Oxford is a very crowded place, and it is very hard to build anything there. As a result, the greatest single part of the University of Oxford Bodleian Library collection – the Book Storage Facility, holding 8,328,367 books (and roughly 1.5m maps) on the day I visited – is not actually in Oxford, but on the Keypoint trading estate just north of the A420 on the edge of Swindon.
The beautiful new Weston Library on Broad Street, opened last spring, would not exist without the Book Storage Facility, because the latter holds all the books that were previously stored in the space that is now the atrium and exhibition space (including the Sheldon Tapestry Map of Worcestershire, featuring Chipping Norton). And the Book Storage Facility would not exist without a load of IT: the environmental control systems, the Bodleian catalogue and the software that works out the routes for the pickers that retrieve and return items to the huge 11-metre high shelves.
The size of the Book Storage Facility breaks your sense of scale, and this photo doesn’t do it justice. It’s also very quiet, and the lights go out if you stop moving. It would make a brilliant location for an episode of Lewis involving a ‘locked room’ mystery. I reckon a body could remain undiscovered for quite some time if put in the right place.
The books are ordered by size, rather than subject – effectively they are all jumbled together without the IT that placed them. If the IT fails… well, Andrew Bonnie, chief of digital operations for Bodleian Libraries, can explain it best:
If we lose IT, people can’t find the resources, they can’t request them, they aren’t able to pick them. We’ve got them all safe and sound, but we can’t do a lot with them.
There’s also an insight into librarian humour: the Book Storage Facility can copy the content of books (those that Google hasn’t already done) for a small fee, through a service called Scan and deliver, where readers get sent a PDF. The equipment in Swindon that does this used to have a picture of Adam Ant stuck on it. (As in, Stand and deliver.)
My article for The Register on the Weston and the Book Storage Facility is here.