Last stop Oxford

I have no idea why I like Oxford so much. I avoid George Street like the plague, would walk miles to avoid the toilets at the rail station, and head for the Eagle and Child only to end up at Itsu. But I know my way around, could spend all day at Blackwell Books and the Natural History Museum, count walking Port Meadow as one of my all-time favourite activities, and I love the Bodleian.

It’s silly to love a library. And of course, I’ve been there before. But it’s centrally located, unlike the Cambridge University Library, and they are so kind.

My library card had expired on June 22, so I had to do the application for a card over again. But they updated my card, upgraded my status so I could view a special collection, and gave me a new card, all in minutes. Didn’t even make me do another photo. Because my card had expired, they had permitted me to order everything I needed by email instead, and it was all ready for me.

Now, the Bodleian isn’t perfect. The card costs quite a bit. There was no trolley to haul my books, like I’d had at the British Library — it took me three trips from service desk to table. There was no drinking fountain conveniently located – it was down three flights of stairs. And their computer system did erase my entire e-cart when my card expired, forcing me to reconstruct my list the week before I left. But love is blind.

In the Weston (new) Library is the John Johnson Collection of ephemera, with Box 43: Education. This was why I needed special clearance. I arrive and was given the precious box, and told there was another (Box 45, apparently) waiting for me too. I was seeking ads or items about correspondence colleges. Many of the items were fragile, and this condition was not helped by their being taped to pieces of heavy paper. I managed not to tear or soil anything, and found gems like this:

Note the date, though: many items were from the 1930s rather than earlier. But I did found some, and I was happy, and I went up to ask for the other box, but was told I had to return the first one before I could have it. So I handed it to the librarian, and he got me the other box. This had more things about lower schools, rather than colleges, but had some interesting tracts on eduction, such as Illustrations of the Interrogative System of Education (1823) by a Sir Richard Phillips that recommended what we today would call “active learning”.

That’s when I packed up Box 45, stood up to turn it in, and realised I couldn’t find my library card. I looked all round my desk, and in my bag (they make you put everything you can bring inside a clear plastic bag – nothing was hiding). No card. I thought, “oh no! it got mixed up with these papers!”  I took every item back out of Box 45 first and sorted through every single page, carefully turning each item individually, but it wasn’t in there.

I thought, “oh no! Box 43!”. The librarian had kindly advised that I not declare that I was finished with a box until I was quite sure, so he’d kept Box 43 for me. I told  him he was right (but not why) and exchanged boxes. I carefully went through every single item in Box 43. No card. And here fate intervened, as another scholar went up to the desk to check out an item, and handed over his card, and said, “you keep that, then?” and the librarian explained that yes, they keep your card as long as you have a box out. It is a sign of how tired I was on this trip that I had forgotten he had kept my card.

Over at the Old Bodleian, where your card is swiped instead of held, I discovered that Bodleian librarians are quick with a knife.

One of the journals I’d ordered had clearly never been read, not since it was printed in 1888. I know this because the pages weren’t cut yet. At first I thought it was just one page, but there were many. After the third time bringing it to the desk so the librarian could cut one with a letter knife, he asked if I would like the knife so I could cut them myself? I told him I’d be terrified. I was quite sure that I, clumsy at the best of times, had no business slicing open 130-year-old pages. Thanks, though.

I found many advertisements I was looking for, and a photo I needed.

So why do I love the Bodleian?

Among the many other reasons is this: the windows.

Not only do they allow light in, but the staff still permits me to take items to the window to photograph them in the light. At the British Library, as I’ve complained to many people, they request that you don’t even stand up. The National Archives has camera racks, but if  you don’t have an old-style camera the rack just blocks the light. Cambridge is better, but the light is artificial.

But at the Bodleian the sun shines on your work. Worth the whole thing.


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