Wednesday, July 2, 2008

The Bodleian Library

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.

Such was the oath I swore yesterday in the ancient hall outside the Bodleian library, enmeshed in a history that goes back more than four centuries. The hall I sat in, formerly used as the British Parliament during the civil war and the plague era, contained a few dozen Bread Loaf students eager for the privilege of using a research-only library housed in a half dozen or so buildings, containing "10 to 12 million books, depending on how you count them," according to the librarian inducting us. Some are stored across the street from the library in a vast series of underground floors; others can be found housed in "Deep Store", an abandoned salt mine outside the city.

We, the researchers, must request a book to be delivered to one of the Bodleian's many reading rooms and then wait as various librarians search for it, put it in a crate on a conveyer through the storage  area, stick it onto a rather old lift that occasionally breaks down, take it out, put it on another conveyer which takes it through a tunnel across the street, then take it out and deliver it to Radcliffe Camera lower reading room, or whichever one we have selected in whichever building we are waiting. This process will take between one and four hours. The clear message delivered? Don't even try to order up a book at the last minute for a research paper, you'll never get it! And what if we want to take a book out? Ha! When the king of England famously sent over a note asking to borrow a book in the seventeenth century the librarian quickly denied his request. The Bodleian is for research ONLY, even if you're a king. For a lowly graduate student such as myself, it offers a growing collection that adds 3-5,000 books every week, and a copy of every single book published in the UK since mid seventeenth century. My lending privileges do not, however, allow me to touch the manuscripts it houses from before 1650, I am allowed to walk through their room and look at them from afar, which I did yesterday (see the third picture above, though all these pics are from google images - no photos are allowed within most of the library). In that room lie three copies of the Magna Carta, the original Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, first editions of everything you can think of, and more. Plus, as the librarian rather proudly told us, it served as the library in the first Harry Potter movie!     

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