Local Politics VI: Where is the University of Christminster?

Bodleian Library, Keypoint, Swindon (Brian Robert Marshall) / CC BY-SA 2.0

Part of the history of civic boosterism in Swindon is a long and largely unsuccessful story of attempts to establish a University presence in the town – in the last decade, schemes involving both UWE and Bath have fallen through; Oxford Brookes has a small presence, and BPP has a pilot scheme with a local FE college to roll-out low cost degree programmes (in Law). The efforts to establish a University go back to the 1940s at least – it’s why the Borough Council own a big old stately home just off Junction 16 of the M4, with a great kids play area, an annual firework display, but no University. And these efforts continue – Swindon will be bidding for a University Technical College any time soon.

I have previously expounded on the frustrations of living in a town which is so poorly served by book shops. This has something to do with the absence of a higher education presence in the town, no doubt. But actually, Swindon does have a huge book store, opened a year ago. The only problem is, it’s a book store, not a bookstore – a Book Storage Facility, to be precise. And not just any old Book Storage Facility.

Should a University ever arrive, it will open in a town that is host to more than 8 million books deposited in the Bodleian’s shiny new warehouse, located just off the A420, round the corner from Honda. The Book Storage Facility is Oxford University’s solution to the fact that the Bodleian’s collection grows by about 170,000 volumes a year, and they had run out of space in Oxford to house them all.  It was opened a year ago, and the books have been transferred over the last year. It is home to mostly ‘low demand’ books – the one’s no one ever borrows.

The ‘BSF’ has been described as a ‘tin shed’, but it continues in a line of high quality industrial architecture in the town – it is that kind of town.

Local politicians got very excited when it was announced that the University 30 miles up the road was going to store it’s unwanted books here. This is actually quite sad – there was a rather fanciful suggestion that the new Central Library would be able to hook up with the Bodleian collection. Not happened. Perhaps the Borough Council should just appropriate the BSF, declare it to be the public property of the people of Swindon, and set up its own University on the back of one of the world’s best collections of scholarly materials. Call it the University of Christminster. It could work.

I actually find this all a bit cruel – they close the Borders a few weeks after we move here, then open a huge warehouse full of books down the road, which you cannot actually access. I used to take an annual visit to the Bookbarn in Somerset, south of Bristol on the way to Wells – a place where old books go to die, I think of it as. Two agricultural warehouses full of musty old books, I very rarely bought anything – these really are the books no one wants to read anymore (you could, though, buy the entire collection of Enoch Powell’s speeches from the 1960s and 1970s, if you were looking for an archive for a PhD thesis). My daughter cried the one time I took her there (what do you do on the days when you have to look after a toddler?). It was probably the smell. But at least you get to go in this warehouse full of books, to wonder round, sit down for a coffee.

Never mind. I console myself with the thought that as I drive up and down the A420, to and from Milton Keynes, some of those white vans might be transporting rare manuscripts to eager scholars waiting in the Radcliffe Camera or the Map Room. Who knows, one of them might even be transporting that rarest of rare ‘low demand’ items – one of my books.

2 thoughts on “Local Politics VI: Where is the University of Christminster?

  1. Don’t put yourself down Clive, I’m sure your books will never moulder in Swindon! As someone else living in the shadows of Oxford Uni I enjoyed reading this: it does seem weird that the scholars of Oxford still need however many square feet of books at their disposal while the rest of us are reading PDFs… anyway, I recently went to a very nice National Trust cafe in Swindon, much nicer than anywhere in Oxford!

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