Hello, I’m Leah, this year’s trainee at the English Faculty Library (or EFL for short)! Though the EFL might not have the aesthetic that springs to mind when someone mentions Oxford (it is a vision of ‘60s brutalist architecture after all) our collections are no less strong than our comrades across the university libraries at large. We even have our own rare books room where readers can consult from our collections of pre-1850s volumes – although personally I would say our best kept secret is the Turville-Petre Room where our Old Norse-Icelandic collections are held.
Prior to the traineeship, I didn’t have a background in librarianship at all. I had studied English Literature for my bachelor’s degree at the University of East Anglia and knew I wanted to work with books in some capacity, but wasn’t sure where to direct my search. I then pivoted to Medieval Studies at the University of Birmingham for my master’s degree, with a focus on depictions of language and multilingualism in insular texts. The opportunity to work with manuscripts and other ephemera during my master’s, including at the Weston Library, put the idea in my head to look into working with special collections, and the rest is history.
During my first month, it has very much been a case of getting the fundamentals in place before the students arrive back in Oxford en masse. This means learning how to process books, staffing our enquiries desk, and getting to grips with Alma, our new-to-everyone library system. We do, however, have the option to get a bit creative too. One thing I really enjoy about the EFL is that we have the ability to put on displays for our readers: in the past trainees have covered everything from Mid-Winter Ghosts to Fantasy Fiction. I’m hoping my display on indigenous literature will be up within the next week or so, so do feel free to pop by and have look!
In the coming months, I’m most looking forward to our introduction to special collections and conservation (of course), as well as our visit to the Collections Storage Facility near Swindon. In the long-term, I am hoping to learn more about academic librarianship, as well as whether working with collections as a librarian is a viable career path for me. The training scheme so far has been excellent, and I can’t wait to see what this year will bring!
Hello! I’m Tess – Wolfson College’s Graduate Trainee Librarian for the coming academic year. Prior to joining Oxford, I completed my undergraduate degree at the University of Nottingham, which I thoroughly enjoyed! Since then I have been lucky enough to gain a variety of work experience at the Ashmolean Museum and Bodleian (specifically, the Old Bodleian and Radcliffe Camera).
As my predecessors have noted, the Wolfson College Library team is rather small, comprising of myself and Fiona – Wolfson’s College Librarian and my lovely supervisor over the next year. As such, I (rather excitingly) fulfil the position of Assistant College Librarian, meaning I am afforded a higher level of responsibility, having the chance to work on projects and develop skills that I may not have been able to in other larger and busier libraries. Some of my key goals for the year are:
– To get to know Wolfson’s collections extremely well.
– To gain a good grounding in cataloguing.
– To see library projects through from conception to completion.
In terms of future plans, I am eager to re-enter academia and undertake a Master’s degree once my time at Wolfson comes to an end. After which, I would like to work towards building a career in academic librarianship, whether that be as a Cataloguing Librarian, Subject Librarian or Reader Services Librarian (or any of the other wonderful variations!), I’m not yet sure. Which is why I’m hoping this year will allow me to find exactly what interests me the most!
Our new trainees have joined us for the academic year 2023-24! We have 14 trainees this timewith 9 at the Bodleian Libraries and 5 based in our colleges. We held the welcome session on Wednesday which was followed by a tour of the Bodleian and then drinks in the Divinity School. They have a packed programme during Michaelmas Term including sessions on our new library management system, ALMA.
They will be saying hello on the blog over the coming weeks so do follow what they get up to and do say hello if you spot them in our libraries. We wish them a very happy and successful year with us!
As a final goodbye from the Trainees of the year 22-23 we thought we’d share with you a look at some of the trainee projects which were presented at the showcase this year! These descriptions, each written by another trainee who viewed the original presentation, are designed to give you a flavour of what our year with the Bodleian and College libraries have been like.
Jenna Ilett: Creating an interactive map of the Nizami Ganjavi Library
By Alice S
Kicking off our Trainee showcase with a bang, Jenna’s presentation hit all the right buttons. With an amusing title and appropriately themed presentation, Jenna talked us through the ins and outs of coding an interactive map, complete with hoverable shelfmark labels!
The inspiration for this project came from a slew of wayfinding projects that have been taking place across the ‘Section 3’ Libraries (which include the Taylor, The Art Archelogy and Ancient World and the Nizami Ganjavi libraries) as well as Jenna’s own background in tech thanks to a GCSE in Computer Science and a module in Web Design during her undergraduate degree.
Using Inkscape, Jenna made the underlying vector graphic for the map itself, working off a previous design, but keeping the styling consistent with maps currently available at the AAAW Library. She used the feedback she received to refine her design before moving on to the coding itself.
Remaining humble throughout, Jenna also treated us to an inside look at her thought processes in the form of increasingly anxious WhatsApp messages she had sent about her project to friends and colleagues, as well as a demonstration of a particular bug that caused her map to flip itself over when zoomed out, both of which earned a hearty chuckle from the audience. But with the amount of skilled work Jenna has put in already, the audience and I are in no doubt that Jenna will soon have the kinks worked out, and the Nizami Ganjavi Library will have a swanky new interactive map!
The most interesting thing I learnt from Jenna’s presentation would probably have to be the benefits of scalable vector graphics. As someone who has all too often fallen foul of the perils of trying to resize images only to be left with a grainy and illegible mess, it’s great to know that using a vector graphic will allow me to scale an image to any size my heart could desire. Through the magic of mathematical graphing it preserves the shape and position of a line so that it can be viewed at any scale. Thanks to Jenna for a fabulous presentation and enlightening me to the wonders of vector graphics!
Alice Zamboni: Audio-visual archive of former Prime Minister Edward Heath
The second presentation of the day came from Alice Zamboni, one of the two Digital Archivist trainees based for two years with the Special Collections team at the Weston Library. Alice’s project was concerned with adding the audio-visual material donated by former Conservative Prime Minister Edward (Ted) Heath to our catalogue.
As with most of his predecessors and successors in the role of Prime Minister since the Second World War, Ted Heath began his political involvement at Oxford, studying PPE at Balliol College and winning the Presidency of the Oxford Union in 1937. Therefore, it is no surprise that the Bodleian chose to purchase his personal archive in 2011 to add to its collection. Covering mainly the period from the mid-1970s to the early 2000s, Alice related how many of the cassettes and tape reels held information on music and yacht racing connected to the love of European culture which inspired Heath’s drive – and eventual success – to gain admission for the UK in the European Community in 1973.
Most of the material was held in analogue formats so Alice’s first step before cataloguing was to convert them into digital MP3 files. Then, one of the main challenges she faced was that the sheer scale of the material (481 tapes some up to ninety minutes long) meant that not every recording could be listened to in its entirety. An educated assessment on the contents, and how it should be catalogued, had to be made from listening to a portion of each. This allowed some of the material, such as recordings made from radio programmes, to be weeded out of the collection.
Perhaps the most interested thing I learned from Alice’s talk was the broad scope of Heath’s recordings, including some in foreign languages. One interestingly was in Mandarin Chinese, and of a children’s programme on learning languages.
As with most of the trainee projects, there is always more to be done after the showcase and Alice’s next main step is to place the original tapes back into boxes according to how she has catalogued them. An even longer-term plan for ensuring that the archive can be opened to researchers is acquiring the rights for many tapes recorded from musical recitals, for instance, where the copyright is owned by the composer or conductor rather than Heath himself.
Miranda Scarlata: Web archiving and the invasion of Ukraine.
Although the phrase ‘once it’s on the internet, it’s there forever,’ is common, Miranda’s talk highlighted the ephemeral and volatile nature of websites, and the importance of capturing and preserving information from these sites.
Although it would be impossible to capture every single website in existence, there are times when the digital archivists undertake a rapid response project – for example capturing information on Covid-19, or the ongoing war in Ukraine – the latter being the focus of Miranda’s talk.
Soon after the Russian invasion of Ukraine (on the 24th of January 2022), the Digital Archivist team launched a rapid response project to preserve information regarding Ukrainian life and culture, as well as the war itself, which was at risk of being lost. A campaign was launched that asked people to nominate websites that fit certain criteria.
Miranda discussed some of the challenges involved in a project like this. Although 53 sites were nominated, only 21 were deemed viable. Twitter accounts of Ukrainian citizens were also included, and additional news, cultural and war specific sites were crawled, leading to a total of 72 sites. There is a limit on how many sites can be preserved due to the strict data budget, which means that difficult decisions had to be made about what to prioritise. Another added level of complexity was the limited Ukrainian and Russian language skills within the department, which made it difficult to determine types of content and assign metadata tags.
The normal processes when archiving websites involves contacting site owners to obtain permission before beginning the capturing process, but due to the high risk of information loss, site owners were contacted after capturing the sites to gain permission for publication. With the help of a Ukrainian and Russian speaking intern, site owners were contacted, but there was an understandable lack of response given that many of the site owners would have been directly impacted by the war.
Miranda’s talk was a fascinating insight into the world of digital archiving and the challenges within, particularly with the more arduous and intricate rapid response projects, which are hugely important when it comes to capturing important events as they are happening.
The most interesting thing I learnt was that digital archiving involves capturing a functional version of the site that could continue to exist even if the original host site was removed, rather than a static capture, which leads to added complexity when it comes to external links and embedded content.
Caitlín Kane: Maleficia: Curating a public exhibition at New College Library
By Alice Z
In her talk on the exhibition that she undertook as her trainee project, Caitlín focused on her experience of organising and curating the exhibition of rare books and manuscripts from the collection at New College. A chance encounter with the New College copy of Malleus Maleficarum (The Hammer of Witches), a well-known 15th century treatise about witchcraft, sparked in Caitlin the idea of organising a display of special collections about magic, witchcraft, and astrology.
The promotional material devised by Caitlín to advertise the exhibition on social media and in print was what stood out most for its originality and it is clearly something that contributed to making the exhibition a success in terms of visitor numbers. I think the most interesting thing I learned from her talk was how you can create moving graphics using services such as Canva and how these can be used on social media to promote events such as exhibitions.
Caitlín reflected on some of the logistical challenges of organising this kind of collection-focused public engagement event, such as the selection of material and collection interpretation. For one thing, identifying relevant material from New College’s collection of manuscripts was more difficult in the absence of an online catalogue. Without the benefits of a neatly catalogued SOLO record to guide her, she was required to rely on previous staff members’ handlists as well as serendipitous browsing of New College’s rare books shelves.
Another aspect of the exhibition she touched upon was the interpretation of the materials. It was important for the labels accompanying the items on display to strike the right balance between content and context. Providing insights into the objects themselves was key, especially as many were texts written in Latin, but so was giving visitors enough background on the early modern philosophical and theological debates underpinning witchcraft.
Caitlin’s work clearly resulted in a fascinating and well-attended exhibition, and she was able to make great advances in increasing awareness of some of the amazing collections held by her library.
Abby Evans: Professor Napier and the English Faculty Library
Abby’s trainee project concerned a fascinating collection of dissertations and offprints gathered by Professor Arthur Napier, a philologist and Professor at Merton College in 1885. Held by the English faculty library, this collection consists of 92 boxes
containing 1058 items that needed to be reassessed ahead of the library’s move to the new Schwarzman centre for the Humanities in 2025.
Her project showcased the speedy decisions and minute details that must be considered when working at a library as she had only two weeks to determine the content of the collection and assess what material was worthy of making the move to the new building. The process required lots of skimming through documents to understand their content, the deciphering of previous systems from librarians past, and a strong head for organisation!
The collection itself was also able to provide some insight into how the English Faculty used to operate. Many of the materials were annotated with small markings and references to an older organization involving different box numbers and labels.
The collection also surprisingly held works from female authors – a rarity for the time – but their work was clearly well-enough regarded that Professor Napier saw the benefit in collecting and preserving it in his collection.
The most interesting insight the Napier collection provided however is perhaps its demonstration of the of the workings of Royal Mail years gone by. The collection contained several items which bore evidence of travelling through the UK postal system, some which were simply folded up with the address written on the back – no envelope required! Additionally, a simple name and general neighbourhood were enough to get the letter to its intended location, postcodes clearly had yet to hit it off!
Overall, Abby’s talk demonstrated the myriad of small and large details that must be considered when continually maintaining library collections. And the efficiency with which she was able to work through the collection is an example to us all!
Morgan Ashby-Crane: Making Collections More Visible: Displays and Data Cleanup
At the SSL, Morgan embarked on a mission to improve the visibility of collections, both in making items easier to locate within the library system, and in highlighting diverse voices in the collections.
During awareness months throughout the year they curated book displays which allowed them to improve the circulation and physical accessibility of collections such as those for Black and LGBTQ+ History. For Black History Month, they asked subject librarians to recommend a book with an accompanying caption. Morgan then curated the display, and added QR codes linked to e-resources that the subject librarians recommended. They then collated these into a post on the SSL blog to reach those who couldn’t access the display physically.
For LGBT+ History month, Morgan organised another pop-up display, but this time the focus was on recommendations from readers in previous years. One of the most interesting ideas I gleaned from Morgan’s presentation was their approach in designing new recommendation slips for readers to fill in and recommend their own books to make sure the displays stayed relevant to reader interests. As books were borrowed and recommendation slips filled in, Morgan was able to track the circulation of items and provide evidence of engagement.
Another way in which Morgan improved accessibility to the collections was in cleaning up data on Aleph, our old library system. Over the past few months, the trainees have been busy helping our libraries prepare for the changeover to a new library system, Alma. With thousands of records being transferred across, a lot of data clean-up has been required to make sure records display correctly in the new system.
Some outdated process statuses, such as AM (Apply Staff – Music), can be left attached to records long after they fall out of use. Other books, that are on the shelves to be loaned, can be left marked as BD (At bindery). To single out any irregularities, Morgan made a collection code report to see if any items stood out as unusual. When items appeared under unusual process statuses, Morgan investigated them further to see if their statuses needed changing.
Similarly, some items without shelfmarks had slipped under the radar, and Morgan set about adding them back to the books’ holdings records. They worked backwards from potential Library of Congress classifications to figure out where the books might be on the shelves and, once they’d identified the physical shelfmark, restored it to the item’s holdings record. These data cleanup tasks will make it easier both for readers in locating the items they need and will help the collections transition smoothly from Aleph to Alma.
Ruth Holliday: Investigating the Christ Church Library Donors: Research and rabbit holes
For her presentation, Ruth discussed her project to research donors to Christ Church’s ‘New Library’, with a particular focus on their links to slavery. The incongruously named New Library was constructed between 1717 and 1772, and over 300 benefactors contributed to the project! Given the time constraints involved, in this presentation Ruth chose to focus on just three:
The first donor Ruth spoke about was Noel Broxholme, a physician and an alumnus of Christ Church, who during his time there was one of the first recipients of the Radcliffe travelling fellowship. This was a grant established by Dr John Radcliffe (a rather omnipresent figure in Oxford) that required medical students to spend years studying medicine in a foreign country. Ruth was able to establish that at one time Doctor Broxholme was paid for his services not in cash, but instead in ‘Mississippi stock’. As one might be able to deduce from the name, this was effectively shares in companies who had strong ties to the slave trade.
The next donor Ruth discussed was George Smallridge, Bishop of Bristol. Again, we have a man whose profession is seemingly at odds with involvement in the trade of human lives. However, as part of his donation for the foundation of the new library he included two lottery tickets. One of the prize options for that lottery was South Sea Stock – more shares with ties to the slave trade. It has proven difficult to determine whether the tickets he donated were, in fact, winning tickets, or whether they were ever cashed in, but once again the foundation of this library has found itself fiscally linked to slavery.
The final donor to feature in Ruth’s presentation was Charles Doulgas, 3rd Duke of Queensbury, whose financial investments included shares in the British Linen Company. Whilst British linen does not ostensibly appear to have clear ties to slavery – being both grown and manufactured domestically by paid labour – there is in fact a significant connection. Whilst cotton was becoming the more popular fabric for textile production in the mid-late eighteenth century, the fabric was seen as too good to be used to clothe the people forced to grow it. As such, linen, in its cheapest and least comfortable format, was exported in droves to be used to clothe the slaves labouring on cotton plantations.
What all these donor case studies in Ruth’s fascinating presentation showed, and probably the most interesting thing I learned, was how enmeshed slavery was in the eighteenth-century economy. Whether in the form of shares received in lieu of payment, shares won as prizes, or as custom to the textile industry it was growing to dominate, Ruth’s project demonstrated that making money in the eighteenth century was almost inextricably tied to slavery.
Rose Zhang: As She Likes It: The Woman who Gatecrashed the Oxford Union
Rose’s project and subsequent presentation touched on a captivating aspect of the history of women at Oxford. As the trainee for the Oxford Union, she undertook some first-hand research on an unusual event in the early history of women’s involvement in the Union’s debates.
Rose first gave us a summary of the Union’s history. Set up in 1823 (and therefore currently celebrating their bicentenary), The Oxford Union has been famous (and infamous) for its dedication to free speech over the years. As women were only formally admitted to the University itself in 1920, it is unsurprising that they were also barred from entry to the Union debating society. This restriction against women members continued until well into the latter half of the 20th century, although rules had become laxer by this point, allowing women into the debating hall itself, but only in the upper galleries.
By the 1960s, there was increasing pressure from female students who wished to access the main floor of the debating hall, rather than be confined to the gallery, where they were expected to be silent, and could not get a good view of the proceedings. The pressure built to a point in 1961, when two students achieved national press coverage for their successful gate-crashing of the debating chamber, which they did in disguise as men!
Rose gave us a captivating account of the gatecrashing, using newspaper clippings from the time and information from one of the gatecrashes herself, Jenny Grove (now a published journalist), to really bring this moment of Oxford History to life. One of the most interesting things I learned from Rose’s presentation was how library projects can handle, preserve and communicate data that’s less discrete – which tied in well with our keynote talk from Phillip Roberts, especially focussed on how heritage organisations have a power to preserve and convey stories that otherwise might be suppressed or overlooked.
Thankfully, the actions of Jenny grove and her co-conspirator Rose Dugdale were successful in bringing wider attention to the issue, and within two years successive votes won women the right to be full and contributing union members.
Rose’s presentation on this project was interesting not just for such a fascinating bit of history, told with good humour, but also for how it differed to most trainee projects methodologically in using first-hand oral histories to bring context to her library and its collections.
Grace Exley: Creating online exhibitions
One of the later presentations in the day, Grace kept the energy flowing as she discussed her experience creating online exhibitions. The inspiration for Grace’s project was accessibility. While Jesus College puts on termly exhibitions in the Fellows’ Library, not everyone can make it on the day, and having some kind of record of past exhibitions would be beneficial to many.
Taking the initiative, Grace sought out training on how to curate and manage online exhibitions. She worked her way through a course which introduced her to the platform Omeka. Using Omeka, visitors can scroll through photos of the exhibition items and read captions for each one, making it both a great way to experience exhibitions that you cannot make it to physically, and a way of preserving physical exhibitions in a digital space.
With this new knowledge at her fingertips, Grace set out to organise her own exhibitions that she would subsequently upload to the Jesus College website using the Omeka platform. The books that featured in these exhibitions were selected by Grace from the Fellows’ Library at Jesus College – a stunning 17th century room that holds 11,500 early printed books.
Grace told us about the botany exhibition she curated in Michaelmas term, which featured a first-time find of an inscription in John Parkinson’s Theatrum Botanicum. One of the most interesting things I learned from Grace’s presentation is that this is one of the very few books in the Fellows’ Library to have had its title page inscribed by a female owner, Elizabeth Burghess. From the style of the handwriting, we can tell that the signature is likely to have been penned near to the time of publication, though we don’t know for sure who Elizabeth Burghess was.
We were in a Jesus College lecture theatre for the showcase, and due to running ahead of our schedule we were able to sneak into the Fellows’ Library and look around. It’s a gorgeous space, and it was great to see where the exhibitions take place when they’re in 3D! If you’re interested, you can view Grace’s Botanical Books exhibition along with some of Jesus College’s other exhibitions on the website the Grace created here: Collections from the Fellows’ Library and Archives, at Jesus College Oxford (omeka.net)
Alice Shepherd: The Making of a Disability History LibGuide
A theme running through many of the trainee projects this year was accessibility, and Alice proved no exception. For her trainee project, she worked on creating a LibGuide on Disability History, to help people find resources relevant to researching that topic.
A LibGuide is an online collection of resources that aims to provide insights into a specific topic of interest. They are created across all Bodleian Libraries and often act as a launch pad for a particular subject to signpost readers to the plethora of resources available. The resources for Alice’s LibGuide were largely collated during a Hackathon event organised by the Bodleian Libraries team, during which 36 volunteers shared their expertise on Disability History and put together a list of over 231 relevant electronic resources on this topic.
Alice started by working through this long list of resources. She spent a considerable amount of time cleaning, screening, and processing the data collected at the Hackathon. Specifically, she removed website links that were no longer active, evaluated the quality of the materials, and carefully selected those that were most appropriate and relevant to the topic of Disability History.
With this newly complied ‘shortlist’ of scholarly resources, Alice then started putting them together on the LibGuide website, adapting the standardised Bodleian LibGuide template to better fit the needs of researchers by including resources grouped by date, topic, and format. With the resources carefully curated and added to the LibGuide, Alice put some finishing touches on the guide by doing her own research to fill in some of the gaps left after the Hackathon.
There will be a soft launch of the LibGuide in the Disability History month this year. Although this LibGuide is mainly created for students and scholars with research interests in Disability History, the LibGuide will be available to the public as a valuable educational resource.
Charlie Ough: Duke Humfrey’s Library Open Shelf Collections
As the trainee for the Bodleian Old Library, Charlie gets the tremendous pleasure of working in the Medieval precursor to Oxford’s centralised Bodleian libraries, Duke Humfrey’s Library.
Whilst the setting and atmosphere may be one of academic serenity, after a few months of working there, Charlie identified that something ought to be done to make the organisation of its Open Shelves Collection slightly less chaotic. He had found that books were difficult to locate, some were physically difficult to access, the shelf marks were confusing, and certain volumes from the collection were missing entirely.
With a plan in mind, the first task in addressing this issue was to create a comprehensive list of everything on the shelves. Part way through this venture, Charlie stumbled across a file hidden away in an archived shared folder from 2017 and discovered that a previous trainee had already make a handlist for Duke Humfrey’s. This saved lots of time and allowed him to focus on making improvements to this cache of information by slimming it down, rearranging it according to area, and dividing it into different sections.
During this time Chalrie also designed and conducted a reader survey that was distributed within Duke Humfrey’s to determine who the main users of the library are, and whether they were there to use the Open shelf books specifically, or more because they enjoyed using the space. With the results of that survey to sort through and analyse, Charlie now has a permanent position working at the Bodleian Old Library and intends to continue working with the Duke Humfrey’s Open Shelves Collection. His plans involve new shelf marks, updating the LibGuide, a complete stock check, and barcoding the collection.
The most interesting (and mildly terrifying) thing I learned from Charlie’s talk is that the population of cellar and common house spiders in the Duke Humfrey’s Library ceiling were intentionally introduced at the beginning of this century, to combat an infestation of deathwatch beetle that was burrowing into the wooden beams and panels. In fact, the spiders still thrive there to this day! Not something to think about when you’re peacefully studying in the picturesque Duke Humfrey’s Reading Room…
A steam train pulls into a station. It is late 19th century England, and floods of passengers dressed in full skirts and velveteen coats spill out onto the platform. Travellers are met by friends and relatives or hurry off to engagements elsewhere. Only one carriage remains occupied. When the crowds have dispersed and its inhabitant is found and unloaded by the station porters, it is not a person that emerges, but a camera. A camera, with all of its trimmings and trappings in tow.
This strange traveller was sent on its journey by one Charles Dodgson (1832-1898), also known by his pen name, Lewis Carroll. While perhaps best known for writing children’s stories, a recent addition to Christ Church Library sheds light on another creative aspect of Dodgson’s ‘one recreation’: photography.
One can imagine the bemused expressions of the station staff as the equipment is hauled off the train onto the platform. The logistics of taking a single successful photograph in these early days of photography were painstaking, with specialist equipment required by the carriage-load. This Oxford Tutor had taken to bringing hyperbole to life by sending his camera equipment ahead of him on the train whenever he worked outside Oxford.
The connection between Dodgson and Christ Church begins with his matriculation at Christ Church in 1851. In 1855 he became a lecturer in mathematics and while he later resigned from his lectureship due to the success of his writing career, he maintained his studentship and residency at Christ Church until his death in 1898.
The importance of photography in Dodgson’s life can be tracked by the proximity of his photographic studio to Christ Church. A priority from the beginning, in 1863 he hired the yard of a furniture store on St. Aldates to serve as a studio site, a space he used until 1871. Later, having moved to different rooms at Christ Church in 1868, Dodgson used the opportunity to build a studio even closer to home, building one from scratch on the roof above his rooms. This new studio ‘was accessed by a stairway within Dodgson’s rooms, and it consisted of a room for photography and a dressing room for his sitters.’
Dodgson’s fascination with photography began in the 1850s – the first decade in which picking up such a cumbersome hobby was possible for the (wealthy) amateur. The necessity of perfect lighting, exacting chemical treatments and statuesque sitters made this art form more of a labour of love than a relaxing pastime.
Interested in portraiture, Dodgson photographed local figures, including the daughters of the Dean of Christ Church, Henry Liddell (1811 – 1898). Alice Liddell became the inspiration for a now very famous fictional Alice when she asked Dodgson to tell her a story during their famous boat trip on the River Thames. Alice’s Adventures Under Ground, the original version of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, was gifted to Alice by Dodgson as a Christmas gift in 1864. The story was published in 1865, followed by Alice Through the Looking Glass in 1871.
When his imagination was above ground, Dodgson experimented with various photographic processes. Below is a brief description of the wet-plate collodion process – his favoured technique.
A glass plate is prepared by coating it with collodion and a soluble iodide.
In the darkroom the plate is submerged in a solution of silver nitrate. The binding of the silver nitrate with the iodide produces a silver halide coating, which is sensitive to light.
While still wet, the plate is taken from the darkroom to the camera in a light-proof holder.
In the camera, the holder is removed to expose the plate to light.
The plate is removed from the camera to the darkroom to be developed and fixed.
Lastly, a protective varnish is applied.
Then a young art, photography was elbowing its way onto the artistic scene – a stylistic jostling for status that must have come naturally to a process characterised by gangly tripods, endless boxes of chemicals, and sharp-edged glass plates.
Some early photography, particularly portraiture, was highly prescriptive. As with many new processes finding their feet, a large group of practitioners felt more comfortable playing by the rules to get photos ‘right’ rather than pushing any more boundaries in an already new art form.
Readers – take note. If ambushed by an insistent photographer, remember these easy rules for success!
‘[For women] Eyebrows arched, forehead round, […] hair rather profuse. Of all things, do not draw the hair over the forehead if well formed, but rather up and away. See the Venus de Medici, and the Canova’s Venus, in which the latter the hair is too broad.’
‘[For men] An intellectual head has the forehead and chin projecting, the high facial angle presenting nearly a straight line; bottom lip projecting a little; eyebrows rather near together and below (raised eyebrows indicate weakness). Broad forehead, overhanging eyelids, sometimes cutting across the iris to the pupil.’ 
Happily, Dodgson was not so bound by convention, and an interest in and playfulness with composition is clear in his surviving photographs. The man that wrote letters to his ‘child-friends’ in ‘mirror-writing’ experimented with reflections in his photography too. Stepladders, bannisters and the occasional window ledge are treated as photographer’s props to achieve images that attract and hold the viewers attention.
The recent addition to Christ Church Library’s collection of material relating to Charles Dodgson consists of a selection of letters written to the family of the Reverend James and Sarah Anne Thresher in March and October of 1875 regarding portraits he had taken of their children: Mary, Lucy and Elizabeth ‘Beta’ Thresher. Three out of the four letters are addressed as being written from Christ Church, and all are written in Dodgson’s characteristic purple ink. The black border around the letter dated March 17th is an example of mourning stationary, as Dodgson writes to give his sympathies for the death of Reverend Thresher’s aunt. These letters join a range of Dodgson material in the library, including manuscripts relating to his publications, original photographic prints, proof sheets and presentation copies of his various publications.
Dodgson was a prolific letter writer, writing roughly two thousand letters a year, ‘and with his characteristic fussiness in pigeon-holing every detail of his life, kept a letter register for thirty-seven years, which gives a précis of every letter sent and received, and at the time of his death contained 98,721 cross references.’ While Dodgson corresponded on all manner of topics, the main theme of these recently acquired letters concerns Dodgson’s wish to obtain some of the Thresher girls’ dresses, ‘as “properties” for [his] photographic studio’. The first letter explains to the girls’ mother, Sarah Anne Thresher, that ‘old half-worn-out’ dresses are preferable for Dodgson’s photographic purposes, as ‘new ones would look theatrical’. His hope was that these dresses could be used to ‘dress children in who come to be photographed’. We discover in a later letter that this wish came to pass, as he writes to Mrs Thresher that the ‘welcome parcel arrived safe’.
These letters are an exciting addition to Christ Church’s collection as they provide an insight into the way Dodgson thinks about his craft. We glimpse his attention to detail in the concern over the appearance of a dress that might look too ‘new’. In his first letter inquiring about the dresses, he expresses his wish that he might meet with the Threshers the following summer as he can visualise a photograph he wishes to take of Beta. He describes the pose he would have her strike with precision: ‘pulling at a rope […] the attitude I remember seeing her in one day [dragging a mutual friend across the room] – it would be a picture such as I have seldom had the opportunity of taking’. It seems that for Dodgson, photographs existed in his mind’s eye as fully formed entities – all he needed to do was assemble the moving parts. He never managed to create this particular photograph of Beta, however. There is no record of him ever photographing the Threshers again.
Despite protestations against the theatrical in the letter discussed above, such distaste was not a permanent state for Dodgson. We learn from Helmut Gernsheim’s Lewis Carroll: Photographer that Dodgson had ‘a cupboard full of costumes: some had been used in pantomimes at Drury Lane, some had been borrowed from friends, or, on occasion, even from the Ashmolean Museum’. Pantomime-like versions of gallant knights, acrobats and even Shakespeare are captured by Dodgson’s lens.
In these forays into worlds of bards, battles and the bright lights of the circus we can also spy attempts at something more serious. The playfulness of Dodgson’s approach goes some way in capturing the ‘lost realm’ of Victorian childhood, a concept that defied definition even then. What we also see in these surviving photographs is a particular moment in Victorian culture and artistic experimentation held in time, and, in the letters, the work undertaken to hold it there.
To see the photographs that Dodgson took of the Thresher children that began this chain of correspondence, see Edward Wakeling’s The Photographs of Lewis Carroll, A Catalogue Raisonné. Pages 256 to 261 show photos of the three daughters and the parents in various outfits and attitudes, and feature the dresses that came to join the “properties” in Dodgson’s photographic studio. Now a part of the library’s collection, the letters themselves are freely accessible to support study and research.
The final letter in this sequence brings us back to where we began. Dodgson asks a final favour of Sarah Anne Thresher as he writes:
Would you kindly send off my photo things to Ch. Ch. Oxford? I shall not be there till the 12th, so luggage train will be quite quick enough.
 Gernsheim, Helmut. Lewis Carroll: Photographer, (London: Max Parrish & Co. Limited, 1949) pp. 24 – 25 ‘Wherever [Dodsgon] went, he sent the apparatus in advance by rail, and when in London took it from place to place in a cab’.
 Taken from Dodgson’s journal. He writes on the 31st December 1855 his New Year’s resolutions, musing, ‘I hope to make good progress in photography in the Easter Vacation. It is my one recreation and I think it should be done well’.
 Wakeling, Edward. The Photographs of Lewis Carroll: A Catalogue Raisonné, (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2015), p. 4
If you are a History undergrad at Oxford or even simply know a history undergrad at Oxford, then you’re likely to be made aware of the fact that, between their second and third years of study, they are tasked with writing a 12,000-word thesis. For many undergraduates this is a daunting task and one quite unlike any work they’ve completed up to this point. Luckily for them, help is at hand, as History subject librarians organise the Thesis Fair on behalf of the History Faculty every year: this is a large gathering of librarians, academics, and others who have a vested interest in helping these students to craft a first-class thesis.
I say every year, but in fact this is the first in-person event since the turmoil of covid, so the stakes were high on the pleasant but threateningly grey afternoon of Thursday 4th of May as a small team of library staff from the Rad Cam made their way across High Street, burdened down with all manner of posters, leaflets, and handouts, ready to get to work on preparing the North Writing School in Exam Schools for an inundation of second year History undergraduates. The preparation had been intense: months of organising and planning, designing informational materials, and then the final slog of printing cutting and folding. It was a journey that had seen its fair share of casualties, and we give sincere thanks to the guillotines who gave their lives so that the history finalists could be properly informed on how to develop a thesis question.
Time was of the essence as our crack team had only one hour to transform the cavernous exam hall into a friendly and inviting space for finalists to begin to develop their thesis. Luckily, the staff at Exam Schools had done a magnificent job of setting up tables, chairs, and poster boards exactly where requested so that it was easy work labelling and organising each stall ready for its new inhabitant. Slowly the stall holders began to arrive, each one guided into place by a member of library staff, each one bringing all manner of posters and promotional material of their own. The hall began to fill with people and chatter as everyone settled down ready for the arrival of the students.
And arrive they did. Before 14:00 there was already a small gathering of eager students waiting their chance to enter and plumb the combined depths of knowledge contained within the now bustling exam hall. As they were admitted each student was greeted by members of the Rad Cam team and provided with additional information about the fair and their thesis. By the end of the afternoon over 218 students had walked through the doors and we were running low on handouts. Discussions were held on topics as varied as disability history and digital scholarship and all stalls were kept busy with students’ questions for the majority of the 2-hour fair.
Although numbers began to dwindle by the time the many clocks in the room began to mark 16:00 there was still a determined contingent of students who remained deep in conversation until the very end. After all the hard work setting up earlier in the day, the clean up effort was a comparatively easy affair, with the few posters and leaflets remaining packed away in record time. Staff were even aided in their clean up by the generous donation of some leftover promotional lollipops courtesy of the Oxford and Empire Network stall.
Our thanks and gratitude go out to everyone involved in the organisation and running of the history thesis fair, from stall-holders to Exam Schools’ staff who made this event such a success. And best of luck to all the History finalists as they undertake the writing of their theses!
In April a few of us trainees adventured to the beautiful city of Cambridge, also known as “The Other Place”, for a whirlwind tour of some of their libraries.
Our first stop was the Judge Business School, located in the former Addenbrooke’s Hospital building with colourful balconies and floating staircases (think Hogwarts meets Art Deco meets 1920s fairground). The Library is a small but welcoming user-friendly space catering for the needs of Judge Business School staff and students, with access to the specialised business databases Bloomberg and Eikon. My personal highlight has to be beanbags within the stacks. Or potentially the graffiti wall for readers to leave question drawings, messages of hope (or dread), for the librarians to respond to. Student wellbeing and enjoyment of the space was clearly a key consideration, with sections such as ‘Boost’ for wellbeing books and a less formal ‘Weird Ideas and Disruptive Thinking’ section.
Next we took the bus over to the West Hub, a sustainable three-storey development open to all departments at Cambridge University and members of the public. The library in this building, forming part of the Technology Libraries Team and Biological Sciences Libraries, is on the upper floor, which is naturally quieter than the lower floors thanks to the architectural design of the building. There are study spaces to suit everyone, comfortable booths and sofas, areas for group work and individual study pods. With huge floor to ceiling windows looking out onto what we’re assured will soon be lakes, gardens, and urban orchards, the building was incredibly bright and open. It was incredible to visit such a green and modern space, a completely different world to some of the medieval libraries in both Oxford and Cambridge. I have since declared that every library should have a tree growing inside.
Our last stop was the Cambridge University Library, the main research library of the university. One of the six UK legal deposit libraries, the UL is a huge, imposing 1930s structure, designed by the very same Giles Gilbert Scott who designed the Weston Library building here in Oxford, Battersea Power Station, and the red telephone box. The library houses nearly 10 million books, maps, manuscripts, and photographs, stored across 17 floors and more than 130 miles of shelving (which I can imagine is easy to get lost in). Unlike other legal deposit libraries, such as the Bodleian, much of the UL’s material is kept on open shelving for readers to borrow. We got a chance to look around some of the reading rooms and inspect one of the UL’s old card catalogues. It really is an impressive space, with a great view from the tower.
We finished the day with a walk around the market place and a quick pint by the river. It was great to see how some of the libraries in Cambridge function day-to-day and their different approaches to what a library should look like. I’m sure we all came away with lots to think about for our own libraries. We’re very grateful to the staff at the Judge Business School Library, the West Hub, and the UL for showing us around, as well as the Cambridge Libraries Graduate Trainees who joined us for some of the tours!
I have long been an avid reader of detective novels, psychological thrillers, crime fiction and cosy bibliomysteries. In anticipation of National Crime Reading Month in June, this week’s blog post in the ‘Celebrating Female Authors’ series celebrates female authors from the Golden-Age of crime fiction and Detection Club Crime Writers.
The 1920s and 30s mark the era of Golden-Age fiction, which saw the prolific publication of classic murder mysteries and detective novels, most of a similar style and genre. Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Dorothy L. Sayers are only a few of the many well-known detective writers of the time.
It was during the 1930s that the Detection Club was founded. This club consisted of a group of detective and crime writers including Dorothy L. Sayers, Anthony Berkeley, Freeman Wills Crofts, G. K. Chesterton, A.A. Milne and Agatha Christie. To join the club, new members had to follow a very particularinitiation ceremony  which required solemnly promising to adhere to theKnox’s Commandments in their writing . Some of the themes members of the Detection Club were forbidden to include in their novels were: ‘divine revelation, mumbo jumbo, jiggery-pokery, feminine intuition, coincidence or acts of God’ .
Mavis Doriel Hay
Very little is known about Mavis Doriel Hay. She was born February 1894, in Potter Bar, Middlesex . While much of her work revolved around handicrafts, which she published under her married name, Mavis Fitzrandolph, Mavis Doriel Hay is also known for her three highly-praised detective novels which were published during the Golden Age of British detective fiction . She died at the great age of 85 years on the 26th of August 1979 in Gloucestershire .
Mavis Doriel Hay wrote Murder Underground (1935-34) (which received high praise from Dorothy L. Sayers in anarticle in the 5798th issue of the Sunday Times, May 27th 1934), The Santa Klaus Murder (1936) and Death on the Cherwell (1935) , with the latter possibly being the most well-known of her three detective fiction works. Her detective novels have been reprinted in the British Library Crime Classics series .
However, her stint at writing detective novels was brief. Mavis Doriel Hay devoted her later career to the publication of books relating to crafts in Britain. These included: (1) Rural Industries of England and Wales (1929) (2) 30 Crafts (1950) (3) Traditional Quilting: Its Story and Practice (1954) (5) Quilting (1972) .
Links to Oxford
Mavis Doriel Hay was one of the first women to study at the University of Oxford – having matriculated at St Hilda’s College in 1913  and studied there until 1916 . Unlike her fellow male students at Oxford, however, she would not have received a degree from the University. Indeed, the University of Oxford only formally recognised female students in 1910 (only three years before Mavis Doriel Hay matriculated), and women were only first eligible for degrees in 1920, four years after Mavis Doriel Hay had left the university !
Hay used St Hilda’s College as inspiration for the setting of ‘Persephone College’ in her book, Death on the Cherwell – not unlike Sayers’ Gaudy Night which was published later in the same year and similarly set in an imaginary Oxford college of a different name: Shrewsbury College . In Hay’s book, students from Persephone College meet near the River Cherwell and discover the body of the unpopular college Bursar. Along with members from a neighbouring all-male college, these undergraduates attempt to investigate the suspicious death of the Bursar and find the culprit for this murder .
Death on the Cherwell tackles the important topic of women and their relationship with higher education in the early 1900s . Like other female writers who use Oxford as a setting for their murder mysteries, such as Dorothy L Sayer’s as well as Gladys Mitchell, Mavis Doriel Hay no doubt used her experience attending a women’s college in the 1910s to inform her literary work and examine attitudes towards women who went to university .
Gladys Mitchell, or ‘Great Gladys’ as she was called by her friend and novelist Philip Larkin, was an English writer best known for her detective fiction, featuring characters such as Mrs Bradley, Laura Menzies and Timothy Herring. She was born in Cowley in Oxford on the 21st of April 1901  to Annie Simmons and James Mitchell — her father having worked from age 13 as a scout at Oriel College .
Gladys Mitchell studied at Goldsmiths College where she received an Education Teacher’s Certificate in 1921. She then went on to study at University College London whereupon she received a diploma in English and European History in 1925 . Following her education, Gladys Mitchell taught History, English and on occasions coached hurdling, while also writing numerous books alongside this .
She was an early member of the Detection Club, as well as the British Olympic Association  and the Crime Writer’s Association .
She died on the 27th of July 1983 in Corge Mullen, Dorset .
Gladys Mitchell was highly regarded as a detective writer throughout the 1930s. Her debut novel, Speedy Death, was the first crime novel of 66 featuring Beatrice Adela Lestrange Bradley , a consultant psychologist for the Home Office .
Gladys Mitchell subsequently wrote many more books under the pseudonyms of Malcolm Torrie (for her historical novels) and Stephen Hockaby (for detective stories featuring an architect named Timothy Herring) . She also wrote children’s novels, and many of her novels have been made into radio adaptations and television series by the BBC .
Her books explored themes of witchcraft, the supernatural, occult, archaeology, myth and folklore and incorporated Freudian psychology, topics that were of interest to Mitchell and which she had been encouraged to continue researching by her close friend and fellow novelistHelen Simpson [1, 4, 11].
Links to Oxford
Gladys Mitchell was born in Cowley in Oxford, and her father worked as a scout at Oriel College when he was only 13 years old . Before that, he had received his education from theCowley Fathers, an old male religious order of the Anglican Church in Oxford [6, 10].
The Weston Library holds Gladys Mitchell’s manuscript draft of one of her novels:The Greenstone Griffins . It also has acorrespondence between Gladys Mitchell and her friend and fellow author, Philip Larkin, in which she congratulates him on his text: The Oxford Book of Twentieth Century English Verse .
Dorothy L. Sayers was a celebrated poet and world-renowned crime writer , best known for her series of detective novels featuring Lord Peter Wimsey . She was born on the 13th of June 1893 to Reverend Henry Sayers and Helen Leigh  at Christ Church Cathedral School in Oxford, where her father was Cathedral Chaplain .
Following her education in Cambridgeshire, Dorothy L. Sayers won a scholarship to study at Somerville College in Oxford. She was one of the first women to study and graduate from the University of Oxford with a First in Modern Languages in 1915 . Her qualification was not formally awarded, however, as it would take another 5 years for women to receive degrees .
Before turning to writing full-time, Sayers worked in publishing at Blackwell’s before then moving to London and coming up with the slogan ‘Guinness is good for you’ while working at S.H. Benson’s .
She died in December 1957 and was buried in Soho beneath St Anne’s Church, where she had worked as a warden in her later life .
Dorothy L. Sayers was an accomplished writer and is most well-known for her work in detective fiction. Following the publication of her poems in her 20s, she published her first novel in 1923, ‘Whose Body’, which featured Lord Peter Wimsey, a recurring amateur detective who appeared in over a dozen novels and short stories . It was her early success in detective crime fiction that ultimately allowed Dorothy L. Sayers to financially support herself . She became one of the original members of the Detection Club, and became President of the “secret” group between 1949 to 1957 – a position also held by other Golden-Age crime writers such as G. K. Chesterton and Agatha Christie during the 1940s .
As well as detective novels, Dorothy L. Sayers wrote plays, articles and completed numerous highly-praised academic translations . In the 1930s and early 1940s, she wrote ‘The Zeal of Thy House’, a play performed at the Canterbury Cathedral at the then Dean’s request, which follows an architect, William of Sens, and explores themes of Christianity, religion and pride. Sayers subsequently wrote the controversial drama ‘The Man Born to Be King’, which depicts the life of Christ . The latter received many objections as a result of Jesus being played by a human actor, and who spoke in modern English . In her later career, following correspondences with writer Charles Williams, Sayers devoted much time and energy to the translation of Dante’s ‘The Divine Comedy’, which has been considered by some as Dorothy L. Sayers’ greatest accomplishment . Sayers’ completed ‘Hell’ and ‘Purgatory’ in 1949 and 1955 respectively, however, died quite suddenly from a heart-attack before finishing the last volume ‘Paradise’.
Links to Oxford
For fans of Dorothy L. Sayers, or for those who enjoy walks with a literary twist, there are a few sites in Oxford that are linked to the author:
Brewer Street: Dorothy L Sayers was born at Christ Church Cathedral School in Oxford, where her father was Cathedral Chaplain . If you visit No1 Brewer Street, you will be able to see a commemorative blue plaque about Dorothy L. Sayers on the wall.
Sommerville College: Dorothy L. Sayers received a scholarship to study at Sommerville College in 1912. It is one of the first two colleges in Oxford for women, founded in 1879.
Balliol College: Dorothy L. Sayer’s fictional detective, Peter Wimsey, studied at Balliol College. It is possible to visit the college.
St Cross Church: This church situated between St Cross and Manor Road is significant in Dorothy L. Sayers’ detective novels with Lord Peter Wimsey.
Christ Church College: The college archive at Christ church has a baptismal register on which Dorothy L. Sayers’ name appears . And, a fairly tenuous link, however one of the characters from Sayers’ Gaudy Night, Lord Saint-George, was depicted as being a student at Christ Church.
The Eagle and Child: The Eagle and Child is a pub in Oxford where members of the literary group, the Inklings (which included J.R.R. Tolkien, Charles Williams, C.S. Lewis, Owen Barfield and others), met on occasion in the 1930s and 40s to read aloud and receive feedback on their work. Although not a part of this group, Dorothy L. Sayers was friends with some of its members, including both C.S. Lewis and Charles Williams. Sayers attended the Socratic Club at Oxford while Lewis was president, and she read papers to this group. C.S. Lewis and Dorothy L. Sayers corresponded on occasion, and some of these letters can be found in Letters of C.S. Lewis and S. Lewis: A Biography. Having both known Charles William, Sayers and Lewis wrote a letter together to commemorate the 10th anniversary of William’s death . The Eagle and Child, also known as ‘Bird and Baby’ can be found near Pusey Street in Oxford. Unfortunately, the pub shut during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Val McDermid, born June 4th 1955 in Scotland, Fife, is a well-known crime novelist . Another St Hilda’s College alumnus, Val McDermid studied English there and was one of the youngest and first student’s from a Scottish State School to be admitted . Following her graduation, Val McDermid became a journalist, training in Devon and then moving to Glasgow and Manchester to work for national newspapers there (returning to Oxford only to captain and win the Christmas University Challenge in 2016) . When in Manchester, she was reportedly one of only three women at a firm with a total of 137 journalists . In a recent talk at theSheldonian (that I was lucky enough to attend) Val McDermid spoke about the blatant misogyny women experienced in the workplace, highlighting how women were often tasked with reporting topics to do with ‘women’s issues’, and that it was only in the late 1970s that women were allowed to do night shifts and wear trousers like their male colleagues. It was during this time, working as a journalist, that Val McDermid published her first successful novel in 1987, Report for Murder .
Val McDermid has subsequently won various accolades for her contribution to crime writing, including the CWA Diamond Dagger and the LGBTQ Saints and Sinners Hall of Fame. She was also awarded an honorary doctorate in 2011 by the University of Sunderland, and elected as a Fellow to both the Royal Society of Edinburgh, the Royal Society of Literature, and became a member of the much acclaimed Detection Club in 2000 .
For those who enjoy literary festivals (in particular, ones that solely revolve around crime writing!), Val McDermid also co-founded theHarrogate Crime Writing Festival , which this year takes place between the 20th and 23rd of July. During Val McDermid’s talk at the Sheldonian, I was also surprised to learn that Val McDermid is part of theFun Lovin’ Crime Writers band who played at Glastonbury a few years ago. In fact, Val McDermid is the lead singer of the group, and their band will be playing at theAgatha Christie Festival this year!
detective novels typical of the 1920s and 30s, like Agatha Christie’s ‘Body in the Library’. Indeed, Val McDermid has described her writing to fall within the ‘Tartan Noir’ genre , a genre particular to Scottish crime writers  characterised by darker and grittier storylines, and an exploration of Scotland’s people and landscapes .
My first introduction to Val McDermid novels was the Tony Hill and Carol Jordan series, which follows a forensic psychologist and detective working together to solve what tend to be increasingly grim cases. However, Val McDermid has written many other standalone books, as well as four more ongoing series following characters such as detective Karen Pirie, journalist Lindsay Gorden, Kate Brannigan and Allie Burns . She has sold over 16 million novels, and these have been translated into over 40 languages . Her Karen Pirie and Carol Jordan and Tony Hill books have both been adapted for television .
In addition to her crime fiction, Val McDermid has written a children’s book as well as a few non-fiction novels – some to do with forensic science but others to do with Scotland – its landscapes and how she used them as inspiration for some of her novels . As well as books, Val McDermid has also written plays, TV series, drama series and documentaries over the radio .
Links to Oxford
Like other crime writers Mavis Doriel Hay and P.D. James, except over 40 years later, Val McDermid attended St Hilda’s College to read English, which she thoroughly enjoyed .
Attending Val McDermid’s talk at the Sheldonian as a library trainee, it was also nice to learn that Val McDermid loved using the libraries in Oxford, with the Radcliffe Camera being one of her favourite study spaces . McDermid has even used the building in a “very final, dramatic scene” in a book, in which the characters have an “unconventional use for the Radcliffe” – hopefully this “unconventional use” of the library does not include the characters bringing in any food or drink!
Of course, the list about Golden-Age crime writers would not be complete without celebrating the great Agatha Christie. Born in Torquay in 1890 to Frederick Alvah Miller and Clarissa Margaret Boehmer, Agatha Christie was, and still is, the best-selling detective novelist of all time [1, 2] (and after reading texts like The Murder of Roger Ackroyd or The ABC Murders, it is not surprising as to why!).
Billions of copies of her books have been sold worldwide, in a range of different languages . And, her play ‘The Mousetrap’, which opened in 1952 in London’s West End, is the world’s longest-running play .
Like Gladys Mitchell, Val McDermid and Dorothy L. Sayers, Agatha Christie was a member of the Detection Club. In fact, alongside other successful detective novelists, such as Anthony Berkeley, Dorothy L. Sayers and Freeman Wills Crofts, Christie was one of the founding members of this society . She even became president of the club but only after she had received absolute confirmation that someone else would be in charge of delivering public speeches as she was quite shy.
After a long and very successful career, Agatha Christie died on the 12th of January 1976 at age 85.
Although her mother did not want her daughter to read until aged eight, Agatha Christie taught herself to read by age five and began writing poems when she was still only a child  (her first piece of writing was a poem calledThe Cow Slip) . She received no formal education until she was sent to finishing school in Paris in 1906, where she became an accomplished pianist [1, 6]. By this time, at 18 years old, Christie enjoyed writing short stories and novels which remainedunpublished (including Snow Upon the Desert and The House of Beauty), and received feedback from family members, friends, as well as the authorEden Phillpotts who lived close to Ashfield, Agatha Christie’s family home (Peril at End House isdedicated to Phillpotts).
It was not until the 1910s, during the First World War working in a Red Cross hospital in Torquay, that Agatha Christie turned to writing detective stories after, rather fortunately for all Agatha Christie fans, being dared to do so by her older sister,Madge . Using her knowledge of poisons, which she had gained while working as a member of the Voluntary Aid Detachment asa nurse and as a dispenser (for which shepassed several exams to qualify as an apothecary’s assistant), Agatha Christie wrote her debut novel ‘The Mysterious Affair at Styles’ which was published in 1919  and featured the now world-renowned Belgian moustached-detective: Hercule Poirot . Initially, the denouement happened in a courtroom, and it was Christie’s publisher John Lane who insisted that the final chapter be reworked. This culminated in the much-loved final chapters in which Poirot, or another detective, gathers all the suspects in one room and dramatically reveals the true murderer (or murderers), an ending typical of many of Christie’s novels.
Incidentally, John Lane was one of the founders ofThe Bodley Head, a publishing house founded in 1887 which, perhaps unsurprisingly, took its name from a bust ofSir Thomas Bodley (founder of the Bodleian Library) which sat above the shop door .
While at the hospital, Agatha Christie also wrote, alongside friends with whom she worked, articles for their handmade and light-hearted hospital magazine kept at the Christie Archive Trust in Wales. The group called themselves ‘The Queer Women’. For those interested, BBC iPlayer currently has a series of brilliantdocumentaries about Agatha Christie, in which Lucy Worsley flicks through pages from the magazine (about 30 minutes into the first episode) .
Following the war, Agatha Christie and her husband and daughter, Archie Christie and Rosalind Christie, moved to Sunningdale and named their house ‘Styles’ . Agatha Christie continued to write and publish novels including ‘The Murder of Roger Ackroyd’, ‘Murder on the Links’ and ‘The Man in the Brown Suit’, among others .
Towards the later stages of her career, Agatha Christie re-married and travelled extensively with her archaeologist husband, Max Mallowan, to watch and support archaeological digs. One such excavation site that she visited was Howard Carter’s in the Valley of the King’s in 1922, while Carter and his team were working on the excavation of Tutankhamun’s tomb . Agatha Christie’s interest in archaeology and the Middle-East is evident when reading her books, including ‘Murder on the Orient Express’, ‘Murder in Mesopotamia’, ‘Death on the Nile’ and many more.
Although mainly known for her detective novels, Agatha Christie wrote different types of novels under pseudonyms including: Mary Westmacott (a combination of her second name and the surname of distant family relatives) and Agatha Mallowan (using her married name) . Completely anonymous as Mary Westmacott, Agatha Christie had the freedom to write novels of a different genre to her expected detective fiction . Christie wrote 6 novels as Mary Westmacott: Giant’s Bread (1930), Unfinished Portrait (1934) Absent in the Spring (1944), The Rose and the Yew Tree (1947), A Daughter’s a Daughter (1952) and The Burner (1956), and these were often described as ‘romantic novels’ at the time. Nevertheless, Agatha Christie’s daughter and grandson label these more as biographical novels, dealing with human psychology, relationships and love [18, 19]. Unfortunately, in 1946 it was discovered by readers that Agatha Christie and Mary Westmacott were one and the same , and Christie no longer had the opportunity to indulge in the freedom of writing anonymously as Westmacott.
Following Agatha Christie’s second marriage to Max Mallowan, Christie occasionally wrote under her married name, Agatha Mallowan. Most of what she published as Agatha Mallowan had to do with archaeology and the archaeological digs she visited while accompanying her husband.
Links to Oxford
Agatha Christie lived in Winterbrook House in Wallingford, Oxfordshire, with her second husband, archaeologist and All Souls fellow Max Mallowan, for 42 years . He and Agatha Christie met in 1928 at an archaeological site she visited at Ur. Two years later, she and Mallowan were married in Edinburgh at St Cuthbert’s Church – Agatha Christie had a few reservations about the age gap between them (she was 39 years old and her husband was 26), and so their marriage certificate states that Christie was 37 and Mallowan was 31.
For those who are Agatha Christie fans, I would highly recommend the Agatha Christie-themed walking tour in Wallingford, Oxfordshire. Below are a few places you can visit on this self-directed tour (as listed on the helpful Agatha Christietrail guide):
Wallingford Museum: TheWallingford Museum has a small Agatha Christie exhibition, with photographs of Christie, handwritten letters, and quotes from those who met Agatha Christie while she lived in Wallingford. You can pick up a leaflet for the Agatha Christie trail guide, and (for Midsomer Murders fans) you can collect a leaflet for the Midsomer Murders trail in Wallingford.
Market Place: In the Market Place you will be able to see the Corn Exchange which was built in 1856 and now hosts the Sinodum Players. This drama group was of interest to Agatha Christie, and in 1951 she became their President. This was only under the condition that she did not need to attend official functions. When she attended the plays, the same two seats were reserved for Agatha Christie and her husband Max Mallowan, and a complimentary box of chocolates was also offered to her. She asked for her attendance not to be announced .
Winterbrook House: This is where Agatha Christie lived with her husband Max Mallowan for 42 years. It is privately owned now, but it is possible to glimpse the blue plaque stuck beside the front door to the house.
St Mary’s Church: After a half-hour (ish) walk through the country, you’ll find St Mary’s Church where Agatha Christie is buried. Her gravestone has a quote from the Faerie Queene by Edmund Spenser. Agatha Christie is buried with her husband. Unfortunately, his title as ‘Archaeologist’ was misspelt on the gravestone!
Mary Mead: About 10 minutes walk from St Mary’s Church, you’ll find a small road sign spelling out ‘St Mary Mead’ where, for those in the know, a certain literary character of the name Jane Marple resides.
Agatha Christie was the first British woman to surf standing up.
Agatha Christie wrote N or M? during World War II, a wartime novel featuring a certain ‘Major Bletchley’. Christie’s choice of ‘Major Bletchley’ as a name for her character in the novel, led to a small investigation by MI5 to ensure that Christie had not guessed what truly was going on at Bletchley Park. She later revealed that she named her unlikeable character ‘Bletchley’ as a revenge for when her train from Oxford to London got stuck at Bletchley for a considerable length of time .
During the odd lunchtime during term, the Upper Library at Christ Church becomes host to pop-up displays of special collections material. Part of my Graduate Trainee role that I’ve really enjoyed is assisting with these displays, whether through invigilation, talking with visitors about the collection or selecting texts for display. Today I’ve put together a selection of texts that featured in our display on Early Modern conceptions of skin. Through the lens of travel books, anatomical texts and medical manuals we invited visitors to explore a range of cultural and medical understandings of skin during this period. I’ve chosen just three items from this display to share in this post today – read on for fugitives (of a kind), duels, and medical drama…
Johann Remmelin’s Catoptrum Microcosmicum
It’s possible that one comes across most lift the flap books during childhood. Literary giants such as Eric Hill’s Spot Bakes a Cakecome to mind. In this charming story flaps serve as an important ingredient of the mischief and excitement of the book. A flap that takes the form of a wave of chocolate cake batter can be lifted by the intrepid reader to reveal Spot stirring up a storm beneath, for example.
Much to my dismay, we do not hold Spot Bakes a Cake in our collection at Christ Church, but that does not mean we are completely bereft of lift the flap books. Despite Abe Books listing this as the ‘Original Lift the Flap’, there are in fact earlier examples of such a technique, and one such text featured in our display.
Johann Remmelin’s Catoptrum Microcosmicum (Augsburg, 1619) is the first anatomical atlas to use flaps to illustrate layers of anatomy. Instead of joining Spot in his mission to bake a birthday cake for his dad, you are invited to step into the shoes of the 17th century physick, learning about the intricacies of the muscles, bones and beyond of the human body. The plates show first a male and a female figure surrounded by figures of isolated body parts, including the eye, ear, tongue and heart. All of these are represented at their different levels with flaps – the man and woman to a depth of 13 superimposed layers. Each new layer reveals what can be found in the body at different stages of a dissection.
A later edition of this text, published in 1670, sets out on the title page that this book contains:
‘an anatomie of the bodies of man and woman wherein the skin, veins, nerves, muscles, bones, sinews and ligaments are accurately delineated. And curiously pasted together, so as at first sight you may behold all the outward parts of man and woman. And by turning up the several dissections of the paper take a view of all their inwards’ .
The flaps themselves are referred to as ‘dissections’ here, the act of the reader lifting a flap becoming amalgamated with the incision of the anatomist’s scalpel. ‘Curiously pasted together’ is a good description – the nature of the ‘lift the flap’ anatomy book imbues the medical diagram with an enact-able curiosity that only increases with interaction with the different layers.
Despite my attempts to tip the balance with this blog post, when it comes to breath-taking 17th century anatomical books, the phrase ‘lift the flap’ is not bandied around with much regularity. Strange! Rather, they are grouped within a pioneering class of anatomical print known as the ‘fugitive sheet’ or ‘compound situs’. This technique is first recorded as being seen in 1538 in works by Heinrich Vogtherr, which made use of layers of pressed linen to create the same effect we see in Remmelin’s Catoptrum Microcosmicum.
These fugitive sheets would have been a fantastic way for users to understand the internal workings of their bodies, even without proximity to a cadaver. However, writing about Remmelin’s anatomised Eve, one commentator notes how the figures in these engravings ‘[sit] amid the horrific attributes of sin and death […]. If this is self-knowledge, one might prefer extroversion.’
Gaspare Tagliacozzi’s De curtorum chirurgia per insitionem
Also included in our display was Gaspare Tagliacozzi’s De curtorum chirurgia per insitionem (Venice, 1597). The copy held at Christ Church is a pirated edition of the first book devoted entirely to plastic surgery. In fact, multiple un-official editions of this text appeared soon after the original due to its popularity.
The realities of plastic surgery met a real need in the 1500s, largely because duelling and violence were pretty rife. If you had taken a rapier to the face in a duel for your honour (perhaps your reputation is on the line when the last slice of chocolate cake has disappeared and you are found with crumbs round your mouth) a spot of light plastic surgery might be just what you’re after.
Around thirty years before Tagliacozzi wrote De curtorum chirurgia per insitionem, the Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe was taking some time out from considering the stars and turned to the far more terrestrial pursuit of losing his nose in a duel against Manderup Parsberg, his third cousin. While he and Parsberg later became friends, Tycho was landed with wearing a prosthetic nose for the rest of his life. Word on the 16th century street was that this prosthesis was crafted from finest silver, but when Tycho’s corpse was exhumed in 2010, it was a brass nose that was found, not silver.
While coming a little too late to be of use to Tycho, Tagliacozzi’s text focuses on the repair of mutilations of the nose, lips and ears, using skin grafts in an operation that became known as the ‘Italian graft’. This technique allowed for facial reconstruction via a skin graft taken from the left forearm. The graft would remain partially attached to the arm while grafted to the mutilated area so the skin cells would not decay. Tagliacozzi’s talents did not stop at medical innovation however – he also had an eye for (practical) fashion. Due to the importance of the patient being able to hold their arm to their face after the surgery to facilitate the complete adherence of the graft, Tagliacozzi designed a complex vest, not unlike a straightjacket, to make sure there was no unwarranted movement. The process was supposed to take from two to three weeks.
William Cowper’s Anatomia corporum humanorum
The final book that will feature in my post today is William Cowper’s Anatomia corporum humanorum (Leiden, 1750) and at the heart of this text is one of the most famous controversies in medical history.
The plates that feature in Anatomia corporum humanorum were not originally produced for this text, but rather the earlier Anatomia humani corporis, by Govard Bidloo (1649 – 1713). Originally published in 1685, Anatomia humani corporis features 105 striking copperplate engravings of the human body. The plates illustrate the muscular, skeletal, reproductive, and systemic organization of the human body and are seen alongside scientific commentary.
An English contemporary of Bidloo, William Cowper, bought the printing plates from the printing house and reissued them under his own name with new accompanying text in his Anatomy of humane bodies. A text that, in a profound lack of tact, also featured ‘numerous harsh criticisms towards Bidloo’s contributions’. Unlike today, plagiarism – especially over national boundaries – was largely tolerated at the time, as it was difficult to police. Bidloo objected strongly to this instance of plagiarism from Cowper, however, promptly and publicly excoriating him in a published communication to the Royal Society.
What could be termed as Cowper’s lack of imagination when swiping someone else’s prints was more than made up for by Bidloo’s creative insults in this pamphlet – on one occasion calling him a ‘highwayman’, and another a ‘miserable anatomist who writes like a Dutch barber’. I think I’d rather be on the anatomist’s table than have such lines about me circulating in print. All’s fair in love and science I suppose…
The plates in question were produced by the Dutch painter Gerard de Lairesse. For Lairesse, the anatomical illustrations commissioned by Bidloo were an opportunity for an artistic reflection on anatomy. They are very different from the tradition kick-started by the Vesalian woodcuts in De humani corporis fabrica.
Lairesse displays his figures with a tender realism and sensuality, which at first glance seems unfitting for an anatomy book. The figures seem docile, as if in a light sleep rather than deliberately posed objects of scientific inquiry. In these illustrations dissected parts of the body are contrasted with soft surfaces of un-dissected skin and draped material. Flayed, bound figures are depicted in ordinary nightclothes or bedding, as if they will soon be put back together again and woken up.
That’s all I’ll share today – I’m off to make a case for Spot Bakes a Cake as being a prime investment for Christ Church library’s collection.
Diana Wynne Jones was one of the most exceptionally prolific, beloved, and influential British children’s writers of the twentieth century. Born in 1934, she published more than 40 children’s fantasy books over the course of her career. She would have written more had cancer not caught up to her: at the time of her death in 2011, she was in the middle of writing a novel and already planning another.
When she passed away, a flurry of obituaries celebrating her life and work appeared in the nation’s newspapers. Writing in the Guardian, Christopher Priest described her fantasies as ‘of seminal importance for their bridging of the gap between “traditional” children’s fantasy, as written by CS Lewis or E Nesbit, and the more politically and socially aware children’s literature of the modern period.’ The Telegraph noted that ‘[her] 40 or so books maintained a remarkably high standard in both inventiveness and the elegance of their prose.’ Charlie Butler, writing for the Independent, goes so far as to say ‘that Jones never won either the Carnegie Medal or Whitbread/Costa Award is both a mystery and, in retrospect, a scandal.’
Diana Wynne Jones’s work combines a wonderful originality in concept with well-considered execution, regardless of her chosen subject matter. Many writers who produce in anything like the sort of volume she did manage it by sticking to a winning formula, but Jones continued to experiment throughout her life. She wrote mainly for children, but also for adults; she wrote stories set in our contemporary world, and stories set in fantasy worlds; she wrote her own versions of Arthurian tales, and even wrote about schools for witches and wizards before they took the world by storm. She did all this informed by a keen understanding of human nature and a clear sense of how stories are constructed.
In autobiographical material, Jones’s childhood casts a long shadow. She describes a childhood disrupted by war, and complicated by parental neglect and emotional abuse. Writing in 1988, she said ‘I write the kind of books I do because the world suddenly went mad when I was five years old.’ Although born in London, Jones lived for a time with her father’s relatives in Wales after the outbreak of the Second World War, and later in the Lake District. There she met both Beatrix Potter and Arthur Ransome, though she was impressed by neither (according to her, they both hated children). Nonetheless, she was impressed to learn that books were something real people wrote, and she was determined from a young age to be a writer.
Perhaps echoing her difficulties growing up with her parents, her child protagonists often have complicated relationships with their parents. She resorted to writing her own stories when her father denied his daughters books and other reading material; and her relationship with her mother never recovered from their time apart during the war. In her books, these women may be loving, but distant and wrapped up in their own lives or careers, or perhaps subtly cruel. In The Lives of Christopher Chant (1988), for example, the eponymous protagonist’s mother is ambitious, but more interested in her social life than in her son.
Other family members are sometimes obstacles or villains, or good in appearance yet tarnished underneath. In Cart and Cwidder (1975), a boy’s family has revolved around his charming, larger-than-life father, who turns out to be both an underground freedom fighter and utterly without care for his wife’s individuality. So, is he a good person? That is left for the reader to decide.
Diana Wynne Jones does not condescend to her young readers and writes about the sorts of problems they face with respect and compassion. Often her plots are small dramas writ large. In Dogsbody (also published 1975), a girl’s unhappy life with her foster family is disrupted—and brightened—by the addition of a dog. The dog turns out to be the star Sirius, sent to earth in punishment. The everyday struggles of a child are contrasted, and yet wholly enmeshed, with a cosmic struggle.
(Photos courtesy of St Anne’s College)
The fantastical was having a resurgence around the latter half of the twentieth century owing, in part, to renewed interest in medieval works as pieces of literature. Indeed, when Diana Wynne Jones came to Oxford to read English at St Anne’s College in the early 1950s she found her curriculum full of dragons.
Jones very nearly didn’t make it to Oxford. She had applied to Somerville, her mother’s old college, and not been accepted, so she made a late application to St Anne’s in December 1952 and was accepted for the following autumn. Her headmistress had recommended her as ‘an exceptionally able girl’ and ‘probably the most original girl in the school’. At Oxford, her tutors universally praised her imagination, liveliness, and originality, all while lamenting her lack of effort. Rather unfortunately, her father had passed away unexpectedly during her first term, which seems to have set the tone for her university career. It was not a happy time for her, and she found it difficult—and sometimes dull—to get on with her work.
Nonetheless, it was at Oxford that she encountered Beowulf, Malory’s Le Morte D’Arthur, and Langland’s Piers Plowman, among other medieval classics, and attended lectures by both J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, who had both had a hand in setting this medievalist curriculum.  Diana Wynne Jones’s fantasies clearly show this influence, though perhaps not as one might expect. She eschews the overt popular signifiers of medievalism—castles, serfs, noble kings—while deliberately incorporating its stories and aesthetic qualities.
Diana Wynne Jones felt that children, more than any other kind of person, looked to the future and not to the past. Children, she thought, would relate better to tales set in a ‘story time’ that was identifiable as their own, like medieval people did in their own imagination. Just as artists and writers in medieval Europe reimagined the stories of their past as happening in something like their own time, so could fantasy literature in the twentieth century be set in a world recognisable to its readers. For example, in Eight Days of Luke (1975), Diana Wynne Jones reimagines mythological figures in a small English town. The protagonist befriends the trickster god Loki, here present in the guise of another young boy, and over the course of a week successively meets other Norse gods and gets involved in their disagreements.
While many fantasies, including those by Tolkien and his imitators, look to the Middle Ages as a period of unique heroism and to a medieval hierarchical order as the rightful mode of organisation for society, Diana Wynne Jones´s work rejects this proposition. In her Dalemark series (1975-1993), which is at its core set in a pre-modern fantasy world, she openly challenges medievalist nostalgic notions of the past. Her protagonists, though imbued in a mythic past where the undying figures of folk religion wander the land, are recognisably human and flawed. In the land of Dalemark, the weight of history makes itself felt, but substantial technological and societal innovations are also welcome: the land is going through its own industrial revolution, with uprisings resulting in better conditions for workers; and the ancient roads which connect the country´s historical sites are brought to life as the foundations for modern railways.
Nonetheless, several of Diana Wynne Jones´s novels are in direct conversation with the medieval literary tradition. For instance, her 1993 novel Hexwood weaves in Arthurian myth into a twisting story set in a contemporary English wood off a housing estate, which turns out to be partly a supercomputer-generated environment under the control of a galactic empire. Jones’s reimagining of myth is a far cry from historicist narratives which place King Arthur in a version of the real past, as in the works of Rosemary Sutcliff or T.H. White. Neither do her novels present themselves as didactic, and they do not come with a neat moral at the end. Instead, they are a mirror for the world in which her readers live, raised in understanding: not an instructional manual but an opportunity for reflection.
Although Diana Wynne Jones started publishing in earnest in the 1970s and had become well-respected by the 1980s in fantasy circles—and was widely-read by school-aged children—she did not achieve worldwide success until the turn of the millennium. Following a resurgence of interest children’s fantasy as well as the popular anime adaptation of her 1986 novel Howl’s Moving Castle by Japanese film director Hayao Miyazaki in 2004, many of her novels were reissued, introducing them to new audiences. They were reprinted in the UK, and published in translation in Spain, France, Germany, and Israel, among other countries.
Diana Wynne Jones’s work has been foundational for many children’s and fantasy authors writing today. Children’s author and 2019-2022 UK Children’s Laureate Cressida Cowell named Jones’s The Ogre Downstairs (1974) as one of the most important books she had read as a child. Katherine Rundell, recent winner of the Waterstones Children’s Book Prize, was inspired to become a writer like Diana Wynne Jones, and believes she is underrated, as ‘infinite estimation is what she deserves’. Frances Hardinge, the only children’s writer to win the Costa Book Award besides Philip Pullman in 2001, named Jones´s The Time of the Ghost (1981) as one of the stories to have shaped her.
It’s hard to quantify the impact of a writer such as Diana Wynne Jones. As writer Marcus Sedgwick said in his introduction to the Folio Society’s lushly illustrated 2019 edition of Howl´s Moving Castle: ‘The seeds of Jones´s work can be seen in myriad other writers. […] We pass the tools of storytelling from generation to generation.’ I do not believe fantasy writing would look the way it does today without her contribution.
Selected Works by Diana Wynne Jones
The Ogre Downstairs (1974)
Eight Days of Luke (1975)
Cart and Cwidder (1975)
Drowned Ammet (1977)
The Spellcoats (1979)
The Crown of Dalemark (1993)
Time of the Ghost (1981)
Howl’s Moving Castle (1986)
The Lives of Christopher Chant (1988)
 Diana Wynne Jones, ‘Something About the Author’, in Reflections on the Magic of Writing (Oxford: David Flicking Books, 2012), p. 210.
 Jones, ‘Something About the Author’, pp. 216-17.
 For this information I am grateful to St Anne’s College, who allowed me access to Diana Wynne Jones´s student file from her time as a student in 1953-56.
 For a discussion on the English curriculum at Oxford at this time, see Maria Sachiko Cecire, Re-Enchanted: The Rise of Children’s Fantasy Literature in the Twentieth Century (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2019).
 Diana Wynne Jones, ‘Inventing the Middle Ages’, in Reflections on the Magic of Writing (Oxford: David Flicking Books, 2012), p. 165.
 Neil Gaiman, ‘Foreword’, in Reflections on the Magic of Writing (Oxford: David Flicking Books, 2012), viii.