Thursday, May 22, 2008

A library worth the trip

While I was in Oxford, I was bound and determined to use what little free time was available to me to engage in some serious research in the library system at the University of Oxford, especially the Bodleian Library. Gaining access to this library, as an American, is not as simple as heading down to the Peach County Public Library and obtaining a library card. Instead, I had to first find an Oxford alum to sponsor my application for admission. Luckily, Dr. Kern Alexander, the former president of Murray State University in Kentucky, was the facilitator of the Roundtable and an Oxford alum. He sponsored my application.

Then, I took my application form, and the twelve pound application fee, to the library’s administration building, where my research proposal was considered. After another half hour, I had my picture taken and I was asked, by a very serious looking young lady, to recite the infamous Bodleian oath:

"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."

Then, after another 15 minutes, I was handed a shiny plastic card. I was an official patron of the University of Oxford library system. I could now walk past the velvet ropes and security guards which keep the tourists and other riff-raff at bay and, for the rest of my life, enter the oldest library in the English speaking world.

What is now the Bodleian dates back to a 14th century collection of books and manuscripts kept by Thomas Cobham, the Bishop of the University Church of Saint Mary the Virgin. In 1489, the Duke of Gloucester ordered that a suitable room be built atop the Divinity School to house the now enormous collection. That room is still in existence today and is known as Duke Humfrey’s Library. (However, only three of Humfrey’s books remain in the collection.) This room is a remarkable hall, filled floor to ceiling with ancient books and manuscripts. You’ve probably seen it as it has been prominently featured in the Harry Potter series of films.

I was guided to a small research nook by a stereotypically British research librarian. He was a wizened older gentleman with tiny rectangular reading glasses perched on the end of his long and winding nose. “Murphy, eh?” His pale blue eyes twinkled as he ran a gnarled hand through his thin white hair. “Yeh look more Irish than American.”

He smiled again as he read over the computer-generated list of books I had requested when I entered the building. The books were primarily 15th century schismatic texts and manuscripts; but I couldn’t resist asking to see the Tolkien manuscripts while I was there. “Yeh’ll be needin’ these, I suppose.” My companion fished a pair of white cotton gloves out of his pocket.

Within a few minutes, the ancient books and manuscripts arrived, each in its own white archivist box. I was shown how to correctly open the box and how to properly remove the contents and place them on the soft foam book form in front of me with my now-gloved hands. No photocopying was allowed, nor was the use of ink allowed, so I began studiously copying the passages I needed, in pencil, into my notebook.

The sheer sensual and tactile experience was overwhelming. The unmistakable aroma of the ancient parchment pages mixed with the leather binding to create a scent that was headier than the perfume of lilies to book lovers. As far as one could see, in the muted task lighting, stood row after row of ancient oak bookshelves; each filled with equally ancient manuscripts. I physically started when I noticed that, shelved directly in front of me, was a later copy of the Codex Sinatica, which was Constantine’s version of the Bible. The desks at which each researcher quietly worked were equally ancient and time-worn. Shallow grooves had been worn in the wood from centuries of rushed pencils copying down passages from these tomes. I was struck, however, by the noticeable lack of graffiti.

Despite that one lack of words, the Bodleian makes up for it by housing some very impressive works among its collections. Among the most famous are:
· William Shakespeare’s first folio of works.
· A Gutenberg Bible
· Poet Percy Bysshe Shelley’s letters.
· Four copies of the Magna Carta. (Another copy is held in a small chapel just outside of Oxford and you can get much closer to the document at this lesser-known chapel.)
· The Song of Roland.
· A famous Aztec work known as the Codex Mendoza.

Currently, the Bodleian’s 117 miles of shelving hold over eight million works (not counting their digital holdings). The library is growing so fast that they have taken over a defunct salt mine in Cheshire to use as a site to store holdings. Work is also underway to improve facilities for the preservation and archiving of rare manuscripts.

You can see why my new library card is the one souvenir I allowed myself while in Oxford. I was also able to discover a great deal of rare and original source material which, I hope, will lead to a new article about a faked appearance of the Virgin Mary (or the Holy Spirit) in 1555.

You should also be able to tell why I’ve already got the itch to go back.
Dr. B. Keith Murphy is the Associate Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Fort Valley State University

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