isabel holowaty collage and title text

An interview with Oxford History Librarian Isabel Holowaty

The OHR Editorial Team got in touch with History Librarian, Isabel Holowaty, to discuss all things libraries, research, and how to get the most out of the Bodleian library services.


Can you tell us a bit about yourself and your role?

I’ve been the History Librarian since June 2004, having defected from Cambridge University Library where I worked in the Reference Department. I read history at Durham (and thoroughly enjoyed it! History is the best) and took an MSc in Information Science at City University, London. I’m currently job sharing my role with Rachel D’Arcy Brown. In the first instance, we are subject librarians supporting students and researchers in making the most of the libraries and our resources. For example, we run classes, organise the yearly Thesis Fair (not during the pandemic, sadly), answer research enquiries, publish resource guides and ensure our collections reflect the needs of our readers as best as we can. We are also in part managers, running operations and services in the Radcliffe Camera but also with responsibilities in the Vere Harmsworth Library and History of Medicine Library.

What’s the most common question you receive from students?

What a fun question – and really hard to answer as History is such a broad subject. Reflecting on the emails in recent years, I tend to get regular book recommendations and otherwise research questions asking for help in finding sources and secondary readings for a dissertation topic or extended essay. For instance, it’s interesting how many have asked how to locate women’s magazines of the early 20th century (and I am happy to share my tips!), finding WWI propaganda material or how to find historical newspapers. Especially newspapers can be tricky but we fortunately have a guide at https://libguides.bodleian.ox.ac.uk/newspapers.

Have you ever received any interesting or unusual requests from people using the libraries?

A couple stick out: what was the name of Lady Godiva’s horse (the one of Coventry fame)? The answer was that to the best our knowledge the horse’s name was not recorded in any records.

More challenging (but very interesting and involving) was an enquiry a few years ago by a former Senior Consultant to the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organization. He was looking for a copy of the Strasbourg Agreement of 1675 which apparently was the first (Western?) agreement prohibiting the use of chemical weapons (in the form of poisoned bullets). The purpose was to display this at a special event organised by the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons in 2015. He had approached many French and German archives without success. Beyond a single citation by a German pharmacologist, Louise Lewin (1850-1929), there appeared to be no evidence where the original manuscript or text could actually be found. All subsequent historians blindly cited the Lewin’s reference (tip: do better and check out the original source if you can or seek other verification).

I eventually found the ban on the use of balles empoisonnées on page 11 of the Convention pour l’échange des prisonniers de guerre, 27 Aug 1675, signed at Strasburg. You need to dig deep into the diplomatic archive for France (https://www.diplomatie.gouv.fr/fr/archives-diplomatiques/). Tip: don’t give up. 

In case anybody is interested, you can search for historical French treaties and agreements at https://basedoc.diplomatie.gouv.fr/exl-php/recherche/mae_internet___traites. Many are also available as full-text.

What does your average day at work look like?

Typically, I will start the day by dealing with overnight enquiries or book recommendations, replying to them as quickly as possible – and before the first meeting kicks off. On a normal day I might receive anything between 50-70 emails and send out another 40-50 myself. Given how large History is as a subject, the size of our collections and complexity of our operations, there is a lot to discuss, organise, decide, problems to solve and things to do. Don’t ask what my inbox looks like! Most of my job is overwhelmingly communicating with a wide-range of people, whether readers, staff, colleagues, publishers or members of the public. No day is the ever the same and thankfully I’m never bored!

After dealing with email, I typically attend 3-5 management meetings throughout most of the day. We discuss improvements to services and developing better policy. For instance, we are currently in the process of standardising our lending policy across Bodleian Libraries to make it easier for students to use and understand. We also discuss how to progress the frustrating wifi issues with our colleagues in IT Services or to ensure we are on track providing all the library materials for your reading lists and, crucially, have the funds for it. For some history courses, library staff will scans to the readings to Oxford Reading Lists Online (ORLO) which you may have come across via the History Faculty Canvas pages.

In between meetings there is more emailing, possibly firefighting if we have a staffing crisis, or preparing for the next meeting. If I have larger gaps, I try to use them to check on the financial position or to progress projects such as improving our resources guides for historians via LibGuides (https://libguides.bodleian.ox.ac.uk/history). 

I usually wind down in the evening by ordering newly published history books for the library.

What’s your favourite part of your job?

There are three which I particularly enjoy and would struggle to prioritise. So, here goes:

I enjoy meeting students, old and new, in the reading room, training sessions, in my office or on the street. It’s a great opportunity to see if there is anything I or the library can do for you. Above all it’s wonderful to hopefully see you flourish in the course of your time in Oxford. The pandemic has of course reduced the opportunity for chance meetings, but if I’m in my office in the Upper Reading Room, Old Bodleian Library, just come in if you need help with history resources or just want to say hello.

Intellectually, I find the research enquiries the most fascinating. It is the closest I can get to ‘doing history’ and reminds me of my own time as a history student. There are often no easy answers and I need to search on SOLO, many databases such as the Bibliography of British and Irish History or Google or call up books from the 11+million remote books store. I learn more with each enquiry.

My final favourite task is ordering newly published books for our British and West European collections. It’s not only a relaxing way to end a very busy and intensive day, but also good to keep up with new research and buy what I think historians will need now and in the future. The Decolonisation movement and equality, diversity and inclusivity agenda are also very interesting areas for which I’m trying to improve our collections. I also get to use my languages (German, French, Italian, Spanish) which I like.

How do you see the library changing in the next 15 years, if at all?

If only we knew! Looking back at the last 15 years, the greatest change I have observed relate to technological change, consolidation of the library estate across Oxford, and service improvements by taking a more reader-centric evidence-based approach. This will, in part, continue. For instance, we will of course have a new library for English, History of Medicine, Music, Philosophy, and Theology at the Schwarzman Centre (due to open MT2025). 

The libraries have many challenges ahead which we want to address: 

  • We need to modernise the reading room furniture and infrastructure, especially in heritage buildings such as the Radcliffe Camera, which need to be fit for 21st century research;
  • We need to better support students and researchers in navigating the increasing complex analogue and digital information landscape and the complexities which copyright, licenses and privacy laws bring.
  • We need to explore how we can give better remote access to collections and support to students and researchers, being responsive to changes in teaching methods and formats.
  • We need to understand better how to support Digital History projects.
  • We need to support researchers as Open Access initiatives impact on the researchers’ publishing activities and possibly our own library materials budgets.

This all assumes we can continue with our core function of providing access to collections and spaces and there are no other major changes in HE or the University which might, for instance, impact on funding.

What’s one fact about the library and the services it offers that you wish students knew (more often)?

Did you know that students have a rep on the library committee which meets and discusses library services? The Committee for Library Provision and Strategy in History (CLiPS) meets termly on Friday week 4. If you want your voice to be heard, make sure you know who your rep is via the UG Historians Assembly or the Oxford History Graduate Network. This term’s reps are Tyra Dreise (Exeter, incoming UG rep) and Nicola Carotenuto (St Hugh’s, PG rep – DPhil).

What opportunities and resources do you offer to support History students?

Beyond the traditional provision of study desks and books for reading lists and information about services at https://www.bodleian.ox.ac.uk/libraries/radcliffe-camera, we provide support in many other ways: 

If you need help, do get in touch. You can do this in many ways: ask library staff in the RadCam, chat with the Bodleian’s Live Chat team (via SOLO), or email library.history@bodleian.ox.ac.uk. We are here to help you!

Finally, thank you for giving me this opportunity to talk about my job and the library.