The Bodleian’s New Book Storage Facility

The relative size of library collections was once a source of pride for institutions, a tangible means of measuring their scholarly worthiness. In the 1990’s this gradually started to change, as the growth of collections continued well beyond the ability of the libraries to house all their books, either on open or rolling stacks. Libraries started to plan off site storage for the lesser used collections, and often collaborated via consortia arrangements to afford the construction and ongoing maintenance costs of the storage facilities. In some instances ‘last copy only’ schemes were devised to avoid duplication, and the methods of storage and retrieval evolved as the technology improved. In some cases the whole process is totally automated; in others, people mediate the fetching and retrieval of requested items.

The Bodleian Libraries is one of the rare group of academic libraries that double as legal deposit libraries. This is a wonderful asset to have in a research library; a guarantee that any book published in Great Britain in the last 400 years is most probably available to you as a researcher within half a day of requesting it. But the pressure of housing over 11 million items in the centre of a busy town like Oxford has been growing over the past 20 or 30 years, with the Bodleian looking for solutions to the problem by sending material both to salt mines in Cheshire, and a warehouse on an estate in a village close to Oxford (fetches from both are done every day). But lack of space to expand in any of these three sites meant that planning for a purpose built book storage facility became vital, as the collection grows by some 3 linear miles per annum just from Legal Deposit books. Oxford made the decision to build its own site rather than share with another institution, because it has to retain all its LD books in perpetuity, so can’t collaborate in any ‘last copy’ retention schemes.

There were constraints, including a reticence on the part of some academics and library staff to accept the need for a radical approach to book storage; the book as object has been seen as the raison d’etre of the Bodleian collection. After managing these concerns, and also various setbacks with planning , a site was selected near Swindon, about 30 miles from Oxford, and in October 2010, just 12 months after the first sod was turned, the Book Storage Facility was officially opened.

Coming later to the issue of dealing with the storage problem has meant that the design and operation has been able to take into account the experience of many of the book warehousing projects undertaken in the past 10 to 15 years by institutions around the world. So the end result is a great solution which combines many lessons learnt elsewhere. The BSF building is made up of four sections which will be filled sequentially, with a capacity of 8.4 million items – books, maps, manuscripts, journals and newspapers – on 153 miles of shelving. For those who like statistics, here are the relevant details about the BSF, taken from the website:

The Book Storage Facility consists of an 11-metre tall solid shelving system comprising 31 Very Narrow Aisles (VNA), with seven different bay type configurations to accommodate the different sizes of books and other materials. It also has a capacity equivalent to 153 miles (230 kilometres) of shelf space and a five level multi-tier structure for map storage. To guarantee the books’ preservation for the long-term, volumes will be stored in 745,000 bar-coded and specially designed storage trays and boxes that are of archival standard. Floor area of the warehouse equates to 1.6 football pitches although the High-Density shelving provides shelf surface area equivalent to 16.5 football pitches.

This description does not give the sense of the scale of the project anywhere near the actual experience of seeing the site in action. Library staff were given tours in December so that we could see for ourselves what is being done. For those concerned about the treatment of the books, it is great to see the storage trays are designed to house the books in a vertical stack, and there are handles to pull the trays off the shelves. The retrieval is by human operators on forklifts with sensors fitted to them so they never knock into shelving, and a mechanical hoist that takes the operator/book retriever up the 11 metres to the top shelves gently to take or replace the tray of books. 

Each book/item is being bar coded – an enormous undertaking in a library system that never used a bar code until this past decade – and each box, and shelf, is also barcoded, so the location of each item is random as far as its relationship to other books on the tray or shelf is concerned, but is always recorded each time a book is moved for a reader request. Books are housed by size to maximize the use of shelf spacing. 

Ingest of the lower use six million items currently housed in Oxford and current offsite locations will take up to 2 years, although the current rate of about 31,000 items per week is exceeding expectations, and auger well for an earlier end date. Each week the overall totals are posted on a special Twitter feed; since October 2010 over 850,000 items have been transferred to the BSF. As the millionth book arrives at the Bodleian’s book store, it is timely to explore this huge undertaking in more detail.

The aspect of the project which makes the Bodleian Libraries venture unique is that we continue to offer a full book retrieval service throughout this project, irrespective of where the book is housed, so that in the majority of cases many readers will continue to be able to request items and have them delivered in the normal time frame. Readers can keep abreast of the progress of parts of the collection from the BOOK MOVES site. We have already tested this in the law library and books in the BSF were received within 5 hours of request. We are especially proud of this aspect of the whole book move process; the priority is to continue to get the book to the reader at all times.

The boffins will be pleased to know that the books are kept in a constant temperature of 18.5 degrees Celsius , with an ideal humidity level; fire safety precautions are state of art, and for many of the books that will end up in Swindon, they will be housed in far better conditions, and be far more likely to survive the ravages of time, in their new home.

As a sign of forward planning, the site on which the BSF is located has room for expansion into the future as needs arise; the University bought excess land which will lie undeveloped until new needs arise; we are guaranteed that while paper is discarded at an alarming rate in many libraries in favour of electronic, the Bodleian will continue to offer both formats well into the future.


  1. For those wondering why the shelf space appears be reduced by 17 km simply by converting the unit of measurement from miles to kilometres:
    my suspicion is that the conversion from miles to kilometres was computed as a conversion from metric miles (1500 m per, commonly used in competitive athletics), rather than from statute miles (1609 m per, commonly used in many other fields of endeavour, though only, of course, in those places backward enough to insist on commonly using miles).