miss so very much.

Charlotte Goodall is the Classics Librarian of the Bodleian Library, Oxford.