Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Bodleian Library Rules

Enter the chambers below the Bodleian Library, and you will understand why kings chose to rule from Oxford. The oak-paneled room (above), called the Convocation/Congregation House, housed the governing bodies of Oxford University for centuries. The university chancellor sat upon the throne like a king.

During the 17th century, King Charles I and then King Charles II sat upon the thrown like a chancellor and convened parliament in this miniature Westminster. The proportions between the benches are the exact same ratio in both: the length of an arm with a sword and six inches spare.

Before modern plumbing, the building was not heated because of the books that reside in the library above it. Due to the damp and to periodic flooding of the Thames/Isis, libraries were never on the ground floor. The Convocation House and the Bodleian Library were additions to the Divinity School. The earliest colleges were founded for mostly religious studies.

The Divinity School was built in the 15th century to house university lectures and examinations. Prior to that, the university had used St. Mary’s, a church. Observe the intricate masonry and you will understand why it took sixty years to complete the task.

Does this glorious space looks familiar? The Divinity School was the infirmary in a Harry Potter movie, and the Bodleian Library was the Hogwarts Library. I suppose they waived the no photography in the library rule for J.K. Rowling.

The first 3 walls of the Divinity School were beautifully executed, but then the master builder died. The new builder cut some corners, or rather he didn’t cut them with much finesse. The second master builder was on a tighter budget and schedule.

The Bishop of Kemp was not pleased and raised funds so that the ceiling could be constructed in lavish detail. The initials and the coats of arms of the many benefactors were carved into the ceiling. There are 450 carvings but some are decorative, even humorous, including a naked jester scaling an arch.

Kemp was such a good fund raiser that a second floor was added to the Divinity School to house the university library (it had been in St. Mary’s). Sadly the entire library collection was destroyed during the English Reformation.

The University library collection was restored by Sir Thomas Bodley who had been a fellow at Merton College before becoming a diplomat. In his travels, Bodley collected 3-4 thousand books. He donated his collection to the library and urged friends to do the same. Bodley refurbished the space, and the Bodleian Library was opened in 1602 as a reference library. Even kings weren’t allowed to take out books. The old books were large, leather bound and wood-backed. Not light reads.

An architect could tell you that there would be trouble adding such a heavy addition, but Oxford has never (even today) offered a degree in architecture. That field was considered a trade. The airy Divinity School was not originally designed for a second floor let alone wood-backed books inside solid oak bookcases.

Christopher Wren was an Oxford graduate and former professor of Astronomy. He had trained to become an architect after university. Wren came to his alma mater’s rescue and saved the building. He also added a door so that the growing student body could proceed from the Divinity School to the Sheldonian Theatre for degree ceremonies.

You can see, but not touch, the 16th century books in the Arts End of the Bodleian. The most valuable tombs are chained to the oak bookcases. The wood beamed ceiling is carved with Latin mottos. Gold-framed oil paintings of the college founders hang on the walls. It is dark despite the large windows and the addition of electricity. The space smells appealingly of ancient paper and history.

Over time the Bodleian has expanded into a quad with a wrap-around second floor reading room. Most of the books are now stored in the basement levels in closed stacks with climate control. Readers used to drop book requests down tubes to librarians, but now it’s computerized. A mid 20th century pneumatic system, like a scene from Wallace and Gromit , brings the books up from the lower levels to the readers. The gears grind and books are raised and lowered in metal cases. It was fun to watch. In the reading room a huge bell rings at closing time. In the past, closing time was at the whim of the harassed librarian.

Today there are 8 million books in the Bodleian. “The Bod” is a copyright library (like the American Library of Congress) for all British publications after 1900. There are another 5-6 million books in the other 100 libraries at Oxford. Most of those are at the colleges or the departments and are lending libraries.

To ensure the safety of the priceless Bodleian collection, a reader must take an oath in his or her native tongue:

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.

My tour was courtesy of the Oxford Newcomers Club led by the knowledgeable Marie Ruiz.

For a laugh, read the Onion's "Area Eccentric Reads Entire Book."


rpkelly said...

I was on that tour, Sarah, and it was FABULOUS. I amazed even myself at how much I was able to regurgitate for my in-laws this week. We were lucky to get in to the Divinity School to see a special exhibit of religious texts - a torah, a Christian bible, and a koran. Did you see the Magna Cartae when they were exhibited? What a library!

Anonymous said...

My favourite Bod legend concerns when King Charles 1st was at Oxford during the Civil War. Chazza figured he should do some background reading on civil wars, so he ordered a bunch of books to be sent to his lodgings at Christchurch. Swiftly came back the reply: "Sorry, the Bodleian is NOT a lending library. Even to Kings..."
I sometimes wonder if he ever did get round to it - or whether he was like that Onion column "Ask the Kid who Didn't Do the Reading." (In this case, "Ask the King who Didn't Do the Reading" of course) Thinking about how things ended up for him, probably the latter...