Tag Archives: Oxford

At the Library door in Oxford: an imaginary interview between a Librarian and a Philanthropist

We have an unusual post on this week’s Adventures on the Bookshelf, but one very much in keeping with the blog’s name as today’s post touches on both adventure and bookshelves! Last week, Frank Egerton gave us a brilliant introduction to the Modern Languages Library at Oxford, the Taylor Institution. Now, continuing the theme of libraries, we are pleased to feature an imaginary interview with Sir Thomas Bodley, founder of Oxford’s Bodleian Library. This interview comes once again courtesy of Frank, who has imagined Sir Thomas’s responses to some probing questions about his life and his library.
The interview has been published in English on the blog Clio – la muse de l’histoire, and Francophiles among you will be pleased to hear that it is also available in a French translation on the blog Le mot juste en anglais. Many thanks to Jonathan Goldberg for inviting us to reblog this fascinating creative insight into the library at the heart of Oxford.

The Bodleian Library

“There are few greater temptations on earth than to stay permanently at Oxford in meditation, and to read all the books in the Bodleian.”
— Hilaire Belloc

The Bodleian Library (“Bodley” or “the Bod”) is the main research library of the University of Oxford and is one of the oldest libraries in Europe. It is second in size in the United Kingdom only to the British Library. It serves principally as a  reference library. Formally established in 1602, it bears the name of Sir Thomas Bodley, a fellow of Merton College, one of the 38 colleges making up the University. In 2000, a number of libraries within the University of Oxford were brought together for administrative purposes under the aegis of what was initially known as Oxford University Library Services (OULS), and since 2010 as the Bodleian Libraries, of which the Bodleian Library is the largest component. Over its various sites the Bod keeps 12 million printed books and allows access to more than 80,000 electronic journal titles. It also keeps ancient documents, manuscripts, papyrus, cards and sketches.  Much of the library’s archives were digitized and put online for public access in 2015.

The Interview…

Frank: Don’t ask me how this works but it does. Hello, Sir Thomas.

Sir Thomas: Hello, Frank. It is an honour to meet you.

Frank: The honour’s all mine Sir Thomas. So, for the benefit of our audience, it’s with great pleasure that I’m here to interview Sir Thomas Bodley, after whom the world-famous Bodleian Library was named. Sir Thomas personally paid for and masterminded the library’s refurbishment, the original building having been abandoned and its book collection destroyed during the English Reformation. An outstanding achievement, Sir Thomas, for which the world will always be grateful.

Sir Thomas: It’s kind of you to say so.

Frank: I should mention that earlier I took Sir Thomas on a tour of the library as it is now. First impressions, Sir Thomas?

Sir Thomas: Still recognisable – and I’m always pleased to see the extension at the western end. That happened after my death. It balances the building and provides lots of additional space. I’m intrigued by the glowing glass windows that readers look into on the desks. I’d like to find out more about those and these ebooks you mentioned. No swords, of course.

Frank: No, I think they were banned quite some time ago. No coffee in this part of the building either. And definitely no smoking anywhere. But perhaps—

Sir Thomas: I like to keep abreast of new things. I may not have caught up with ebooks but coffee – well that only came in fifty years after my time. And smoking – I remember Sir Walter [Raleigh] persuading Her Royal Highness [Elizabeth I] to try some. Clouds of smoke and everyone coughing. I think she saw the funny side in the end.

Queen Elizabeth I, Unknown continental artist, oil on panel, circa 1575. National Portrait Gallery.

Frank: Now, Sir Thomas, as you know, we’re particularly interested in languages and European culture here – as well as books and libraries —

Sir Thomas: All interconnected.

Frank: Quite! Your experience of Europe came at an early age, Sir Thomas, didn’t it?

Sir Thomas: Yes. I was born on 2nd March 1545 and my first journey to Europe was undertaken in 1555. Dad was a merchant in Exeter who had strong Protestant faith and who’d helped pay for the suppression of a Catholic rebellion in the west country. When Queen Mary [Tudor] came to the throne, our family fled, initially to Frankfurt and from thence to Geneva, where Dad set up a printing business – that must have had some influence on my love of the printed word! Europe seemed then to be the heart of Protestantism – at least where we were. We were with John Knox in Frankfurt and at Geneva I studied Divinity at the feet of Calvin himself – a tireless worker and an inspiration to us all. I also studied Hebrew and Greek. And of course, we were surrounded by people speaking different languages. After Mary died we returned but by then my west country childhood was but a distant memory.

Frank: What memories of Europe you must have had, though.

Sir Thomas: True, but there was something frustrating about being so close to European culture and yet cut off from it by the discipline of the school room. I vowed to go back.

Frank: But first to Oxford, the city that became synonymous with the name of Sir Thomas Bodley.

Sir Thomas: No sooner did we return than I was an undergraduate at Magdalen College. Back on English soil in September 1559 and a matriculated student before the year was out. My studies at the Geneva Academy stood me in good stead. I did well and in 1564 I became a fellow of Merton College. I was its first lecturer in Greek a year later. For a time I thought my career would begin and end in Oxford. But, there’s this restlessness in me – perhaps it was being uprooted at a tender age then glimpsing how huge the world is. Questing, questing – I always wanted more. I tried many different things. Languages were at the heart of things – don’t get me wrong – Greek and in particular Hebrew, the study of which I and another fellow promoted energetically, opening up the knowledge contained in texts written in that language. But then there was a string of other posts alongside my academic life – college bursar, garden master, deputy public orator. What opportunities there were!

Frank: And friendships,

Sir Thomas: Certainly – one especially. At Oxford I got to know Sir Henry Savile – a cultured and steadfast man who would teach me so much when I started the library project at the end of the century.

Frank: But before that, travel and diplomacy.

Sir Thomas: Travel, yes. I’d never forgotten the vow I made when I returned in 1559. Here’s what I wrote in my autobiography: “I waxed desirous to travel beyond the seas, for attaining to the knowledge of some special modern tongues, and for the increase of my experience in the managing of affairs…” I journeyed to France then to Germany and Italy, learning French, Italian and Spanish. I spent over four years in those countries. The languages fascinated me but so too did new skills I could use in the service of our nation. Under the patronage of Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, and Sir Francis Walsingham, I became a gentleman usher to the Queen and a member of parliament – though the latter was, sad to say, the least well executed of my duties. From 1585 until 1598, when I threw in the towel, my life was devoted to diplomacy and discrete negotiation—

Frank: Spying?

Sir Thomas: We never thought of it in those terms. Not like your James Bond—

Frank: James Bond?

Sir Thomas: I told you I like to keep up with things – though there are so many..

Frank: So not quite James Bond.

Sir Thomas: Though I did have an impact on world events, I like to think, at least to begin with. When I was sent, alone, with letters from the Queen to Henry III of France after he had been forced to flee Paris, I was charged with “extraordinary secrecy”. Though I say it myself – and I did say it in my autobiography – the outcome benefitted not only Henry but “all the Protestants in France”. If only things had continued that way. There was meeting Ann, of course, and getting married, which were the greatest events of that period but then for nine years I lived in the Hague, not always with Ann beside me, endlessly trying to persuade the United Provinces first to support the Queen’s war with Spain and secondly to pay her vast sums of money for the privilege. Neither side would give way. I was caught between a rock and a hard place. Talk about the woes of being a middle manager!

Frank: I know just what you mean!

Sir Thomas: Listen to this – one of the Queen’s secretaries writing in 1594: “…her majesty hath had just cause these many years to have expected a grateful offer from the States of some yearly portion of the great sums by her majesty expended…” She wanted a return on her investment, and they claimed they thought she’d simply been doing them a good turn. It was impossible. And then there was the intrigue at court. I couldn’t abide it any longer.

Frank: In your own words, “I concluded…to set up my staff at the Library door in Oxford; being thoroughly persuaded that…I could not busy myself to better purpose than by reducing that place (which then in every part lay ruined and waste) to the public use of students.”

King Edward VI, after Hans Holbein the Younger, oil on panel, c. 1542 , National Portrait Gallery

Sir Thomas: I’d been lucky to escape with my head! And so I turned to a project that I’d had in mind for some years. When I was at Oxford as a student and young academic, there was no university library – the manuscripts that Humfrey, Duke of Gloucester, had donated had all been snatched under a law passed by King Edward VI and scattered to the four winds. Imagine that. Many were said to have been reused by bookbinders to cover less “superstitious” publications. They were priceless classical texts. Because I’d been most fortunate in my marriage – Ann was a widow, whose first husband made millions at today’s prices out of buying and selling pilchards—

Frank: Pilchards?

Sir Thomas: Like sardines, only tastier. We didn’t have children, so it seemed only right that the money should be used for the good of future generations of students. With invaluable advice from Sir Henry, I arranged for the old building to be refurbished and persuaded my acquaintances to donate books and bought others through booksellers who travelled to Paris and Frankfurt – and even to Italy – to find them. As Sir Francis Bacon said of the library, it was an  “Ark to save learning from deluge”. We collected European texts mainly but also books in Arabic and Persian – one two in Chinese, though no one could read them then.

Frank: People considered Chinese books to be curiosities, didn’t they, and of no real value?

Sir Thomas: I didn’t – someone had taken all that trouble to write those characters, and someone else had paid them to do so. Who could know what wisdom the books contained? But I did know that one day a scholar would come to Oxford who would unlock their secrets. Soon we had scholars visiting from beyond our shores – twenty-two in the first two years. In 1610 I made an agreement with the Stationers Company, whereby they would give the library a free copy of every book they registered.

Frank: Which is still in place today – though many of the copies are now given as ebooks.

Sir Thomas: Ebooks again! Well, like every library, we were soon running out of space, so I had to pay for an extension. A proud moment in the library was when King James visited – I’d been knighted for my services the year before. But towards the end of the project and before the next, much bigger extension could be built, I knew that my time was near and I passed over on 29th January 1613. And here I am.

Frank: And here you are indeed. And very much still here in Oxford is your library for which the whole world thanks you. Sir Thomas Bodley – library legend!

Sir Thomas: Thank you for inviting me! It’s been a pleasure. Now, when we get to the green room you must tell me about these ebooks…

Author Bio:
Francis (Frank) Egerton is an author and a librarian and manager for the Bodleian libraries (Oxford). He also teaches and tutors on a number of University of Oxford creative writing programmes. He has a BA (Hons) Oxon and MA Oxon (English Literature and Language). His original qualification was as an Associate of the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors, but he abandoned his job as a land agent to read English at Oxford. He reviewed fiction and non-fiction for newspapers including The Times and the Financial Times from 1995–2008. His first novel, The Lock, was published in paperback in 2003 and his second, Invisible, in 2010. The ebook version of The Lock reached the finals of the Independent eBook Awards in Santa Barbara in 2002. In The Times [of London] review of Invisible, Kate Saunders commented on “the author’s lively wit and acute understanding of the emotional landscape.”

Bibliography: 

An Introduction to the Taylor Institution Library

Today’s post was written by Frank Egerton, who is a writer and the Operations Manager of the Reader Services Team at the Taylor Institution Library. The Taylor Institution (affectionately known as ‘The Taylorian’ by our students and staff) is the University’s centre for the study of Modern European languages and literatures, other than English. As well as its West and East European collections, the library houses collections for Linguistics, Film Studies, and Women’s Studies. Here, Frank tells us more about this incredible resource.

I started work at the Taylor Institution Library on 5th January 2009. As I approach the building ten years later and look up at its classical columns, its statuary and its almost unimaginably massive windows, I continue to think (how could I not?), How lucky I am to work here.

Yet I’m also aware that all that architecture might seem unreal – think Downton Abbey or National Trust – and at worst, forbidding.

It is my job and that of my Reader Services team to make the experience of the building and its amazing collections welcoming, friendly and fulfilling.

More on the present later, but first, history.

It’s a common misconception that the Taylor Institution is part of the Ashmolean Museum. Well it is, on the outside, but inside, the library is totally separate. In the middle of the nineteenth century, the University had two bequests, one for an art gallery, the other for a centre dedicated to the study of modern European languages. The solution was to run an architectural competition for the best design of a single building that accommodated both spaces. This was won by CR Cockerell and his building was completed in 1844.

The Taylor Institution Library

The money for the institution and its library had come from another architect, Sir Robert Taylor, who had travelled in Europe and who had amassed a magnificent collection of architectural books written in Italian, French and English, which the library now holds.

Not that getting the money was easy. Taylor died in 1788, having stipulated that the University would only receive his bequest if his son, resplendently named Michael Angelo Taylor, died without a male heir. While this did eventually happen, Michael Angelo also tried to overturn his father’s will – despite being one of the richest men in London.

That the money came to the University and the Taylor Institution was built has benefitted generations of scholars for over 170 years.

In the 1930s an extension – which is now our Teaching Collection – was built in the Art Deco style. It was formally opened by the Prince of Wales – who went on to become King Edward VIII, before abdicating. You can see photographs of the future king and all the senior academics of the day outside our lecture hall.

The original collection of books was partly created by donations, just as the original Bodleian Library had been at the end of the sixteenth century. Last year I was thrilled to come across a book that my great-great-great grandfather had given in 1849.

Since then, our collections have grown enormously – in fact, they have outgrown our building! In total, we have some 750,000 items (books, journals, a rapidly growing collection of DVDs, and… a lock of Goethe’s hair). But only half of these are kept in the building. The rest being at the Bodleian’s Book Storage Facility, some 40 miles from Oxford. (The Taylorian is one of the Bodleian Libraries.) Nevertheless, these books aren’t mothballed but can be ordered using the University’s online catalogue, SOLO (feel free to explore it). If the order is placed before 10.30 am on a weekday, it will arrive at around 2 pm that afternoon and most of our offsite books can be borrowed just as if they had been collected from our bookshelves.

Our bookshelves… As you can imagine, there are quite a lot of those. Sometimes I look along just a bay of them and I am overwhelmed by how many books there are. All that knowledge, all those ideas, all those opportunities for learning… In stacks and rooms reached by stairs that remind you of the library in Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose

Which is where the librarians come in. The Subject and Reader Services teams work together to make sense of the collections for our readers and to help them find what they need for their studies or research. The Taylor has a deserved reputation for the friendliness of its staff, their knowledge and their willingness to go the extra mile. One of the most important messages we aim to get across at inductions is that library staff are always there to help.

The Library in the Modern Languages Faculty, Oxford

Our subject librarians also curate and expand our outstanding collections, buying new books, of course, but also ebooks and ejournals, and electronic resources. Not to mention putting together exhibitions of works from our special collections, arranging talks and teaching courses on how to access information and digital scholarship.

I’ve mentioned that you can get an impression of the richness of our collections by browsing the University library catalogue, SOLO, but for a deeper understanding of what they contain you can check out our website and, above all, the tremendous online guides that our subject consultants have created for their particular language. Here you will find not just information about what is available in Oxford but open (freely available) resources and websites.

Yet for all the convenience of the digital age, the Taylor Institution Library remains the human heart of Modern Languages research, teaching and learning. It contains quiet spaces, lecture rooms, a common room and corridors which are alive with discussion. Its staff are there to welcome, to help and to unlock the possibilities of its world-class collections.

Further info

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Frank Egerton

If there are any teachers reading the blog, you may also be interested in our  ‘Sir Robert Taylor Society Conference’ – an annual conference for MFL teachers held each September in Oxford, and named after the founder of the library. More information is available here.

My Oxford

posted by Helena Kresin, first-year student of French and Spanish at Trinity College

I had always wanted to go to Oxford. The beauty of the town, the rich history and the prospect of being surrounded by so many knowledgeable individuals had attracted me from a young age. Some of my friends were intimidated by all the grandeur, imagining imposing professors and fancy dinners with strict rules of etiquette, but I can tell them now for certain that Oxford is far from intimidating. It is true there are certain quirky traditions that have been kept, such as having to wear gowns on the odd occasion, but these only add to the charm of the institution and serve as a reminder of its unique character.

I could never pretend that Oxford doesn’t involve a lot of work, but this should not be seen as a negative aspect of the University. I was shocked by how quickly I improved after just 8 weeks of my first Oxford term and this was undoubtedly due to the constant practice I had writing essays and doing assignments required for my French and Spanish degree. Being kept constantly busy is – I now realise – a blessing, keeping boredom at bay and allowing constant immersion and thus a deeper understanding of the languages I’m studying. In fact, in many ways, I have found Oxford easier than school. At school, there was sometimes the risk of having a teacher who you worried might not help you achieve the grade you want in your exam. Here, there is never that worry. The tutors are incredibly helpful, being only an email away and generous with the time they devote to clarifying anything you might be confused by. The comments and feedback they have given me have proven extremely useful , being thorough and constructive rather than negatively critical. In addition, being in the city and surrounded by all your friends and other students of similar age has meant that going out and doing things outside of the academic sphere is far easier than it ever was at home. I even go out more than friends at other universities, perhaps owing to the sociable atmosphere of Oxford where everyone seems to make sure they have a good time at all of the many events on offer. It’s also great to be able to do the subjects I love and be surrounded by those who love it just as much as I do, with experts in the field able to answer all the questions you’ve long wanted to have answered.

There is certainly never a dull moment here. The tutorials provoke interesting discussions which encourage you to form you own opinion and essays really allow you to express your individuality. I never thought I would say it, but the lectures have proven fascinating too. All of the lecturers I’ve had have been animated, passionate and ready to impart their vast knowledge on a wide range of topics.

I don’t need reminding of how fortunate I am to be in such a fantastic university. I stand by the view that if every educational institution was like Oxford, everyone would be instilled with the same love for learning that I have developed since being here. The only thing that saddens me is that my studies here will one day come to an end.