Richard Ovenden – Curator, Bodleian Library in Oxford

The position of Bodley’s Librarian is one of the top librarian jobs in the world. Richard Ovenden took the job in 2014, becoming the twenty-fifth curator of the legendary Bodleian Library in Oxford.  As such, he is responsible for the largest university library in the UK and one of the major research libraries in the world holding 11 million volumes and many of the nation’s most valuable literary treasures.   

Can you tell us about your journey to becoming Bodley’s Librarian?

I was a student at Durham University and became interested in early books and manuscripts there, staying on to be a Graduate Trainee. I was a graduate student at UCL and then worked in the House of Lords Library, before becoming a Curator in the Rare Books Department at the National Library of Scotland. I moved to Edinburgh University Library first as Head of Special Collections, then Director of Collections and Acting Deputy Librarian.  I moved to Oxford in 2003 as Keeper of Special Collections, then becoming Associate Director, Deputy Librarian, and in 2014, Bodley’s Librarian.

The role of Bodley Librarian has existed since 1599.  Do you have a sense of the history of your role or is it a management role within a big organisation?

The history of the Bodleian is an ever-present feature of life in the Bodleian. Although not everyone is interested in our history, it is a constant fascination and inspiration for me.

What are your main responsibilities?  How many buildings does the Bodleian consist of?

We currently manage 30 libraries as part of the Bodleian with almost 40 separate buildings, in two counties! I am responsible for the collections (acquisitions, management, and preservation of them), the staff, the services to users, and policies which govern, and the strategies which guide our operations.

What vision did you bring with you when you were appointed?

My vision is to ensure that the Bodleian remains one of the great libraries of the world  -maintaining and improving our outstanding collections, providing the most informed and helpful staff, and the best and most responsive services.

One of your first jobs has been to oversee the £80m restoration of Sir Giles Gilbert Scott’s New Bodleian Library.  Were you fazed by the scale of the project?

The project was originally my concept back in 2005, and I have seen it through to its completion as Bodley’s Librarian. The project was given strong backing by my two predecessors, but as I have lived and breathed it for ten years, I havent been fazed by the scale at all!

What were the biggest challenges?

The main challenges were seeking approvals from within the University and the city, and raising the money needed to complete the project.

With universities investing so much time and money into making aesthetic changes, is there any evidence to show that building design actually enhances learning or drives more people to use the library and its resources?

Building design definitely drives learning and research. Just look at how popular our older iconic buildings like the Radcliffe Camera and the Old Bodleian are. Our readers tell us this all the time – the Weston Library is very popular because of the quality of the environment – it has become an ‘academic destination’.

How do you approach the problem of coordinating large-scale transformation in an enormous academic library?

The best approach is to be patient! You must not rush the project, but allow people to bring ideas and to shape it from a variety of perspectives. But being determined to see it through is also vital.

How is the role of the library being redefined by 21st working methods?

Yes it is, but not completely. We need excellent connections to the network – both wired and wireless. We need space for collaboration. Students want to work differently depending on disciplines – scientists wants workstations with two screens for example. But spaces for quiet study and research are still in high demand.

What’s the single most important challenge that research libraries face?

Funding – funding is under increasing pressure but we continue to need to grow our collections, expand our staff skills, open our libraries for longer, and innovate with ne technologies and new ways of working.

In your experience is the perennial death knell for libraries unfounded?

Of course. Our libraries are more heavily used now than they have been for decades.

What are your plans going ahead?

We have a number of interesting projects at the moment – including an examination of the future of our science library.