From Columbus to Computers: Automation at Oxford University's Bodleian Library
The Bodleian Library's collections reflect four centuries of acquisitions
and almost as many uniquely Bodleian cataloging practices. Since
September 1988 all cataloging has been done online using the DOBIS/LIBIS
system and following AACR2R, MARC format, and LC subject
headings. This gigantic leap from cataloging rules that date from 1939 or
earlier to full conformity with standard Anglo-American cataloging practice
has not been achieved without problems. Oxford University's Bodleian Library celebrated its 500th anniversary in 1988 by going online. Although one may marvel at the library's age, one may wonder why its going online is at all remarkable. The Library of Congress (a mere infant of less than 200 years) has had an online catalog for two decades now, and even the University of Arizona Library installed online public access catalogs last year in one of its libraries. Most libraries are going online--or are at least working toward that goal.
What is remarkable, however, is the Bodleian Library itself, one of the greatest research libraries of the western world, with a collection of more than five million books, 5,000 of these dating from the fifteenth century, and several million more maps, manuscripts, and other nonbook items. Its original building, Duke Humphrey's Library, still in use as a working part of the library, was completed in 1488. The collection itself dates from 1602, the year that Sir Thomas Bodley, a graduate of Merton College, refounded the Bodleian Library as a reference and research library for Oxford University. The earlier collection had been destroyed in midsixteenth century by the King's Commissioners after Henry VIII's break with the Catholic church.
What would seem to American librarians, indoctrinated as we are with the necessity of cooperation, uniform cataloging standards, and networking with other libraries, even more remarkable than the size and age of the Bodleian is its half-millenium of insularity. In the course of the Bodleian's long history it chose to develop its own cataloging rules and standards, with little regard for what the rest of the library world might do. Thus, while other English and American libraries explored cooperation in cataloging with a series of Anglo-American codes beginning in 1908 and culminating some eighty years later with AACR2 revised, the Bodleian stood aside, confident in its unique status, enveloped in the mystique that accompanies the serene and rarified atmosphere of higher learning that permeates Oxford University.
The first catalog of the Bodleian Library, a printed book catalog, was issued in 1605. Five more book catalogs followed, until in 1860, overwhelmed by the enormous task of keeping a printed catalog up to date for one of the largest libraries in the world, sublibrarian Henry Coxe began what he called the "transcribed catalog," usually referred to as the "slip catalog." This consisted of several hundred large folio guard books in which were pasted, in approximate alphabetic order, slips of paper, one for each book in the library. Ample space was left between slips for later acquisitions; in addition, the slips were fastened in such a way that they could be moved if it became necessary.
In 1920 the huge folio slip catalog was closed and another folio slip catalog for books published after 1920 was started. Cataloging was done according to the Bodleian Library's own rules, the latest revision dating from 1939. Main entry, formulated by Bodleian rules, was normally under author. This entry was supplemented by references (not added entries) from editors and individuals involved in the intellectual content of the work. Since the catalog was based on the assumption that people knew what book they were looking for when they came to the library, no subject access was provided.
This was the situation until 1988, when online public access catalogs were introduced in the reading rooms of the Bodleian and AACR2, MARC format, and Library of Congress subject headings were adopted for the Bodleian Library's collections.
Actually, automation at the Bodleian Library had its start over twenty years earlier, in 1965, when Dr. Robert Shackleton, soon to be Bodleian Librarian, went to the United States to investigate automation possibilities offered by the Library of Congress' 1965 Project MARC. The possibility of adapting MARC, at this time in an experimental stage, to facilitate machine control of the Bodleian's collections was considered and abandoned as not being compatible with the library's unique cataloging rules. Nonetheless, in November 1966 the Librarian's report recommended machine control of the closed, pre-1920 Bodleian slip catalog of some 1.25 million books, with catalog entries going back as early as the seventeenth century. How could this best be done? The catalog needed much revision to bring all of the headings into uniformity. A team of catalogers was put to work to update the entries to the 1939 Bodleian cataloging rules, AACR having been considered and rejected as a possible standard.
The next year, in 1967, John W. Jolliffe, later the Bodleian Librarian, developed an automatic format recognition program based on optical character recognition. Jolliffe wanted to complete the retrospective conversion of the pre-1920 catalog in five years, but revision of the records was not finished until the 1980s. When revision was completed, the catalog entries were encoded and keyboarded and a multivolume computer printout was produced. This is solely an author catalog based on the 1939 rules, and does not offer subject access. There is little likelihood that this catalog will ever be a candidate for retrospective conversion. However, the guard book slip volumes that make up the catalog for 1920-to-1988 imprints, also cataloged by the 1939 rules, will eventually as time permits be converted.
In 1981 recognizing that Oxford was lagging behind other libraries in the Anglo-American scholarly community, the University's Libraries Board set up a working party on automation to see what might be done. As an experiment, catalogs of the libraries of the English and Modern Languages faculties and of Social Sciences were automated, using OCLC's LS2000 system. This soon proved unsatisfactory for a number of reasons, among them the fact that OCLC withdrew its support of the system. In addition, the working party recognized that the Bodleian could no longer keep pace with the massive flood of material added to the collection each year (the Bodleian is a legal depository, i.e., copyright library, and thus receives a copy of every book published in Great Britain). After considerable soul searching, the decision was made to adopt cataloging practices and standards that would bring the library into uniformity with other scholarly libraries.
In December 1986 the university issued an operational requirement for a system large enough to accommodate the needs not only of the Bodleian and its dependent libraries but also of the forty Oxford College libraries. The total extent of the collections of the college libraries is difficult to calculate, because some of them are very secretive about their holdings, but they probably total another two million volumes. In mid-1987 DOBIS/LIBIS was selected as a vendor.
The next year and a half was spent preparing for the new system. Library buildings had to be rewired to accommodate increased electrical power requirements. Cataloging staff, many of whom had never used a typewriter, much less a computer, had to be trained to catalog at an online terminal. Finally, all the professional catalogers were given a ten-week crash course in AACR2, MARC tagging, and Library of Congress Subject Headings. The Bodleian Library, for the first time in its 500-year history, was about to offer subject access to its collections, and even more astonishing, it was going to use American headings.
On September 13, 1988, the Bodleian began online cataloging. As of June 1989 there were 50,000 records on the system, called OLIS (for Oxford Library System). OPACS, introduced in April 1989, are available in the main reading room; the system can be searched from anywhere in the university data network and eventually from anywhere in the world having access to the British Joint Academic Network (JANET), to which the Bodleian Library now belongs. The Bodleian Library adheres to full AACR2R standards for its cataloging; it makes use of UK MARC tapes from 1985 to the present. If data are not found there, OCLC and two British databases (CURL and BLAISE) are searched; if a matching record is found in any of these sources, it is used. Authority control is based on the British Library Name Authority File.
At present, libraries contributing to the Bodleian's online catalog are the Bodleian and its dependent libraries, plus the Taylorian Institute. Three college libraries, Balliol, New College, and Nuffield, have also joined, adding their records to the union catalog beginning in June 1989.
The first library at Oxford University was already well begun when Columbus set off on his perilous voyage of discovery. Now, from Columbus to computers, from hand-written slips to online catalogs, in one gigantic leap the Bodleian Library has broken out of its isolation and has joined its strengths with those of other libraries in Great Britain and abroad. Both the Bodleian and the rest of the intellectual community stand to profit by its decision.
Margaret F. Maxwell is Professor at the Graduate Library School, University of Arizona, Tucson. This paper was presented at the Arizona State Library Association Conference, November 2, 1989.…