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Bodleian Tunnels

Thanks to the organizational and connective powers of the regional Smith Club, C. and I headed off to Oxford yesterday for a bit of library tourism. The head of Oxford's libraries is a graduate, so we started in Convocation Hall, with its lovely fan vaulting, with her life history and current goals for the system; it was fascinating. Then we were off, sub-divided into four smaller groups, for a tour of the library complex, beginning with the Divinity School's multifaceted developments (Roundheads, Christopher Wren, Harry Potter) and continuing upstairs in Duke Humphrey's Library (chained books, window light, lovely sense of space, good incentive to go work on manuscripts there sometime). We walked over to see the layers of the Radcliffe Camera (all much smaller than I'd imagined it), including the space below which used to be a covered town market.

Then, we went down into the tunnels. The library system is still using paper and vacuum tubes to send reader requests, and a coveyer belt system to send the books back up to readers. All the infrastructure for this defines most of the tunnels, the caged-in conveyor belt, the tubes dipping in and out of walls, long, sloping corridors leading under courtyards and the road. Below too is a history in compact shelving, from Gladstone's sturdy designed to German ones to more familiar modern iterations on how to store too many books in not enough space. I really liked exploring the tunnels!

We came back up to light in the new Bodley library, and a room full of collection items that had been pulled for us. The recently-acquired manuscript of Frankenstein, about thirty pages of it, but as complete as copy as survives. Jane Austen's notebook, Volume the First, book-like and formal and full of enthusiasm and neatly-spaced lines. Margot Asquith's diary, and personal photos from her papers, casual family photos of people whose lives were very public. Diaries and letters from Dame Margaret Joan Anstee, UN special representative to Angola, and a letter from Flora Shaw, journalist, from her time in Nigeria. (Indeed, she apparently coined the name 'Nigeria'!) Excerpts from Phoebe Somer's gorgeous drawing books, lovely, beautifully-observed watercolors of everyday life moments in Kenya and Tanzania. Letters from Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkin, Nobel Prize winner for her work in chemistry.

Wonderful as all these were, what caught me were the medieval works. St. Margaret's Gospels is a lovely, elegantly-illuminated book in a tidy, clear hand which seems likely to have belonged to Queen Margaret of Scotland, based on the miracle which happened to it and which is recorded at the volume's beginning. It was dropped into water, and was rescued, dry and unharmed. There was also a to-scale reproduction of the Goff map, a map I have often seen in reproduction and excerpt, but have never had the luxury of exploring it in such detail. It shows Britain, full of labeled cities, with the roads linking them and mileage. It's a great deal of fun to explore, both for its characterization of particular towns, and for the geometric abstraction of all its rivers. None of the handlers really knew more about it than its name, so I could be useful.

Afterward, we went off for lunch at St. Edmund's Hall, and then austengirl, C. and I meandered along the Isis's branch which runs along Christchurch Meadow. We also explored the covered market. How have I never been there before? Timing worked out such that C. and I also stopped by Borders to catch the Write Fantastic talk about reading and writing science fiction as part of the Fringe Festival. A quick dinner, and then home.


( 7 comments — Leave a comment )
Apr. 5th, 2009 11:21 pm (UTC)
That sonic boom that just shook the entire region is my envy!
Apr. 6th, 2009 12:02 am (UTC)
I was fortunate enough to go on a similar tour about twenty years ago - I was a librarian at school, and the teacher in charge of the library happened to be an Oxford graduate. They were using the vacuum tubes and conveyor-belt system back then, too, although our guide said that they were intending to bring in a proper computerised system within the next couple of years. I guess they didn't - good for them!

At one point, we saw a box passing along the conveyor belt with "Box 6 - Do not use!" written on it in big letters. I asked about this, and our guide asked one of the other librarians, who told us that box 6 was a kind of Flying Dutchman - it had a tendency to disappear (along with any books it might happen to contain) into the depths of the conveyor belt system for hours at a time, and then reappear randomly without warning.
Apr. 6th, 2009 08:47 pm (UTC)
The conveyor belt system was broken the day we were in. It had been working the previous day, so the two boxes we saw were in captivity, trapped in the depths of the cages.
Apr. 6th, 2009 02:16 am (UTC)
Ooooh, neat!
(Deleted comment)
Apr. 6th, 2009 08:48 pm (UTC)
Pity. So it's a bit of a gamble which room I'd end up in, depending on my mss. of choice?
Apr. 6th, 2009 12:22 pm (UTC)
That sounds like an absolutely wonderful day! It almost makes me want to get involved with one of the local Smith clubs, but I'm kind of scared of my 'local'. I'm convinced that its full of socialites and rich people who have 'succeeded'. I'm still a struggling academic!
Apr. 6th, 2009 08:50 pm (UTC)
I lucked out with this Smith club. It's a new one, in essence, one which had lapsed, and was restarted *after* I moved back to London, so I could be there from the beginning. We have some old hands around, but the work and the energy and the ideas come mostly from people who haven't been involved for more than two years at the outside. Further, we have a huge international component, i.e. lots of our members, even the most active ones, don't live here all the time. We have lots of people passing through for a year and then on again. We're currently one of the most active clubs in the world, apparently, thanks to all this new momentum, and have gotten a lot of attention from the college recently as a result (which is nice!)

No idea what yours is like!
( 7 comments — Leave a comment )