Bod chief fights for cash to save humanities

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Described by the University as “the last remaining large plot of land available for development in the historic heart of the city,” the Radcliffe Observatory Quarter (ROQ) just off Woodstock Road is currently a busy building site.

However, the sight of workmen and diggers is hiding the fact that the centrepiece of the whole project, the Humanities Library, remains untouched ground. Intended to be the final piece of the jigsaw in the Bodleian’s strategy of integrating the many subject libraries, the Humanities library has been delayed – a demonstration of the funding squeeze the University faces.

Dr Sarah Thomas, Bodleian Librarian, says that rather than being frustrated she is excited at using the delay as an opportunity to rethink exactly what will occupy the space. “If you had put in an order for a new car six years ago and you got the 2006 model, you’d be kind of disappointed to be getting that model in 2012. You’d want to get the latest features. I want to design a library that’s right for 2015 let’s say.” One change is that the previous plans for the new library included moving millions of books from the present humanities subjects, something that will be rethought now the Bod’s Swindon facility is completed.

The official University position is that the current architect’s designs will go ahead when funding is in place. But Thomas, speaking in what must be one of the best-placed offices anywhere in Oxford in the Clarendon building (overlooking broad street and also the Bodleian), has different ideas. Her “dream” is for students to have efficient access to all the Bod’s materials, but that some books will make way for study space.

“My wish is for a library for all users on the ROQ – not just humanities students – to come together and talk about ideas using the best materials and technology. There’s a real deficit of a place like that here. I need to have a discussion [with University leaders] but haven’t had that yet.”

One discussion she has had is about fundraising. Fresh from a development meeting she reports the Bodleian raised over £6 million last year to August – up 46 percent on the previous year. This year already they’ve raised £5 million and the development officers tell her “we could be at £9 million by the end of February and £14 million by the end of July.” “We’ve had budget cuts and further cuts to come but I’m not daunted by it. There are people out there who love this place and what we do. How old is Google? The Bod has lasted much longer, has a richer history and will still be here when Google and Facebook are just curiosities.”

Having arrived from her native USA in 2007, Thomas has been a key part of Vice-Chancellor Andrew Hamilton’s plans to increase the level of private donations the University receives. Her office is littered with photos of her with major figures – “that’s me with Bill [Clinton]” – and wealthy philanthropists mostly from the USA, which offers an insight into the fundraising process that consumes much of her and her colleagues’ time. She shows us one photo of her with a man in a Hawaiian shirt holding a drink. “That’s at his 50th Birthday party. He gave us $50 million. And that’s his father,” she points to a portrait on her wall.

The Humanities library and building needed £90 million to get started but donors couldn’t be found in time for construction. Thomas thinks that the library would cost only £35 million of the total cost. “Can I raise that? Yes I could.”

By when? “Three or four years. There is one donor who is ready to make a very large gift for a 21st century library but needs to see plans. But I don’t have authorisation for new plans before the University says it’s OK.”

History students about to be squeezed into the Rad Cam after their Faculty Library’s planned closure this summer will be waiting “a minimum of two years, or even until the end of the decade,” she says.

The grand strategy to integrate libraries was in place long before Dr Thomas arrived, but she points to the Social Science Library and a Science Library housing zoology and other subjects as successful stages so far. “Knowledge can’t be pigeon-holed into subjects anymore. It also makes it easier to have longer opening hours, less replicated purchases, more unique material, more online resources – something college libraries don’t do. Overall, it’s what we like to call in America a one-stop shop.”

Thomas admits she haphazardly fell into becoming a librarian after needing a job to pay for her studies. She got a job at Widener Library, Harvard, the “mothership of libraries” and then Cornell before becoming the first non-Brit and female Bodley Librarian in 400 years. Some might call her the worldwide Queen of Books.

“When I came to Oxford it was a shock to see college libraries performing the role of undergraduate libraries in the US. But the Bod performs a greater role.”
Amid the higher education funding gloom, Thomas’s optimism stands out and she’s adamant that libraries are worth investing in. “Libraries are at the heart of what we do – they’re nourishment for the brain. At Oxford they’re up there with your tutor in that by reading you’re having a conversation with all those who’ve gone before you. Think of the great minds who sat in these chairs,” she gets up and delicately touches her 18th century chair, which she points out has been repaired throughout the years.

With the move to the ROQ the biggest change to the University in 100 years, and funding constraints, Thomas’ challenge is now to make her own lasting mark on the academic landscape.

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