From Columbus to Computers: Automation at Oxford University's Bodleian Library

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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. …