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Oxford University Students banned from reading books on the top shelves

June 15th, 2009

Removal of step-ladders means that staff cannot reach works which are high on the shelves of Duke Humfrey’s library, the oldest reading room in the building.

Students said that they were being denied access to books, some of which have been on the shelf for 400 years, which could prove valuable to their research.

Kelsey Williams,  a 21ear old art history student, was told he could not read a copy of the book ‘Delitiae poetarum Scotorum’; a history of Christian persecution. The nearest known copy of the book was at the British Library, in London.

He said: “Access to these books is necessary for my research and when I do eventually consult a copy, I will be forced to waste a day travelling to London and looking at the one in the British Library.

“It is madness because I can practically see the Bodleian’s copy every time I walk into Duke Humfrey’s.”

Students requesting books on the top shelf are given a notice by staff which reads: “Unable to fetch book kept on top shelf in gallery. Due to new health and safety measures, step ladders can no longer be used.”

Laurence Benson, the library’s director of administration and finance, said the books were accessed from a narrow balcony that is 400 years old and “quite uneven”.

He said: “The balcony has a low rail and we have been instructed by the health and safety office that this increases the risk to those on the balcony.

“As part of the process the restriction on the use of ladders on the balcony has been introduced. The library would prefer to keep the books in their original historic location, where they have been safely consulted for 400 years prior to the instructions from the Health and Safety office.”

Mr Benson said the university was complying with working at height regulations introduced three years ago.

The possibility of moving the books to another part of the library was being considered, he said. The material in the books, including theology, philosophy and astronomy, was available digitally, Mr Benson added.

The university said last night that it had found another copy of the book ‘Delitiae poetarum Scotorum’ in Oxford, which meant Mr Williams, would not have to travel to the British Library.

The library recently invited Consultants to provide advice on a more modern ladder solution to enable safe access to high book shelves. Preserving the aesthetic appeal of the product so as not to look too out of place in the historic environment will be an important consideration.

Oxford University - Duke Humfrey's library

Oxford University - Duke Humfrey's library

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