Careers special: meet the librarian scholar

Interviews Student Life

Trinity beckons, and while April showers bring May flowers, this sort of proverbial frivolity won’t mask the less cheery fact that it’s also Finals season, which for all current third-years basically translates into crunch time in Oxspeak. Dare you expose your identity as a non-finalist in the Radcliffe Camera, and you run the risk of incurring the (rightful) wrath of your territorial elder peers, whose solemn countenances and Goliathesque notes should suffice to deter you from venturing into that ‘pressure vessel’. But you already know this, and what you just read was simply an obligatory acknowledgement (if not hazard warning) of the fact that finalists are stressed so, provoke them at your peril. What you probably don’t know, however, is that meanwhile the librarians in there are wondering why on earth students only ever approach them when they need directions to the printer, because news flash: These people aren’t glacial automatons whose job begins with telling you to put away that Morton’s flat white and ends by checking out Siegelbaum’s Stalinism as a Way of Life. Not quite, and just because they work in a dome-shaped factory of academic toil doesn’t mean that they are necessarily walking zombies of Grimville. “These days, students don’t tend to talk to the librarians, which is a bit strange. What they really should do is approach us with their research ideas,” says Jed Foland, a library assistant-cum-history tutor at the Rad Cam (What a mate, definitely taking him up on that offer come dissertation prep). I recently spoke to him about what the view is like from the other side of the pond, and apart from wangling the mandatory ‘A Day in the Life of’ and behind-the-desk skinny from Jed, I made some interesting discoveries about library science, Bodleian mechanics and what it’s like leading the ultimate scholarly life as a tutor by day and a librarian by night. Here’s a little teaser: It’s not so much about books as it is about you – the reader.

When asked how he first got into the field of librarianship, Jed chuckled and said, “I’ve always loved books and wanted to become a history professor, so when I heard that the History faculty was hiring a part-time assistant to shelve books, I applied – and there’s never been a dull moment ever since I started five years ago.” His passion for the job was at once contagious and electric, as evidenced by the frisson of delight in the way he referred to the “nerdy academic je ne sais quoi” of Oxford. Yet it wasn’t until he started working in the company of books galore that the irony hit him: Being a librarian is primarily about customer service, and it’s more important for one to acquire communication skills than to memorise a modern-day Bibliotheca Universalis. As the guy who’s usually at the front desk tending to patron’s queries, Jed is one of the ‘public faces’ of the Bod, and while we have the liberty to punctuate work with Facebook procrastination sessions, he’s always working away on that Staff Desk computer, either going through faculty-prescribed syllabi and making sure that the reading lists are well stocked in the database, or organising thesis fairs and workshops for students at the Exam Schools – that is, when he’s not shelving books in the Gladstone Link, ensuring ready access to reading materials or showing students how to navigate the nuts and bolts of the Bod. True to the Oxonian ethos, he’s constantly on his feet and there’s never enough work to be done. “Every time your professor adds a new text to the syllabus, it is our job to find, purchase, process and eventually place it on the shelf for use. While we are the ones making sure that the books are constantly moving back and forth between the Swindon Book Storage Facility (BSF) and the Rad Cam, the more senior librarians spend a lot of their time liaising and planning the logistics.” To think that so much work goes into the situational mechanics of just one book in the library makes me recoil a bit in sheepishness, since I’m a faithful member of the voracious book-hoarding tribe that tends to unthinkingly yank a book off from the shelves only to realise that whoops, I won’t be needing it today after all so I’ll just leave it there on the table. In the morning, Jed gives tutorials on the history of science, medicine and biology (my sleuth work also tells me that his doctoral thesis was on Enlightenment microscopy), which means that he literally works round the clock save for Sundays. This dual identity at times leads to comic encounters between ‘Dr Foland’ and his students in the Upper Camera: “I would literally be scanning books next to the students who I’ve tutored an hour ago, and they’d be sitting there, writing an essay – for me.” How bizarre, I rejoined nervously. “It’s probably more so for them, I reckon. But I think that’s what a library should be: a place where students and teachers can work in the company of one another.”

Despite his love for working in the presence of students, there are nonetheless aspects to being a Bodleian librarian that are not as pleasant. For starters, having to deal with tourists on a regular basis can be annoying, especially for the one working at the front desk, who often has to play porter and ward off unauthorised visitors or anyone without that sacred Bod card. Tourists aren’t even allowed to peek through the crevice and take photos of the Rad Cam’s interior, because that would invade the privacy of students. And don’t try to pull a fast one on the staff by giving someone else your card, because their super-sharp radars will pick up on this and “report” you to the authorities (on the grounds that your card has been stolen). The issue of tourism is a tricky dilemma, and Jed is aware of the nuances at stake in the debate: “At the end of the day, tourists are important, both to the town’s economy and the Bodleian’s image. Still, we don’t want this to be a public reading room where anyone can casually go in and out. It is, after all, a university library.” While the Rad Cam is the iconic emblem of Oxford (as the postcards on sale in High Street newsagents will attest to), a flip side is that it has also taken on a mantle of establishmentarianism, and whenever there are protests or strikes, dissenters against whatever administrative follies will circumvent this first port of ‘siege’. Ever since the 2010 Bodleian take-over in response to the coalition government’s tuition fee-rise policy, more stringent security measures have been implemented; for instance, the library would hire more guards before an impending protest movement. “But as far as we’re concerned, students, academics and books are the most crucial things.”

With this imperative of scholarship in mind, Jed expressed another source of frustration for the Bodleian, which is the problem with limited funding. “Say if we wanted to subscribe to a top American academic journal, this would have to depend on whether or not enough money has been allocated to the item in the budget. The Americans have become a lot stricter about copyright restrictions in recent years, and nowadays professors can’t just photocopy or post on Weblearn any American book or journal document, and so they must either get permission from the publisher or refrain from using that specific text as class material. This is a real detriment to education, because it isn’t possible for one to always be in the right university at the right time.” That there are still such barriers to learning is indeed a real shame, especially in a digital age where ‘egalitarian’ dissemination of knowledge should be a principle pursuit in academia. Yet while Jed laments this obstacle, he is also optimistic about its remedy. “The way to go about this is through the academics and librarians themselves; every good academic or librarian I know of will bend over backwards to get you the information you need, simply because they are so passionate about what they do.” So how would he deal with a situation wherein the information someone requests isn’t available on SOLO? “If I’m familiar with the topic, I will recommend something else of equal merit or use. Alternatively, I or my colleagues could show them where to get a review of the work they were looking for.”

Ultimately, the Bodleian staff is equipped with the ability and know-how to blend librarianship and academics, which for Jed is where their real edge lies in. Students would no doubt benefit from an awareness of this fact: librarians aren’t just latter-day Ariadnes who can show you the way out of the Gladstone Labyrinth or decipher enigmatic call numbers purposely designed to aggravate your stress levels. Instead, they are scholars who would willingly answer your dissertation queries or offer research suggestions, because as Jed puts it cheekily, “we’re smart cookies.” Indeed, and we’d be fools not to utilise this readily accessible intellectual resource. At the end of the day, the library’s book-people dichotomy goes both ways: For librarians, it is about catering to students’ needs with recourse to texts, whereas for students, it should be about seeking academic help from both fronts, be it in the form of books or a shelver of books (who most likely has a masters/doctorate). Just don’t let any of them catch you red-handed with a kebab in the Gladstone Link, because chances are, he or she might be your next tutor – and that’s hardly the way to make a great first impression.

PHOTO/Jennifer Chan