A day in the life of Wadham Library

19th March 2020

News, Student news, Alumni news

An average day in Wadham Library can start in the early hours and finish at lunchtime the next day for students conducting research or meeting essay deadlines.

  • The Ferdowsi Library, built over three floors in the 1970s

    The Ferdowsi Library, built over three floors in the 1970s

  • The sunny entrance to Wadham Library

    Afternoon sun on the entrance to Wadham Library

  • Librarian Tim Kirtley in his lower ground floor office

    Librarian Tim Kirtley in his lower ground floor office

  • Assistant Librarian Fran Heaney checks the returned books

    Assistant Librarian Fran Heaney checks in the returned books

  • Looking down on the Library reception from the top floor

    Looking down on the Library reception from the top floor

  • A student reading

    The beanbag area for relaxed reading

  • A selection of Wadham books on display as part of an Oxford Library walking tour

    A selection of Wadham books on display as part of an Oxford Library walking tour

  • Students at work

    Students at work at all hours of the day and night

  • Tim shows alumni a rare book from the Wadham collection

    Tim shows alumni a rare book from the Wadham collection

  • Tim checks a reference in the Library stacks

    Tim checks a reference in the Library stacks 

  • Mohammad Emami at work in the Persian section

    Mohammad Emami at work in the Persian Section

  • Tim exhibits early print books

    Tim exhibits early printed books

  • Mohammad Emami at work in the Persian section

    Mohammad in the Persian section stacks

  • Sarah Cusk with the early print books in the Wadham collection

    Sarah Cusk catalogues the early printed books in the Wadham collection

  • One of the smallest books in the library collection

    One of the smallest books in the library collection

  • Students at work in the Persian Section

    Students at work in the Persian Section

  • A Wadham book display in the Bodleian

    A Wadham book display in the Bodleian

  • A student at work

    A student at work

  • The distinctive Library building

    The distinctive Library building

Open 24/7, the silent, studious atmosphere belies the constant activity in the Library, whether it be a group conversation in the discussion room or an exhibition of Liberation Books in the ‘beanbag’ reading area.

Covid-19 restrictions currently mean that students are encouraged to take advantage of online library services and Wadham librarians are ready to help any student needing help and advice.

The Library houses some 52,000 books in the lending collection and a further 17,000 in the stacks, some 3,000 of which formed the original Library, given to the College at its foundation by Dr Philip Bisse (1540-1613), the wealthy Archdeacon of Taunton.

Donations over the years, including outstanding collections from former students Richard Warner, Alexander Thistlethwayte and Samuel Bush in the 1700s, substantially increased the founding collection. The Library now boasts a manuscript collection, a remarkable collection of rare printed books, including the first folio of Shakespeare’s plays, and a strong collection in the history of science reflecting Wadham’s close links with the founding of the Royal Society.

Tim Kirtley became College Librarian in 2009 and works with a small team comprising Assistant Librarian Francesca Heaney; Persian Studies Section Co-ordinator, Mohammad Emami; Early Printed Books Cataloguer, Sarah Cusk; Library Assistant, Marcus Chin; and Fellow Librarian, Dominic Brookshaw.

Ask Tim what he likes about the job and it’s hard to stop him. “It’s great to think you are supporting the work of students and academics who have such talent and potential. And I love the variety and creativeness of the job and the mix of the digital and the old – from making films about the books in our special collections to conserving delicate manuscripts that are hundreds of years old.”

The Gillespie, Kidd & Coia designed library building Tim describes as a “lovely space”, with its half levels and sight lines to wonderful vistas whichever way you look. The library opened in 1977 following a gift from the Imperial Organisation for Social Services of Iran, and was named the Ferdowsi Library, after the medieval Persian poet, and because of its top floor section dedicated to Persian studies.

Working within the Bodleian’s circulation systems, book acquisitions, processing, security tagging, cataloguing and shelving are part of the day to day work of the library team but the reality is that no two days are the same.

“The students are pretty much self-sufficient once they have had their initial library inductions. They can source and check-out their own books using their Bod cards. If anyone forgets to register their book, they will be reminded by our security system with its flashing Wadham crest,” laughs Tim.

“If a student needs a book which is not in the collection we can usually order it for them. 22 minutes is our current record time from book request to supply, but that’s only possible if Blackwell has the book sitting on its shelves across the road – and the students’ needs are urgent,” he adds. “Otherwise we can often get the book the next day.” 45 books is the maximum number a student can borrow for up to two weeks, renewable. Overdue books don’t incur fines but lost books are charged at cost.

Tim is just completing the edits on a new film he has made for the Library’s online exhibition; this one is about a recent donation of 38 immaculately preserved broadsides (posters and proclamations) from the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. He is also in the process of organising an exhibition of some of the botanical works in the college collection. Working with the SU tech officer he is preparing for the Library to house a collection of chargers for various devices, which can be borrowed in the same way as books.

Assistant Librarian Fran Heaney looks after the library’s reader services, managing the circulation system, liaising with students, clearing the book drop-box and reorganising sections of the library, along with the help of Library Assistant and doctoral student Marcus Chin, when they get over-crowded with new books. She carefully selects books relevant to recently deceased alumni and fellows, and adds bookplates as a gesture of remembrance. “It’s nice for current students too, to think of their predecessors when they pick up a book for study,” she comments. Fran also makes sure that the library is well placed to support any students with a disability, seen or unseen, and liaises both locally with the welfare team in Wadham and centrally in the university.

“Usually around one and a half thousand books are on loan at any one time and we have 60 to 70 students in the Library on an average afternoon, although this rises steadily in the run up to exams. Everyone is generally well behaved, and works quietly. There have been some exceptions, most of which we can’t discuss but some of the more unusual items left in the library have included hundreds of inflated balloons in the reading area, a rowing oar, a large flag, bicycle helmets and on one occasion even a  child’s paddling pool – which was quickly confiscated."

In the depths of the Library, next to the stacks, Early Printed Books Cataloguer Sarah Cusk is uncovering the mysteries of an Italian book, given to Wadham in 1625 but dating back much further. As she transcribes the book’s title page, written in Latin, into the Bodleian catalogue. She is intrigued by the ‘paste down’ the paper stuck to the binding by the book-binder as part of the binding process. “Because paper was expensive, binders would often use scraps of ready printed leftover paper to help form the structure of the book.” In this case Sarah hopes it will provide clues as to when and where the book was bound. “The copy specific cataloguing is when it gets exciting,” she comments.

Up in the Persian section Mohammad Emami is translating the hard copy of Wadham’s Persian manuscripts catalogue from Persian into English and adding it to the online database Fihrist, a catalogue of titles from the Islamicate world. Wadham’s Persian collection includes books from Tajikistan, Afghanistan and Iran and part of Mohammad’s role is to keep the collection up to date, purchasing books when necessary. Students and scholars read books from this collection in the library – they can’t be borrowed. In the manuscript room Mohammad picks up an elaborately decorated Qur'an from the collection donated by Dr Caro Minasian. “Translating these titles can be challenging because sometimes they are not dated and there is very little information about them. Watermarks in the paper or comparison with other documents can provide clues,” he said. “We really encourage students to visit this amazing collection and encourage proposals which involve these books,” he added. 

Email, meetings, lectures, discussion forums, minutes, surveys, e-resources, journals, alumni book exhibitions, database maintenance…. the list of tasks in the library is endless but tackled with quiet efficiency by the library team.