Alex studies most often in the Radcliffe Camera, which houses theology books. I learned quickly after arriving in Oxford that I would not be allowed inside. You don’t understand, I wanted to say. I am The Wife of a D. Phil. Candidate. But Alex assured me it would make no difference. This, of course, had the effect of making me long to enter even more. I have stood outside the windows making faces (with the girls, providing an excuse). I have taken pictures of its exterior from every possible vantage point, including the tower of University Church, the raised gardens of Exeter, and the cupola of the Sheldonian. But the interior remained a closed book.
We met The Librarian (who shall remain nameless, bribes will get you nowhere) in front of the Radcliffe Camera. He came armed with an article about the Bodleian and the experience of more than twenty years of working there. He proceeded to give us a full tour, taking us first to secure passes he had previously arranged. The woman at the desk greeted us in a broad Irish accent, readily agreeing with The Librarian that having visitors was “quite a good thing really. Helps us not take the place for granted.” The Librarian then took us on a tour that began in the Divinity School, cycled through the Lower and Upper Reading Rooms of the Bodleian quadrangle, including the stunning Duke Humfrey’s Library, dipped down into the tunnel running under Radcliffe Square, and up into the Lower and Upper Rooms of the spectacular Radcliffe Camera (built 1749). On the way we visited the underground Gladstone Link, two enormous rooms, one on top of the other, full of the most oft-requested books and the latest arrivals from the publishers. As a copyright library, the Bodleian receives a copy of every book published in the United Kingdom. About 1,000 new books arrive every day. Book storage has always been the Bod’s real problem.
This problem was temporarily solved with the construction of the New Bodleian, straight across Broad Street from the Old, in 1940. The Librarian remembers when air compression tubes would carry slips of paper with book requests under Broad Street into the New Bod, where teams of librarians would locate the books from the extensive shelving and send them on a massive conveyor belt underground and up into an unloading room just outside the Upper Reading Room, where they were delivered to readers. This system is now obsolete, and the Bodleian’s massive collections are housed in a storage facility in Swindon that can hold 8.4 million books and maps. Requests now travel digitally and requested volumes arrive daily at the Bodleian in a van. The New Bodleian is under construction and layered with scaffolding at the moment and we did not go there.
Our tour began in the Divinity School where matriculating students annually receive their introduction to the Bodleian. When we walked through the doorway at the end, we found ourselves in a long, high-ceilinged chamber lined with gorgeous dark wooden paneling and benches, a sort of parliamentary hall for the university. I think I recognized it from the 2006 film about the life of William Wilberforce, Amazing Grace. I also think I would like to sit there by myself for at least an hour.
We retraced our steps and then headed up the staircase to the Lower and Upper Reading Rooms that form the Bodleian quadrangle. Photographs in this area are not encouraged as readers are at work in each room, seated at long wooden tables and desks. Therefore my camera stayed in my bag, but my brain was making almost-audible clicking noises as it stored images away to savor. Both rooms are long and run the width of the building(s), lit on both sides with big windows. They are lined with deep wooden shelves full of the kind of books one would expect to see: fat, hardcover, well-used, and covered in light brown or somber dark hues. Here and there on the shelves small yellow slips were poking out between books. The Bodleian’s books are never checked out. Instead, when removing a book from the shelf a reader marks the place with one of these slips, which records the seat location where he is working. As we followed The Librarian under a huge painting into yet another perfect room, Alex pointed out a yellow slip on a shelf near the floor. “Hey, I put that there this morning,” he whispered.
We learned that the Bodleian’s Upper Reading Room used to be a gallery for its vast collection of paintings and other treasures. Plenty of paintings remain, but the bulk are now displayed elsewhere.
One of the most stunning parts of the entire library was Duke Humfrey’s library, accessed up a short stair between the Lower and Upper Reading Rooms. This section has three parts: the original medieval section, Selden End, and Arts End. Walking into Arts End has to be one of my favorite moments in Oxford. It is two stories tall, with a gallery running around to reach the upper level of books. Under the gallery old wooden benches with slanted reading desks remain, though they are not in use. The ceiling and any walls not covered with books are painted, carved, and decorated. It was tall, dim, musty, and absolutely and stunningly beautiful. I have never seen anything like it.
Pictures were not encouraged in here, but I found the one below online. It almost captures it.
We haven’t even seen the Radcliffe Camera yet!
Stay tuned for: of the Bodleian, part three