Wednesday, July 3, 2013

The Library of all Libraries

Track 7/03: The Smiths: "Cemetry Gates"

This was one very long, but interesting day: a day trip to Oxford! We left for our train at the crack of dawn  (6:30, ugh!) and arrived in this medieval city before things got bustling, so it was interesting to experience it so quiet, as later that afternoon it was entirely different with crowds and tour groups crammed onto every sidewalk. Oxford is, of course, home to the University of Oxford which is comprised of more than 40 different colleges/halls. One really gets a sense of the selective nature of this institution, the enrollment is so limited in each school, and some of the restrictions regarding admission go back to the 1400's; just one of the many examples of how this place is dripping with history (eat your heart out, Harvard).

Our primary destination was the Bodleian Library & Radcliffe Camera. We had a tour of the site where building began in 1428 and took 60 years to complete. Some modifications were made in the 17th century by Christopher Wren (who was actually the chair of astronomy at Oxford and was granted a prize for a design plan for the remodel, which is what prompted him to become an architect!) and the Radcliffe Camera was built in the 18th century.

The Bodleian is just incredible, both in the scope of the collection and the aesthetics of the place itself. The oldest reading room of the library is Duke Humfrey's library which is the bibliophile's version of flourless chocolate dessert. It is so disgustingly rich in treasures, and as the Bodleian has the distinction of being the most renowned collection in the world due to its size and age, this is really as good as it gets. The Bodleian contains 11 million printed volumes plus endless manuscripts and treasures, it includes the largest collection of children's books and of the only 100 Hebrew incunables known in the world 67 reside here! We could not take pictures in the reading room, but you'll have an idea of what it looks like as they filmed the scenes for the restricted book section of Hogwart's library for the Harry Potter films here. It is located on the second floor, as due to dampness, flooding and vermin it was preferable to build libraries on higher levels, and so the reading room lies above the magnificent fan-vaulted ceiling of the original Divinity School. Walking over to the Radcliffe Camera our guide noted that the lawn we were traversing had half a million books underneath it as underground levels with stacks connect the buildings. The Bodleian is a copyright library so publishers must submit a copy of EVERY book published in the UK, every novel, every edition, so they receive 2 van loads a week! In addition to the antiquarian and British books they hold they also collect any material they deem useful for research purposes so while they have a Gutenberg Bible they also have Playboy Magazine. Like most English libraries you cannot borrow materials from the Bodleian.

We then had a tour of Christ Church college, although we did not get to see the library. Our guide gave us a history of Oxford as well, and it was a good experience to tour another portion at the University of Oxford to learn a little more about the history of other parts of the school. 26 British Prime Ministers have been educated at Oxford, and 13 of them went to Christ Church. The whole operation is so unlike the American college set-up, especially so different from my own program at a public university, that it just seems like the very elite of higher education. I don't know that there is an American equivalent for being able to state that you attended a school set up on the site of a 9th century monastery by Cardinal Wolsey during the reign of Henry VIII...

We heard an awful lot about Lewis Carroll on this tour as Alice's Adventures in Wonderland was inspired by many people and scenes Carroll experienced at Christ Church. The White Rabbit character represented the Dean of Christ Church at the time who constantly arrived very late for dinner. The Great Hall where this took place is of course also the model for the dining hall of Hogwarts in the Harry Potter films. Our tour group was able to stand at the front where faculty dine, much to the envy of other visitors.

The tower at Christ Church ( built by...give it a guess...: Christopher Wren) houses a 6.5 ton bell that apparently chimes 101 times every day at 9 pm before the gates to the college are locked. We did a bit of shopping the remainder of the day before taking an 8:01 train back to London, but I did not notice a prevalence of deafness in the locals.     

1 comment:

  1. Looks like a fab time you are having ! I SO enjoy your writing :) Give the queen a wave for me! Xo