Time to write about some things that happened in the second half of the term just completed that might be of interest to friends from home who read this blog. Firstly my new job at the Philosophy Faculty Library here in Oxford. This library has been my favourite library in Oxford and in fact probably my favourite building in Oxford for a long time. The atmosphere is very relaxed and friendly, whilst remaining stricter than other libraries on behaviour, very successfully merging both these attitude: there are signs saying things like “welcome, relax and read”—though relaxing with a philosophy text is seldom possible—but also laptops are restricted to small areas, and the library very successfully stops people from writing in the books, unlike my college’s library. The staff are also very friendly and helpful and while this is common with librarians, these are also very personable: they tend to know the users of the library, despite there being very many such users indeed for a department with so many students. There is a section of wall with condescending quotations from philosophers about their own subject, and a bunch of philosophy comics, many sourced from SMBC.

The building itself is a very strange department. There are some administrative offices, a computer room for graduate students and a ‘hotdesking’ area which I don’t fully understand, a medium-sized lecture room, a small lecture room (the Ryle Room, whose walls are lined with photos of the great twentieth century Oxford philosophers), a common room for everyone, the library and its stacks, and then about three offices for academics, this being one of the largest and best philosophy departments in the world, and that’s it. Almost all philosophy teaching happens elsewhere: lectures in Exam Schools, tutorials in colleges, for there isn’t the space to do very much at all in the faculty, and aside from the library the building feels strangely out of proportion with what the department might need. This has enormous charm.

Sadly the university have realised the absurdity of the department and they are closing the building down; it’s been sold off to something else university-related I believe. The philosophy and the theology libraries are in the charge of the same head librarian and deputy librarian, so they are to merge, and in fact I believe another department is merging in too but I forget which one this is. Everything is to be moved to a new temporary building in July, while the massive university building project that will house maths and a huge combined humanities library and probably other departments too is complete, which should be done in just under two years.

There are lots of sad things about this move; I am far, far from being the only person who doesn’t want it to happen. It’s far more than just sentimentality though: combined, the philosophy and theology libraries are required to lose 40% of their stock, since there will not be as much space. A lot of this will be print journals that are almost never used—there are I am told three or four complete sets of the Journal for Symbolic Logic hidden around 10 Merton Street—but they are also selling off (and giving away) a lot of other stuff. This is very sad. Much care is being taken to identify those texts that the library has become a keeper of because there are very few around. Both libraries use homegrown systems for shelfmarks, and so in order to merge they need to move to a standard system, and they’re using Library of Congress. It takes me about three times as long to reshelve books labelled this way (see below); the homegrown system down at philosophy at least is much, much easier to use from the librarians’ and the students’ points of view, because it’s designed for the subject matter, rather than being generic. I mean I’m sure that LoC is great for multi-subject libraries, that’s what it’s designed for, but it’s sad that we have to lose a system that works better for us philosophers.

Sentimentally, we all love the building. There will be a common room in the new one because the head librarian has insisted that something that is as appreciated as the current one is must be carried over, but something tells me it won’t quite be the same. The furniture, the shelves, in the library, is also going to go. It’s all hardwood, in a 20th century kind of way though not an overly fancy one like you find in colleges, and modern replacements don’t compare.

For me it’s the same with maths; I really like that building too, even if most don’t. And I like how the departments are separate and spread out across the city in different buildings and locales, which is going to disappear when things get amalgamated just like any other university.

Having liked the library for so long I was thrilled to find that they were taking applications for part-time librarians again; I have a friend who does this job and was always very jealous. I got the job near the start of this term and have been doing Friday afternoons. It’s really quite a easy role; it’s just an hour and a half at the end of the day, so it involves nothing more than serving people on the desk and reshelving all the books returned in the last two hours of the day, which takes me about twenty-five minutes at the moment.

The thing I really like, aside from something which is a nice thing to do in the evening, is seeing the library and the librarians from the other side, and talking to them. Because they are among the small group of people who are always in the building, they are the centre of departmental gossip, so we can share stories about tutors and lecturers and graduate students and the like. In a department like philosophy there are plenty of characters. For example one of the few people with an office in the building is Daniel Isaacson, a philosophy of maths guy, who taught me this term for the Philosophy of Maths paper. He’s been in the building for about twenty-five years and has the librarians are aware of his hidden stacks of stuff in various places. He possesses what looks like most of the philosophy of maths canon and more besides in his room, and so there isn’t space for all the spare complete sets of journals he has, things only about three or four academics in the university have any interest in, if that, so they are squirreled away around the building. The other night Dan came upstairs to the library, trying to print off an ebook, which unfortunately the university has a load of, and so the librarian and I struggled with the DRM for a while to try and print it out (we failed). From time to time you’ll see famous philosophers or my own Balliol tutors in the building, and there’s always something to say about them all.

A recent change in the department has been the introduction of an online lecture questionnaire, instead of having one handed out on paper by the lecturer sometime around 6th week each term. It was amusing to see how different lecturers reacted to this. Ralph Walker, Oxford’s Kant expert, who is perhaps the tutor/lecturer I most respect in my university experience so far, spent a good few minutes attempting to copy the URL onto the whiteboard for us, figuring out where the slashes and colons are meant to go. His lectures this term have been the highlight of my week. No distracting overheads or overly detailed notes, just the occasional German word on the board that we might want to see the spelling of, and a summary handout to guide you through the lecture, and then the rest is just an expert talking, which is by far the best way to do it. And what lectures they have been. I won’t go into the philosophical details here.

A contrast is the philosophy of maths lectures from Alex Paseau. He stated that “the philosophy faculty has finally moved into the 21st century and the lecture questionnaire is now online”. With academics in their posts for so long (in fact Ralph is technically retired) you get massive age differences like this.

I learned from the head librarian some history of the library on my first shift. Philosophy was for a very long time just a small part of classics; eventually it became a sub-faculty, and very recently it became a faculty in its own right. So there was no philosophy library for a very long time. Now, in the mid-twentieth century, Gilbert Ryle was at some point simultaneously the editor of Mind and one of the university proctors, the latter of which gave him the right to any book published by OUP during his year. These two things combined meant that he amassed rather a lot of philosophy books, and they ended up in a room in the Bodleian. The Bodleian didn’t want this so eventually a library got established at 12 Merton Street, which later moved to the current 10 Merton Street.

So there’s some thoughts on the philosophy faculty and its library. At some point before the maths and philosophy buildings close down, I plan to go round and photograph them, so if I do that I’ll post the pictures on here.