15 August 2011

The Bodleian Library at Oxford University

July 15

It’s interesting to note that the day before we went to Oxford, the Bodleian Library bought the original manuscript of Jane Austen’ unfinished novel The Watsons. Obviously is wasn’t there for us to see, but it was exciting to think that we were there when it was happening.

Up bright and early, and I had a really bad cold that had me congested and runny-nosed and feeling really rotten.  The group took the tube over to Paddington station, well before our train, but the trains in London are tricky and we wanted to be safe.  Everyone spread out to look for coffee or breakfast and whatnot, and also to take a few pictures with the Paddington Bear statue.

Once our train was called up and we boarded, it took about an hour to get to Oxford.  Then it was a bit of a hike from the station to the middle of Oxford, where we visited the Bodleian gift shop before our tour of the library. 

The library is actually in several buildings, looking out over a quadrangle. The first room we entered was part of the Divinity School, big and empty except for benches and raised podium areas, where we sat down for a bit of a history lesson (this is the room that served as the hospital wing in the Harry Potter movies). There has been a settlement in Oxford since c800, and the area started out with a reputation for education because there was a monastic school.  The modern university has thirty-eight colleges, and the oldest dates from the 13th century.  Each is run the same way it has been from the beginning, including being financially self-sufficient.   
There are about twelve students that enter each college each year.

As a student at Oxford, everything happens in your college.  Every student has a tutor that they meet with for an hours a week to make sure they are keeping up with their studies, which is an awesome system if you ask me.  I could have used that in undergrad, just to spur me to do my homework. 

Originally the library was built in 1320 as one of two add-on rooms at the church.  The room we were sitting in was purpose-built in the 15th century as a lecture and exam room.  Students would have oral exams, conducted in Latin, and the general public cold attend, including family, friends, enemies and anyone else who so wished. The room was done up by a master builder who made everything very detailed, and it took him 15 years to build three years, after which he up and died. 

A new builder was hired for the fourth wall, and it’s visible where he began as detailed as the first guy, but was quickly told to make it simple to save money and probably time as well.  Everything in the room is original except for a few doors, one which went through the middle of a wall and messed up the symmetry.
Fundraising was necessary to build the ceiling, and the coats of arms and initials of every donor are included on it, about 455 in total.  There are eighty wheat sheaves, and the builder made sure his initials and other identifiers were all over the place.  There is also a jester climbing up a center stone beam who is rumored to be nude but is artfully covered so no one can see.  The leftover money from the ceiling was spent building the library above.  Libraries were built on the upper floors until the end of the 19th century because of damp and flooding.

We moved into the next room, which looked a lot like a mini parliament, all dark wood benches and a throne-like seat at the front. Later we learned that the small podium in front of the seat was on a spring, letting in be pushed out of the way for whoever needed to sit there (including Henry VIII) to get in without being squashed down to nothing first.  Her we learned more about how the library came to be.

The library was completed in 1488; during the Reformation HVIII burned the books in the library and only about a dozen survived. Sir Thomas Bodley decided to rebuild and refurbish the library, and collected three to four thousand books on his travels.  Others also offered books, and Sir Christopher Wren saved the building and designed an extension, as the load of the books was too heavy for the building. 
The Bodleian Library receives one copy of every book published in the United Kingdom, a plan which has been in existence since 1610 and has resulted in a collection of over eleven million books. 

Our group moved upstairs to see the actual library then, and it was beautiful.  Dark, lots of wood and of course a second floor balcony, which thankfully we did not venture onto, as only staff is allowed up there. Aside from the Bodleian, every college and department has its own library.

All books must be used on the premises; patrons must request what materials are desired for use and note which reading room they are using, and the staff will bring the materials.  We saw a sample of how books used to shelved, spine-inward because they were all chained to the shelves.  Books used to be very precious, yes?  The original bookshelves are still there, and there is always a window in between, to let in as much light as possible.  As we stood there looking at the beautiful room, Olivia asked why the shelves went from twelve to fourteen, and even though our guide asked at the front desk and there was a bit of conference on the subject, no one actually knew why.

Our visit inside the library itself was actually very short because there were students studying, but what we saw was beautiful.

We left the Bodleian and crossed over to the Radcliffe Camera, which is a large round building done by the same architect that built St. Martin-in-the-Fields in London.  The building is the same golden stone as everything else seems to be built of, and it originally had open arches as entrances, with no doors.  It was initially used only for medicine. 

We climbed another spiral staircase, me hugging the wall, and entered the round reading room there.  We had to be quiet again because of studiers, but the room was high and open, with another balcony area all around.  After our brief glimpse we went back out, and that was the end of our Bodleian tour.

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