Thursday, July 23, 2009

Bodleian Library, Oxford: "Silence, Please"

The city of Oxford, like Stratford-upon-Avon, is such a change from the sheer chaos that is London. Don't get me wrong, though - I love the sheer chaos. The city life is definitely for me. Oxford is still quite populated, and there were a lot of tourists there (although I'm not sure if that's mainly a summer thing), but it was actually smaller than I expected. Oxford's beauty is full of history - I could see it in the architecture, and in imagining some of the great, classic authors strolling about the streets.

I was incredibly excited to see the Bodleian Library, but I didn't know much about its history. My group's tour guide was Rita from Rome, Italy. She was a very thorough guide, and quite informative, particularly about the architecture of the buildings, but I felt that I didn't get a real "librarian" spin from the tour (I think I've just been spoiled by the special librarian tours). Nevertheless, the Bodleian is steeped in history, and is very impressive.
Today, the Bodleian is one of six copyright libraries in the UK, which means, of course, that the library receives a copy of everything that is printed in the UK. It is also the biggest university library in Europe, and hosts over 8 million books. The Bodleian is also the second largest library in the UK, falling only behind the British Library.

However, the library actually dates back to c. 1320 as a small chained library funded by Thomas de Cobham, Bishop of Worcester. When Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester, donated many rare manuscripts in 1435, a new building was erected to house them (finished in 1488), and this building above today's Divinity School is still known as Duke Humphrey's library (and is the oldest building at the Bodleian). The library did not fare so well throughout the years, however, and much of the collection had to be sold.

The Bodleian as we know it began in 1602 when Thomas Bodley saved the library from its perilous lack of funding by donating funds and several of his own books, stating that he wanted the library to be open for the students' use. He had quite diverse tastes and did not simply want books in only European languages and Latin; he also wanted books in languages such as Chinese. Bodley went on to devote even more time and money to the library; he built new buildings throughout the years, and hosted parties in the hopes of getting people to donate funds. The Bodelian was truly Thomas Bodley's.

"I hereby undertake not to remove from the Library, nor to mark, deface, or injure in any way, any volume, document or other object belonging to it or in its custody; not to bring into the Library, or kindle therein, any fire or flame, and not to smoke in the Library; and I promise to obey all rules of the Library." This is the Bodelian Oath translated from Latin to English, which is traditionally oral; it is now given in letter form, but ceremonies performing the oath still occur.

Instead of having a chained library, a student or researcher must now request a book, and have someone retrieve it for them; they can peruse it in the reading rooms, but not check it out. They have an underground conveyor system, similar to the British Library, which we actually got to see, but I do not think it is currently in use. The system in place at the Bodleian is much like the other reference libraries we've visited; however, I'm not sure I've ever visited an academic reference library. I've taken it for granted how I can browse the majority of the stacks at the academic libraries I've used (the majority of the Bodleian's collections are closed access), and how I can take books off of the shelf and take them home with me to do my research. Of course, the students at Oxford has access to several other libraries, a list of which blew my mind, and hopefully some of these have lending access.
In addition to its copyright depository and academic collections, the Bodelian has extensive special collections, which are divided into five main groups (information here). The rare works that I most want to see, in the category of Literary Manuscripts (next time, perhaps!) include:
  • Percy Bysshe Shelley and Mary Shelley's manuscripts!
  • Lovelace-Byron papers
  • W.B. Yeats letters
  • the only complete surviving autograph of John Donne
The Bodleian also has a place in current pop culture which has nothing to do with its amazing collection; the room we began our tour in, the Divinity School (seen above, taken by yours truly), plays the infirmary in Harry Potter movies.

There are, I'm certain, a million more things to know about the Bodleian, so I may have to read a book to learn them all. It is always fascinating to learn how such important libraries came to be.

Bodleian website:
Top picture: Radcliffe Camera (by me)
Second picture from Time/Oxford Picture Library
Third picture from Libgig


After the Bodleian, I perused "An Artful Craft," an exhibit which featured masterful bookbindings of the 20th century.

Next, Cassie, Jenn, and I wanted to see some of Oxford's sights, so we walked and took the Hop On Hop Off bus around town. We saw Alice's Shop, where Alice Liddell, the "real" Alice in Wonderland, used to buy candy (it is now a touristy Alice in Wonderland merchandise shop). We also stopped off for a drink at the Eagle and Child Pub, where J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis met for years as part of the Inklings, an Oxford writers' group. We walked around Christ Church, but didn't want to pay to get in. Finally, we met up with my friend M.B., who was doing a summer program at Oxford, and she took us to the indoor market, where we got the best milkshakes in town. All in all, a lovely, literary day.

No comments:

Post a Comment