Threat to Oxfordshire Studies

From Chris Hall, convenor, Oxfordshire Local History Liaison Group (OHLG)

Oxfordshire Studies (formerly Centre for Oxfordshire Studies) at risk

This message is addressed to all local history societies (for which I have e-mail addresses and various other persons) likely to be interested.

As you will know, if you have read page 3 of last week's Oxford Times or pp 4 and 5 of Oxfordshire Local History News, a serious threat to the integrity and efficacy of Oxfordshire Studies (the service we perhaps know better by its old name as the Centre for Oxfordshire Studies) now exists.

OHLG was set up in March to counter this threat. It is an informal ad hoc group consisting of the Oxford Civic Society, Oxford Preservation Trust, Oxfordshire Architectural & Historical Society, Oxfordshire Family History Society, Oxfordshire Local History Association and Oxfordshire Record Society.

On Tuesday 17 April the so-called cabinet of Oxfordshire County Council meets and will (among much else) receive a paper from the officers which will in effect set in train the downgrading of Oxfordshire Studies (OxS). We are asking you to take immediate action to prevent this.


The background is that the Westgate shopping centre is being reconstructed by a property development company, to which OCC is in process of selling the north end of its building in Westgate. This section of the building contains part of Oxfordshire Studies and various other services. In return for the north end of the building, which will become retail, the developer will bear most of the cost of 'refurbishing' the central library and Oxfordshire Studies. Users have not been consulted about this, despite our repeated requests, but we learn that the library will lose about a tenth of its present space, while Oxfordshire Studies will lose about half.

The county's Sites & Monuments Record (SMR) currently and conveniently housed adjacent to Oxfordshire Studies will be shifted to Speedwell House, several streets away.

The spatial implications for OxS are bad. The plans we have been able to glean mean that OxS will have far less behind-the-scenes working space. This is the part we users don't see. But OxS staff, when not at the enquiry/reception desk, have cataloguing, digitising, accessioning and conservation work to get through. Because of decades of understaffing, much of this work is badly behind, yet OCC appear to have taken no thought for how and where it is to be done in future.

The security of the OxS material and collections will also suffer. The new library, into which OxS is to be integrated will be without internal barriers or checkpoints, and it will also be without the lockers in which users spending an hour or two at a desk can safely stow personal gear.

An end to independence

But the worst feature of the scheme is the end of OxS as an independent specialist service staffed by specialists with the appropriate knowledge to help and guide local and family historians in their research. I have worked in OxS since 1994 on various projects. I vividly recall how readily. when I was new to it, the staff there answered what I would now think were foolish questions. (I dedicated my dissertation to them.) I imagine that many local historians and genealogists in the county must have had similar experiences.

In future, if the OCC's plans go ahead, there will be no information desk staffed solely by local-history specialists. The job will be shared with non-specialist librarians. At the same time the work of this desk will be made to include answering queries about and issuing non-fiction books brought upstairs from the shrunken main library. Moreover OxS will be open six days a week for the same hours as the central library. Excellent news you may think, but the staff of OxS is not be increased to cope with the new hours so there will effectively be a dilution of the service they can give. The responsible OCC officer, Richard Munro, Head of Cultural and Adult Learning services, expects that 'many more members of the public will be attracted to find out about the history of their county and families as a result of the service being more visible'. (See his letter on p 4 of Oxfordshire History Local News Spring 2007). This is an extraordinary statement. First, because there is nothing invisible about OxS now. (There is a large sign on the front of the building and potetnial users are directed from the ground to the second floor.) Second, because if there are to be more visitors, the service will need more staff and there are not to be.

This process of integration is driven, we believe, by a modish conception of the library service, namely that the role of specialists is downplayed (or even abolished), because it is seen as elitist. This can only be harmful for OxS.

The tremendous work Malcolm Graham and his colleagues have done in the last decade and a half is to be wasted. The assurance given by county officials that 'there will be no diminution in the quality of service' is frankly unbelievable.

Action by you

There are two things you and your society can do immediately in order to help fight these very damaging proposals.

1. Please try to have someone from your society attend the OCC cabinet meeting tomorrow when Paul Bettridge will briefly address the cabinet, on behalf of the liaison group, before it considers the paper referred to above. This will be shortly after 3.30 pm. I apologise for the short notice but we have only been given the time when the item will be discussed this afternoon (Mon). Paul will do the best he can with the three minutes allotted to him, but a show of public interest greatly helps. You don't have to stay after the cabinet discussion of the item is finished (app 4 pm).
The cabinet meeting is in County Hall. (Park & Ride bus routes nos 300 and 400 stop close by.)

2. Within the next few days write to your county councillor (listed with addresses and e-mails on OCC website), express your concern and urge him or her to look critically into what is proposed what is proposed.

Thank you very much.

Chris Hall
Chairman Oxfordshire Local History ASssociation and convener Oxfordshire History Liaison Group.


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