30 June 2014

Bodleian Library

The highlight of my day today was our visit to the Bodleian Library at Oxford University. The building was started in the 1400s but the library itself did not flourish until the late 1500s when Thomas Bodley granted the university a large sum of money to restore and maintain it. This is why the library still carries his name over 400 years later.

Medieval shelving in Duke Humfrey's Library

Entering the hallway with the medieval library (called Duke Humfrey's Library) was like stepping out of a time machine. You can feel the weight of the ages in a room this old, and it pained me not to be able to take photos of such a beautiful space. (The photograph to the right is courtesy of TripAdvisor.) The shelves in the library are short, long, and set perpendicular to the walls rather than the floor-to-ceiling wall shelving that would later become popular. This was an effort to protect the books from dampness that might come seeping through the walls. Interestingly, the books were once stored in these areas horizontally until the library staff realized around 1600 that 10 times more books could fit in the space if they were stored upright. If I had unlimited space, I would actually prefer to store my books horizontally because I like the way it looks. I guess this makes me very old fashioned, at least in that regard.

Selden End expansion
An expansion was added next to the medieval library with wall shelving for 14,000 more books, and this area is what dominates the hallway as you enter. This area, called Selden End, has the floor-to-ceiling wall shelving covering two stories. The top half has books shelved normally because the staircases leading to the walkway above served as a barrier against their removal. The books on the bottom were chained to prevent their theft. Again, no photographs were allowed so the one on the left comes courtesy of IES Abroad. The books are shelved in categories, with the books for a Bachelor of Arts in the gallery. A printed catalog was sent to every university in Europe with the books available indexed by author.

This building in many ways reflects the old notion of librarians as guardians of the collections. It defeats the notion of a modern library to hoard books as if the patrons are thieves and destroyers rather than seekers of knowledge. Much of this stems from books' rarity before the invention and widespread use of the printing press, but it still strikes those from modern society as a little outrageous.

One of my favorite stories about the library during our tour was about the boys who worked underground in the early 1900s carting books from storage to the library. These "Bodley Boys" were hand-picked by the librarian for their intelligence. The poor boys who would otherwise have had no formal education were allowed to take books home with them. They would return to the library after reading their books to discuss what they had learned with the librarian. This generosity towards the poor was surprising and the librarian's thinking was far ahead of his time.