Saturday, July 17, 2010

A Day in Oxford (Hurrah!)

Images in this post are courtesy of Wikipedia.
Yesterday morning we all got up and were ready to go at 8:30. We left in small groups and made our way to Paddington Station. We got there in enough time to peruse the Paddington Bear area before the first train to Oxford was about to depart. All the seats were taken, but several from our class squeezed in and stood. I and a few others waited for the next train, were the first ones on board, and got to have our pick of the seats. We arrived in Oxford a little bit after 11:00.

Upon arrival we were greeted by our professor, Dr. Welsh, who had been on the first train. She had bought tickets for us to use the hop-on hop-off City Sightseeing bus, and had those and our maps ready to go. We hopped on the bus and rode down to the Bodleian library. We weren't in time for the first tour at 11:30, but we found out what time we needed to be there for the second tour at 2:00. This was about the time when I realized my ticket had blown away during the bus ride on the top deck. I didn't mind walking. I had lists of recommendations  from wonderful friends who have lived in Oxford and studied there, so I knew of a wonderful little lunch spot in the St. Mary the Virgin Church, known as The Vaults & Garden Cafe. After having a bite to eat, I wandered into Blackwell's Bookstore, and promptly got lost. I managed to find my way out just in time for the tour of the Bodleian Library.
Our tour guide was a sprightly old gentleman who made us laugh, had us working hard to keep up, and was good enough that everyone I talked to afterwards said he was their favorite guide yet. He had even done some research to throw in pertinent information for us Americans, although he had mistakenly researched Ole Miss instead of the University of Southern Mississippi, and in this particular group of our class none of us were actually from USM. Unpreturbed, he started off with a lecture on the beginning centuries of the Oxford University (begun in 1187) and the Bodleian Library, which first began in the fifteenth century. The first buildings of the Oxford University were pointed out, complete with dates, numbers of students and instructors, and each entity's changing role through time. Our history lesson included not only the town and university of Oxford, but also the other first universities, in order: Bologna, Paris, and Oxford. Comparisons between medieval England and the Wild West drew some chuckles and some intriguing parallels. We learned how the original Bodleian library had been composed of 281 manuscripts donated by Humfrey, Duke of Gloucester. However, in the time of the English Reformation the manuscripts were thought to be too Catholic, and so all but 3 were sold to glovers. According to our guide, in Oxford during those tumoltuous times "there was a lot of people-burning, but not much book-burning." Our guide also pointed out some of  the meanings of the many symbols on the roof of the da Vinci school: "I could spend hours on this ceiling," he admitted before ushering us into the next area of our tour. We were shown the oldest surviving court in Oxford, from 1209, which was last used in 1968, as well as the University's Parlaiment area. Then we were escorted up to Duke Humfrey's Library, the oldest part of the Bodleian Library. It was where the original manuscripts were kept, and while it was used as a medicine school after the manusctripts were sold it once again became the Library in 1602 under the patronage of Sir Thomas Bodley, after whom the library as a whole was named. Our guide pointed out the various renovations wrought by Bodley upon the reopening of the library, to include the innovative bookcases and the idea of storing books upright. He also pointed out the frames on the end of the bookcases, and asked if we knew what they were. Since none of us knew, we learned that they were the first catalogues. In olden times, the way that librarians ensured that the books weren't stolen was by chaining the books to the bookcase. This was back when books were very rare and were only read in the actual library, so that in itself wasn't a problem. The problem was when you put the book back on the shelf. If you put it in the usual way, the chain would harm the book's cover as it went in. If you put it in upside down, the chain wouldn't harm the book, but how could you tell what book it was? The answer: they stamped a number on the side of the pages, then wrote on the frames at the end of each bookcase which bookcase, which shelf, and what number was a particular book. Then, with the idea of gallery libraries, the cheaper books would be kept in the balcony area without chains, and the only stairs down would come down right next to where the librarian sat. This was how library security worked for many years. After touring the Duke Humfrey's, we were taken down many steps to a door. The door led to a series of tunnels, which connect the Old Bodleian building with the New Bodleian building, and other buildings in the Bodleian network as well. We walked through the tunnels, watching firsthand how book requests were sent from one building to another and then filled, and generally being in awe of the fact that we were in the tunnels underneath the Bodleian. We were among the last tourists to see the tunnels as they are, on the 15th of August the tunnels will be shut down to outsiders for remodeling, and will not be open again until 2015. There's a lot of building and renovation going on between now and 2015 at the Bodleian, also in the works are plans for a new state-of-the-art book storage facility outside of Oxford. Because the Bodleian is a copyright depository (and was the first ever, by the by) storage space has always been a bit tight, with up to 5,500 additions a week. With the new facility, they can afford to store the less-used books out of town and have a bit of breathing room for the books that are used most often. But back to the basement of the Bodleian, where we were learning of all of this. During World War II, the basement of the Bodleian became a bit of an ark for many collections, from parts of the British Museum's library (what later became the British Library) to bits and pieces of many other places. It was also the main air raid shelter of the university. During all of WWII, Oxford was never bombed. There are many rumors as to why, everything from Hitler hoping to make it his new capital to Hitler wanting an honorary degree, but to this day no one actually knows why. Our tour continued up and out of the basement and into the New Bodleian building, built in 1940 after a sizeable donation by the Rockefeller Foundation. Here we learned that the Bodleian doesn't use a cataloging system like the Dewey Decimal; instead, books are cataloged by arrival date and size, which works perfectly well for the librarians. However, it is anticipated that after the renovations the portion of the library that will be open-stack to patrons may be arranged by Dewey to help readers find what they're looking for.
One thing (or, to be true, another thing) that I hadn't realized about Oxford University that amazed me was that written on the book featured in its coat of arms is a verse from a Psalm. Translated, it proclaims "the Lord is my light." Yet another reason to love Oxford.

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