Friday, July 16, 2010

Oxford's Bodleian Library

Today was our trip to Oxford! We caught a train at 9.30 this morning from Paddington Station and what confusion! There were so many people on the train, we ended up standing most of the way to Oxford – about an hour and a half away. I was lucky and got to sit down the last half hour (which was good for my leg as it was hurting SO much by then) but a number of the others had to stand the whole way.

Once we got there, our instructor, Dr Welsh passed out tickets to the local tour bus that you can hop on and off of all day as it tours the town. The audio commentary given at the same time via a closed radio system, was rather interesting, too.

Bodleian Library:
The bus dropped us off fairly close to the Bodleian library where our tour was set for the day. Bodleian libraries actually refers to a collection of all the libraries in the Oxford University system – over 40 of them while the singular Bodleian Library refers to the main research branch which is the one we visited.

The first incarnation of the library began in 1320 with 20 books in the University Church of St. Mary the Virgin. It wasn’t until Duke Humfrey, the younger brother of King Henry V, donated 281 manuscripts that the need for a larger facility was needed. The new building over the Divinity School was started in 1424 but because of chronic shortages of funds, the building was not completed until 1488 – over 64 years later. Unfortunately in 1550, in a purge of all things Roman Catholic, all the books were destroyed – many by burning. It wasn’t until Sir Thomas Bodley, in 1598, offered money to refurnish the old library for 2,500 books donated by himself and a variety of other donors. This was the first use of chairs – in the previous library, all books had been on tilted tables and men had to stand to read them. Until that time, the books had all been in book presses or chained to the tilted tables and this was the first use of shelves. In 1610, Bodley arranged with the Stationers’ Company of London to receive a copy of every book published in England and registered with them at Stationers’ Hall. Of course, receiving a copy of every book meant the collection was growing fast and they quickly ran out of room. To Bodley, the only solution was to donate more money and finance the first extension to the building.

From then on, the library’s history has really been a story of growth – every few years absorbing more space or building more buildings to store its ever increasing collection. They currently house more than 11 million printed items and it is the second largest library and the largest university library in the UK.

Our tour was quite interesting, starting with a visit to the oldest part still called Duke Humfrey’s library. Sadly we weren’t allowed to take pictures, but the ceiling was painted beautifully, the colors still vibrant after several hundred years. Here we were shown a couple of things that surprised me.

First, their original security system had been to chain the books to the shelves and tables. There had been one example kept to show visitors and because the chain was to the front of the book at the top furthest away from the spine, (chaining the spine would have caused damage every time the book was opened) the books had to be put on the shelf with their spines against the back of the shelves so the chains wouldn’t cause damage to other books. With the spine hidden, each book had a number written on the fore edge and there was a list on each shelf with each number and the title of the book. Essentially, it was the first form of a catalog!

Second, for conservation/preservation, they had wrapped three sides of the books in acid-free board with a cloth tie over the spine to leave it visible. I had never seen anything like this as all boxed books I’d seen have been completely boxed, not just on three sides with the fourth open for view. I have to admit, it looks nicer seeing all the real spines rather than a bunch of gray boxes with typed or handwritten labels.

We also got to see the conveyor system in the basement that carries books between the Radcliffe Camera (another building of the library) and the main library building across the street and back. It’s rather old and looks like the whole thing is wrought iron with a light coating of rust from the last century. It carries small tubs containing books and dangles them as it carries them along on hooks. Really, it’s rather interesting, but we were told there are plans to replace it before too long.

After the actual library, we toured some of the rooms that are below Duke Humfrey’s library – the Divinity School, the Convocation House and the Chancellor’s Court – all of which had some very impressive wood work and stone craft for the walls and ceilings.

The Rest of the Day:
After our visit to the Library and a bit of lunch, Susan and I took the tour bus around Oxford where I promptly fell asleep. Apparently I enjoyed lunch more than I thought. Susan was kind enough to wake me up when we got to Oxford Castle or I probably would have spent a good hour or two riding the bus around, snoring my head off.

I have to say, I kind of enjoyed the castle more than I enjoyed the library. That’s probably because it’s only my second castle but my nth library over here. And people usually weren’t imprisoned in libraries after which they were taken out into the courtyard where they were later hung. At least not to my knowledge. Very few historic battles (okay, so Oxford Castle didn’t have that many historic battles but it *could* have), storming the gates or cruel gaolmen (unless you count some of the really grumpy librarians) really happen inside libraries. Those reach out to the geeky side of me while the castle reaches out to the slightly gory side of me.

It turns out the castle was more of a tower and a local jail turned prison. And it had been used as a prison up until 1996. The tower was one of the oldest, and pre-Saxon, dating it to before the 1066 invasion. It had been rebuilt, of course, by the Saxons. The view from the top was great – even though the hike up the tiny and steep spiral stone staircase was really unnerving. And the visit to the crypt (called a crypt even though no one is buried there) was unpleasant. I’m afraid I’m much too sensitive to smells, and the dank wet smell of the stone crypt bothered my allergies. I was glad to get out of there. After the tower and the crypt, we got to see the cells which they had turned into a museum on the history of the prison. It had just started out as a local jail, but had quickly progressed into a larger prison that was actually in use until 1996 when the cells were ruled as being in violation of basic human rights. They didn’t have toilets or sinks for running water. The inmates only got one shower a week and once change of clothes given to them after their shower. Because of overcrowding, they had 3 inmates in a very small room – about 5 feet wide by 10 feet long. There was only one small window about 6 inches by 10 inches that was the only air supply for the room. I could really see how it would violate human rights.

Not only did they keep prisoners, they also carried out executions in their courtyard up until 1863. The whole story of the prison is rather interesting as part of it has now been turned into Malmaison, a luxury hotel. Rates start at £220 /night (about $350). While it would be interesting to see, I don’t think I’d want to stay there. Who knows if they’d let me out again.

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