Structo talks to Sarah Thomas

“To come abroad, to head the Bodleian, I think is probably the very best librarian’s job in the world”

This interview first appeared in issue nine, published January 2013.

The position of Bodley’s Librarian is perhaps the top librarian job in the world. Sarah Thomas took the job in 2007, and in doing so became the twenty-fourth curator of the legendary Bodleian Library in Oxford, and the first non-Briton to hold the post. At the same time she took up the role of Director of the Bodleian Libraries, with responsibilities across the 30+ libraries which serve Oxford University. We talked in her office in Oxford. — Euan

Can you say a little bit about your journey to becoming Bodley’s Librarian?

It might start at a little one-room public library, the Haydenville Public Library. The library was open on Fridays, and I would walk down with my mom and get ten books out. I’m sure that the journey began there, with the thrill of going in each week and getting these new picture books, and graduating on to more sophisticated things. So then, if you want to fast-forward, I was an undergraduate at a women’s college with a very large and good library. I had a job working there, because I was a scholarship student and I earned money by working in the library, and it was a congenial environment. Then, when I graduated from college and was pretty undecided about what I wanted to do with my life, I had a summer sub-let in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and I ended up working at Harvard, in the library – the mother of all libraries! After you’ve seen a really big and complex research library, you’re hooked! My job before I came here was at Cornell University, where for ten years I was in charge of a very large, complex, research library. To come abroad, to head the Bodleian, I think is probably the very best librarian’s job in the world.

What was it about Oxford and the Bodleian that drew you to it?

Well, the position description, as I remember it, was to integrate libraries – there were a number of faculty and department libraries, and then the Bodleian – into a cohesive whole. I very much believe in that – in cooperation and collaboration – so it was putting that into place; to build the digital library, which has been a passion of mine for years; and then the ability to build physical structures – so the renovation of the New Bodleian which is taking place now, and the possibility of a Humanities library that would integrate several faculty libraries. The ho-hum was the depository, the storage facility, which turns out to be our crowning glory right now – and who would have thought that would be the case! It was all of those factors that I thought were coupled together as ‘go ahead, go forth, and do this’ – in, of course, the world’s most beautiful surroundings, with the Bodleian, Duke Humfrey’s Library, the Radcliffe Camera, all of those exquisite spaces – with collections that were magnificent. So, what’s not to like? Plenty of challenge, and the expertise of the staff as well.

There’s quite a history of interesting librarians here: do you have a sense of the history of your role here, or is it a management role within a big organization?

No, no – I found it surprising and humbling to go into the Bullard Room, which is where curators had met – right now the shop is in it – it has a beautiful wood panel with all the names of the Librarians written in gold, and they put my name there at the bottom of the list – and I thought, wouldn’t they want to try me out first, before they put me in there? And I hear various stories about my predecessors. [Walks over to a nearby bookcase.] Let me just see how far back these go. [Chooses a slim volume.] This is from Nicholson’s time – Nicholson was Librarian for about 30 years, until 1912 – and this is a staff calendar, this one is from 1910. What it tells you is what you’re supposed to do on a particular day. So: January 2–4: Bodley clocks to be wound and set. Camera clock to be wound and set… Janitor’s fee books to be initialled by Librarian… Reports on boys to be sent in. [Laughs] They’re just the most amazing… Rules for the stamping of manuscripts… Rotographs or rotary bromide prints – how to make them – Addresses of the staff! I love these little books, I just covet them… 1902 was obviously quite a brief year, it’s quite short; they must have had some cutbacks… Bodley and Camera suggestion books to be examined on 9th July. [Laughs]

Nicholson was very innovative: he did his own classification system, which is still being used. And the underground book shop, with the first example of mobile racking, was attributed to Gladstone. Librarians are constantly moaning about how we don’t have enough space, so Gladstone took out a napkin and said what about doing this, and they took that idea and implemented it and created space for 500–700,000 books underneath Radcliffe Square. So I’m quite fond of Nicholson. I think they forced him to retire finally; he was clinging to the job and died about a week after he left office.

And then there’s Shackleton, who was a Librarian here in the 60s. The chairman of my faculty board at Cornell University had been a Rhodes Scholar here when Shackleton was Librarian, and you could tell he was looking at me and thinking: Well! She’s not like Shackleton! And he told me how he’d gone to Shackleton’s rooms in Brasenose College and Shackleton had his oil paintings on the wall, and his French library and his Persian carpets – he was very intimidated. Shackleton was a bachelor, I think, and I thought, I’ll never live up to Shackleton. Two things I’ve learned about Shackleton since. One is, I was expressing this insecurity to someone who knew Shackleton, who said Oh well, Shackleton – he was from the North – an allusion that was almost lost on me, but I did begin to understand! And then someone told me a very funny story about how Shackleton had gone to Chicago to try to work out an agreement with the collector Walter Harding who had two tons of sheet music. He took with him a junior librarian who had brought his wife along; she may have been a library staff member as well, I’m not quite sure. One day Shackleton called him to his room in the Palmer House hotel with a little package which was to be given to the Anna, the junior staff member’s wife, to take care of – and do you know what was inside? His underwear, to be washed! [Laughs] Expectations of what library staff members do have come along in 50 years!

You mentioned Gladstone and the lack of space that all libraries, especially deposit libraries, face. How many buildings does the Bodleian consist of?

We’re constantly changing, but I think there may be about 35 reading rooms, and… [checks with a colleague] over 30 libraries. It’s very fluid. I think in the old days, people evaluated a library on quantity. Both Harvard and Oxford have said we have over 100 libraries, counting college libraries and department libraries, or more than 10 million books, or so many linear feet in the collection. Today, we’re much more focused rather than on how much money we spend on things and how many volumes we have, and more – can you find the right information? and can people get the information they need, regardless of whether you own the information or not? We have these physical libraries, which are really glorious, and these have maybe a couple of million visits a year, but we have several million virtual visits. The yardstick of measuring libraries is changing.

You mentioned the underground aspects of the Bodleian, something that people find fascinating: the idea of a beehive beneath Oxford, with conveyor belts…

One of the challenges of having a library such as the Bodleian – Duke Humfrey’s is 500 years old, dating from 1488, and the Bodleian we date from 1602 – it was designed before there were such massive numbers of publications. So when they built the New Bodleian, they built that as a book shop and connected it by a tunnel underneath Broad Street and the Clarendon Quad and connecting to the tunnel all the way to the Radcliffe Camera. That had a conveyor belt connecting the New Bodleian to the old Bodleian. Sadly, we have now disassembled that delightful clickety-clack conveyor; but if you think about it, it wasn’t all that healthy for the books to be bouncing around, and it wasn’t all that secure. Sometimes we move away from charming, quaint images, just like we don’t ride horses and buggies any more! But I won’t disappoint you, there is still underground storage, and we have several hundred thousand volumes underneath Radcliffe Square – so there is a little beehive. This underground space used to remind me of being on a submarine – not that I’ve ever been on a submarine, but the ceilings were low, it was dark, and it didn’t seem all that appealing. Now it’s punched up with bright colours, and it’s light, and it’s a very pleasant space. People love to go there, and they are actually like bees flocking to nectar to get their access to modern books.

I was joking with some of the staff from Blackwell’s across the road about the conveyor, and how they were secretly tapping into it… but they had a question which I said I would pass on. I know you said you don’t lend books at the moment, but they wondered whether you had any data on which was the most requested book?

I don’t know, but we’ve been working on a fascinating project this year called Queen Victoria’s Journals, working with the Royal Collection to digitize Queen Victoria’s diaries or journals. We launched them online on 24th May and the Queen pressed the button for the launch. We augmented the diaries with some published documents that had been scanned as part of our Google Books project, and you could see the traffic that was being driven from the Queen Victoria’s journals website to our Google Books. Victoria had selected some items from her journals and they were published in a book – and that spiked up thousands of people looking at it.

How does the Google Books partnership work?

Google approached a number of top research libraries to ask about scanning the books, and we agreed that they would scan our out-of-copyright books, so we aren’t violating any copyright. They set up shop in Osney Mead and we worked with them to select materials, and they scanned them for us. We received copies, so they are available through the Google Books search, and we have linked most of them to our catalogue. I think we found that about one book a minute was being downloaded. I think it would be interesting to see which was the most popular of those books. I went to Google a couple of years ago and they had done a one-week sampling of the most downloaded titles in a week, and at that point it was Jane Austen’s Emma, which was being downloaded several thousand times from the Bodleian’s collection.

You mentioned your particular interest in digitization. Would you say that we’re at a pivotal moment, or that it’s just coalescing now that everyone’s realizing it’s important?

Yes – I’ve been working on it a long time now. Almost 25 years ago I organized a conference on the impact of scanning on libraries, so for me it’s been a long time coming! What you see is that it’s accelerating, when Amazon announces that it’s selling more ebooks than what my son calls ‘tree books’ or ‘dead tree books’. [Laughs] You can see where his prejudice lies! It’s terribly exciting. What we’re finding is that there’s not really a decline in the use of physical collections, but a decline in the use of some physical collections, such as journals. For the most part, if people are just looking for information they can drill into the journals and search across them, and it’s awfully convenient to be able to check that online. But people are still coming in to look at real artefacts, and they like to see what someone’s handwriting looked like. Going up for sale next week is a copy of what Richard Ovenden, our deputy, helped to identify in someone’s private collection. It’s Mary Shelley’s copy of Frankenstein, dedicated to Lord Byron – and if you had £350,000, you too could own that! [Laughs]

We’re running short of time – but can I ask if you get a chance to walk the stacks, or are you so involved at a higher level… 

I’m often doing emails and in meetings, but one of the things I revel in is when we have visitors to the library. We take them into the rare books vaults sometimes and I get to see what Richard calls the ‘juke box’ – so you’re walking down the stacks, and you’re pulling out volumes which have historical associations… We’re sitting in 18th century chairs which were Bodley chairs, and I sometimes think – who sat here in these chairs? – and then you’re pulling out the books that these people owned or that they wrote, and that influenced the development of our society. It’s just such an honour to be part of the forward process of knowledge, of a conversation with the great thinkers and writers of the past, and to be with the students who are coming in here, nurturing the development of new ideas.