My perfect research library*

Or, why I can’t work in reference libraries.

Today I scheduled a research day: time to do some necessary finishing off of a few papers for collections and start thinking about my next big project now that the Machaut book is completely out of my hands (see update at the end of my earlier post on this). In the morning, I worked at home, where I can hook up my laptop to a big screen at eye-level and where I have a separate keyboard, separate mouse, a proper book stand that holds pages open, an angled desk lamp, and a comfortable, ergonomic, fully adjustable chair. (This might sound like I’m being Dr Goody-Twoshoes on the ‘health and safety at work’ front, but during periods of intense research activity I have had several bouts of tendonitis and concomitant back problems, all caused by work, so this is entirely self-interested). By midday I had done three tasks: 1) most of the job of turning a talk that I’m giving at Darwin College Cambridge next month into a written version of itself (scheduled for publication in the series volume later this year); 2) set the music examples for a book chapter on gender that I’m writing jointly with Nicolette Zeeman for the pre-1600 volume of a projected Edinburgh Companion to Literature and Music; and 3) gone through the editors’ queries on an analysis of Machaut’s De petit po (B18) that will form a chapter in Analytical and Cross-Cultural Studies in World Music, scheduled for publication later this year. That was a fair bit of work, but it was all essentially fiddling with work already done and thoughts already thought.

My plan for this afternoon was more exciting: starting a new project. For the very early stages of this project–which isn’t even developed enough to have a title–my plan was to do some background reading about the court of John of Luxembourg. Unfortunately (and you’ll see why that adverb is appropriate in a moment), the books I wanted to read are not in any borrowing library in Oxford and cannot be accessed online. So they had to be ordered up from the Bodleian stack, i.e. from the new repository at Swindon. But I’d planned ahead and ordered them last week, so I knew that the books were waiting for me in the Upper Reading Room of the gloriously beautiful main Bodleian building.

It may be beautiful, but I find it a rather challenging environment in which to get work done. Of course I might be the only scholar in the world who likes to work on a laptop and in relative quiet, but I suspect I’m not. In the Upper Reading Room the chairs are the classic ‘Bodleian chair’, fixed wooden chairs with arms. Whether they were designed for dilettante scholars not planning to sit for long or for those so masochistically dedicated to reading that they were prepared to ruin their posture for the sake of knowledge, I do not know. The partitioned desks that they serve are quite small, too small for books and a laptop, and they are at precisely the wrong height for comfortable laptop use. I always pick a desk near the microfilm readers so that I can appropriate one of the adjustable computer chairs (referred to by the member of the desk staff I spoke to before I left today as ‘the soft chairs’). These, however, have no arms, and their adjustability is not quite sufficient for the height of the desks…

After 90 minutes slogging through a volume of conference proceedings about life at John’s court, my back was already quite sore, but that wasn’t what drove me from the library today. Instead, the intolerable noise of a faulty microfilm reader-printer–a periodic dull but loud grinding sound like a beans-to-cup espresso machine–removed all possibility of sustaining the concentration that I need to read academic prose in French and German. I made some enquiries: the machine has been like that ‘and getting worse’ for some time and will ‘eventually be replaced’; and the (entirely blameless) person using it ‘had only 15 or so more pages to do’. But at a page every minute or so, that was too long for me.

(You might ask why I didn’t simply move further away from the central part of the reading room. Well, initially I did. Unfortunately as a laptop user, one cannot use the very farthest reaches of the reading rooms in the main Bod because they are ‘quiet areas’, so laptops are banned. So I couldn’t get far enough away from the noise to make it worth setting everything back up again. After a brief chat with one of the (very friendly and also blameless) desk staff, who is going to transfer my books to another room (where, however, it probably won’t be any better), I took my sore back and my scant and fairly useless notes home. I’m really not sure why laptop users are assumed not to want quiet, nor can I guess what vintage of noisy laptop keyboard prompted this now set-in-stone decision to brand these indispensable accoutrements of the modern scholar as noisy items.)

This post should not at all be read as a complaint about the Bodleian as a whole; I merely find that the furniture and layout of the reading rooms in the lovely old buildings that are such a recognizable part of Oxford University give me backache and prevent me concentrating on my work. Nor is the Bodleian alone in having an aural and physical environment that I find inimical to scholarly work: I could say the same of every reference library in Europe that I have used to date. And I love all the many things that the Bodleian library allows me to do in my own office or at home: the holdings and catalogue are great, I can download references from the catalogue using my bibliographic program, and it has links to content available via the university’s online subscriptions. The Bodleian has also long begun the digitization of its manuscript collection, including most of the medieval music holdings, which it generously allows DIAMM to deliver free online. And I can even borrow from many of the Bodleian system’s dependent libraries, notably the Taylorian and the Music Faculty Library, where the experienced and friendly librarians make it easy to get hold of what I want–not just books, but DVDs and CDs–and take it away.

In my perfect library, each reader with a laptop would have a large desk, with a laptop holder (to get the screen at the right height), a separate plug-in keyboard and mouse, and a functioning, adjustable book stands with page holders (the Bodleian has only foam book wedges with only a shallow incline, and one has to get a book snake from the desk to hold pages open). Every desk would have a chair with fully adjustable arms, back and height, so that typing is easy rather than painful. In short, my perfect library is in my house or in my office (where I have an identical set-up). And of course I would therefore prefer that resources were directed at digitization rather than being spent on refitting the reading rooms to replicate people’s (home) offices. And perhaps it’s time to think once more about allowing some borrowing, as is allowed–dare I say it?–in the equivalent library in Cambridge.

Given that one can’t (yet?) borrow from the Bodleian, I’ll have to hope for the speedy digitization of everything. And in the meantime, my new project might end up being designed around things that I can either borrow from other Oxford libraries or access online. Luckily, that’s still quite a lot of stuff.

[*NB: this is not a blogpost about local lending libraries, which are very fine things indeed, not least because you can take the books away to read in comfort and quiet!]


  1. Lisa Colton says:

    Huddersfield students are completely baffled by the idea that students / staff would not be able to borrow books from the university library. Complaints about the library always come up at student panel meetings though, despite the following:

    Our library has good desk space, bookable discussion rooms, listening / multimedia stations, ‘text-a-librarian’ service, ‘text-a-security person to throw out the chatterboxes’ service, dedicated subject librarian, countless computers (many with facebook blocked), and so forth.

    (On the other hand, it chooses to distinguish between ‘silent’ and ‘quiet’ areas, with the result that most places are not quiet enough to work (silent). It also has comfy chairs and sofas in bright colours that make it look like Starbucks…)

    It’s the students who eat in the library that drive me most nuts – and why is it always hula hoops?

    1. I can see some rationale for not allowing borrowing–at least the books should always be there when you want them. It’s a reference library, after all. But in practice certain books aren’t there when you want them because they are ‘lost’; i.e. someone has ‘borrowed’ them anyway, which means they can’t be tracked and never come back.

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