ASSOCIATES (2007, November, v. 14, no. 2)


My Favourite Libraries

jimj3.gifJim Jackson
Law Library, University of Exeter

I was lucky enough to spend some time this summer in Oxford, UK. Oxford is one of my favourite places. It may seem odd but often times my favourite places are linked to libraries of one sort or another.

Oxford has the wonderful Bodleian Library, which for me is the classic library in design, setting, and functionality. I would hasten to add that I am not a member there nor have I had a visit to its inner most depths but would truly love to one day. This Library is in fact like a lot of libraries around the world, in that it has branches around the Oxford University campus, nine in total. Its main function is to supply information to students, staff, and visitors in a host of modern interactive ways, as well as in Special Collection format.

Not many places can say “Visit Duke Humfrey’s Medieval Library, still in use today but where generations of famous scholars have studied through the ages, amongst them, 5 kings, 40 Nobel Prize winners, 25 British Prime Ministers, and writers such as Oscar Wilde, C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien. Explore the 17th century Convocation House and Court, where Parliament was held in the Civil War.”

1107blcam.jpgI am not sure if you have ever been to a chained library, but it is fascinating to do so. It seems amazing to look at or even sometimes touch a book written in the 1600’s. (A chained library is a library where the books are attached to their bookcase by a chain, which is sufficiently long to allow the books to be taken from their shelves and read, but not removed from the library itself.) See an image of a chained book at the Bodleian at

The photo of the Bodleian Library comes from a collection of facts and figures which can be found on Wikipedia <> and can tell you much more about the background to the library and its history. The amazing thing is that what appears at first glance to be a relatively small library actually has over 8 million items in stock, with 117 miles of shelving and over 400 staff. As a working library it looks how many think a library should look, which is why so many TV shows and films have used its grounds as a backdrop for productions. There are the detective TV dramas of ‘Morse’ and more recently ‘Lewis’.

While a large number of films have used Oxford for backdrops, one of my favourite such films are the Harry Potter films. The first two Harry Potter films used the Bodleian library for the scenes of the Hogwarts library. The chained library in Hogwarts was based on the chained library in the Bodleian, and I think showed it off in all its glorious spooky splendour. When I saw the first films I had visualised the libraries in just such a way. With dark corners, creaking shelves and a musty smell in the air. The idea of trying to sneak into the library late at night, as Harry Potter did, would be far too scary a thing for me to even think of let alone do. Having been to a school as a boy, which had a much smaller library but the same sort of smell to it, I can understand how he felt. As it was often a dare in the school to go down stairs late at night and bring back a book from the library to prove you had been there and then take it back again without being caught by school staff. The thought of being chased by a ghost was a very real thing, which made the film even more real to me!

However all this history is supported by the very latest technology, so data searching is no problem via their extensive web catalogue. It’s also possible to take away a memento of your visit by visiting their shop which sells the usual type of things from tea towels and pictures and, of course, books.

1107blint.jpgAt the opposite end of the scale is the British Library in London, which holds over 13 millions items, and has over 10,000 different web pages! You can access over 20,000 journals as well. It’s a very modern building right in the heart of London, and might seem rather out of place against the other buildings. But in many ways this enhances the over all attraction of the place. There is again the usual bookshop in its entrance hall and the restaurant. Not that anyone carrying a sandwich is going to get past the guards at the entrance to the working part of the library. Here it’s very much a question of ‘no pass – no entry’. It is possible to obtain a readers pass for a day if you are visiting for academic work, or to become a member if you want to use the library on a regular basis. It is very much a ‘working’ library, with bright lights, modern signage, and enough computing power to launch a spacecraft. While it is the opposite of the appearance of the Bodleian, it still exudes the same presence of a store house of knowledge, which is course it is.

If you want to compare the British Library statistics, it has 388 miles of shelving and 25 million books. For information on it, see its opening web pages at

So, what’s you favourite library? One which looks ancient but holds dark secrets, or a modern all glass bright coloured one, which could swallow you up? I have to say that the ancient one with the dark secrets, dark corridors, and almost endless shelves is what appeals to me rather than the almost supermarket approach and design of some of our modern libraries. But we should not forget that libraries are always changing, to meet different needs and a variety of designs will meet these changing needs.

* Image from

** Image from

Jim Jackson is the Law Library Supervisor at the University of Exeter Law Library and is also Contributing Editor of Associates. Jim is a member of the National Committee for Affiliated Members of CILIP (Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals).