Vol. XV, no. 1 TCU Library Newsletter, Web Edition November 2002

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Message from the University Librarian - by Robert A. Seal

In today’s fast-paced world where news comes in bite-sized pieces on cable TV and the World Wide Web, and where the new computer you placed on your desk today is obsolete tomorrow, it is reassuring to know that significant educational and cultural institutions such as libraries continue to survive and thrive.  They have done so for thousands of years as the technology for storing and distributing information has evolved from clay tablets to scrolls to manuscripts to printed books to computers.  The academic library has had a long and distinguished history, especially in Europe where universities have been around for several hundred years.  Over the centuries, European university libraries have not only faced economic problems as we do from time to time, but also have experienced political turmoil, war, and religious controversy, and their negative consequences for service and collections and even for the libraries’ existence.  Nevertheless, most survived and today are testimonials to the determination of librarians and scholars who fought to preserve knowledge for future generations.

One such institution is the University of Oxford’s Bodleian Library, founded in 1602 by Sir Thomas Bodley, a Fellow of Merton College at Oxford and a business man who carried out several diplomatic missions for Queen Elizabeth I.  He was also quite wealthy, having married a rich widow whose late husband had made his fortune trading in pilchards (a small sea fish closely allied to the herring).  Thomas Bodley retired from public life around 1596 and offered to help his alma mater rebuild its library, stripped of its books in 1550 following legislation passed by King Edward VI aimed at purging “the English church of all traces of Roman Catholicism, including ‘superstitious books and images.’”  Oxford was not a wealthy institution at that time and readily accepted Bodley’s offer of financial help.  He also gave many of his own books to start a new collection as well as convincing his well-to-do friends to donate volumes of their own.  A librarian, Thomas James, was hired and the Oxford library re-opened on November 8, 1602.  The Bodleian, still the main library at Oxford, has grown over the years to become one of the world’s pre-eminent research libraries, possessing many priceless treasures and more than 6.5 million volumes in three buildings in town and at an off-site storage center.

In September I was privileged to attend an international conference in Oxford celebrating the 400th anniversary of the founding of the Bodleian Library.  The meeting not only marked the Library’s impressive 400-year birthday, but it also celebrated the printed word and the book, while acknowledging the importance of the technology which has transformed libraries and research.  Held at Keble College (one of Oxford’s many residential colleges) and at the Bodleian itself, the conference featured a keynote speech by David Vaisey, Bodley’s Librarian emeritus, on the legacy of Sir Thomas Bodley.  Many of you might remember Mr. Vaisey’s talks at TCU in the 1990’s.  By the way, he sends his warmest regards to the Friends and to the Library staff.  Other talks were given by Reg Carr, Bodley’s Librarian; Michael Keller, Stanford University; Michael Gorman, Cal State Fresno; and other notables in education and librarianship.

Included in the three-day event were tours of the Bodleian and several other Oxford Libraries.  The University is in the third year of a major project to create a unified library system, bringing together the dozens of branch, departmental, institute, and college libraries, many of which have traditionally been independent of the main library.  Change has not been easy, in fact sometimes painful, given the tradition and history of the oldest English-speaking university in the world, in existence since 1096.  This project has involved creating an online union catalog to provide improved access to the many Oxford libraries, coordinated administrative oversight, more cooperation and better communication among the libraries, and so on.  Progress is being made thanks to the hard work and vision of Mr. Carr and his staff.

From the opening reception at one of the world’s largest, best known bookstores, Blackwell’s, to the closing talk by the Executive Director of the British Library, the conference was a wonderful experience, one which reminded me of our library roots, our purpose as librarians, and the future of our profession.  It also reminded me why I had chosen librarianship as a career.

Best wishes to all the Friends for a happy and safe holiday season and for a happy and prosperous new year.

Bob Seal


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