Celebrating LGBT+ History Month at the Bodleian Libraries

February is LGBT+ History Month. Across the Bodleian and college libraries, the Graduate Trainees have been hard at work creating displays that showcase a wide array of books which explore and celebrate LGBT+ history.

The Oxford Union Society Library

The Oxford Union Society’s LGBT+ History Month display explores LGBT+ history from across the world.

Homosexuality in ancient Greece is discussed through famous historical figures like Sappho, the romantic poet who is widely believed to have been lesbian (indeed, she lived on the Isle of Lesbos which is where the word “Lesbian” comes from),[1] and Ovid who wrote in his Art of Love that ‘a boy’s love appealed to me less’ – although this was later deliberately mistranslated as ‘a boy’s love appealed to me not at all’.[2] This censorship is not unusual, though amusingly some writers who translated Greek texts would translate the more risqué passages into Latin, thus counterintuitively highlighting the very sections they wanted obscured.[3]

Additionally, ancient Greek literature is used to explore LGBT history: Plato’s Symposium includes a brilliantly varied discussion of the origin of man in which Aristophanes, a comic, suggests that humans used to be two beings fused together, some male and female, others male and male and yet others female and female. These original humans were split in half by the angry gods and that is why we search for our “other half”.[4]

Transsexualism and homosexuality in various parts of Asia are also discussed:

  • In Mesopotamia, the deity of love and war, Ishtar, could be depicted as either male or female depending on what aspect of divinity the artist wished to portray. Ishtar’s male followers were even considered feminine and their sexual identity ‘in some way irregular’.[5]
  • The Hindu deity Lakshminarayan is a combination of two deities: male Vishnu and female Lakshmi. Similarly, the deity Ardhanarishvara represents the goddess Parvati and the god Shiva (who is romantic with Vishnu and even gives birth!).[6]
  • Japanese and Persian cultures are discussed through comparing Japanese samurai, who often had relationships with their pages and juniors and valued male love, with a similar practice in Persian royal courts.[7]

Modern British history, on the other hand, is filled with the poor treatment of LGBT+ people. In the 18th century homosexuality was a capital offence and the word “Molly” was used as a term of abuse towards flamboyant men.[8] In 1895, Oscar Wilde was tried for being gay and imprisoned in Reading gaol,[9] and in 1952 Alan Turing was discovered to be homosexual and charged with ‘gross indecency’ and chemically castrated.[10] Later in the 20th century, homosexuals were interrogated and discharged from the armed forces.[11] In fact, homosexuals were banned from British Armed Forces up until 2000.[12]

LGBT+ history is varied and fascinating. If you’d like to learn more about how it has been celebrated at the Oxford Union, check out the posts about the display for Transgender Awareness Week 2023 on Twitter and Facebook.

[1] R.B. Parkinson. 2013. A little gay history : desire and diversity across the world. 306.766 PAR

[2] Simon LeVay. 2012. Gay, straight, and the reason why : the science of sexual orientation. 155.3 LEV

[3] John Boswell. 1982. Christianity, social tolerance, and homosexuality : gay people in Western Europe from the beginning of the Christian era to the fourteenth century. 306.766 2 BOS

[4] Simon LeVay. 2012.

[5] R.B. Parkinson. 2013.

[6] Ibid

[7] Ibid

[8] Simon LeVay. 2012.

[9] Hugh David. 1997. On queer street : a social history of British homosexuality, 1895-1995. 306.766 DAV.

[10] Andrew Hodges. 1992. Alan Turing : the enigma. 510 HOD.

[11] Edmund Hall. 1995. We can’t even march straight : Homosexuality in the British Armed Forces. 306.766 094 1 HAL.

[12] Ministry of Defence, Cabinet Office, Office for Veterans’ Affairs, The Rt Hon Dr Andrew Murrison MP, The Rt Hon Johnny Mercer MP, The Rt Hon Rishi Sunak MP, and The Rt Hon Ben Wallace MP. 2023. ‘Government apologises to veterans for egregious historic LGBT policy in the Armed Forces: The PM and Defence Secretary apologise to LGBT personnel and veterans impacted by the historic ban.’ Gov.uk. https://www.gov.uk/government/news/government-apologises-to-veterans-for-egregious-historic-lgbt-policy-in-the-armed-forces

 Connie Hubbard

 

The Taylor Institution Library

A picture showing the Taylor Institution Library’s LGBT+ History Month display.

The study of LGBT+ history is a rapidly growing field in academia. This is reflected in Oxford University’s Centre for Gender, Identity and Subjectivity, as well as the LGBTQ+ History Faculty Network which runs fortnightly seminars and research sessions (@oulgbtqhistory). As for the Taylorian, we have a growing focus on gender and sexuality, not only on our ‘G.GEN’ marked shelves in the Main Reading Room and Research Collection but interspersed throughout our modern language and film collections.

While the official theme for this year’s LGBT+ History Month is ‘Medicine: Under the Scope’, we at the Taylor Library decided to stick to our subject specialisms of modern language and European history while putting together our display. As a result, we have two separate displays, a DVD display in the Teaching Collection and a display of our most recent acquisitions of LGBT+ history books in the Research Collection, to keep up to date with current scholarship.

The displays aim to present examples of the vast array of items the library has, from the history of coming out in Wales (A Little Gay History of Wales) and lesbian desire in nineteenth century Italy (Eccentricity and sameness: discourses on lesbianism and desire between women in Italy, 1860s-1930s), to histories of queerness in medieval French courts (Courtly and queer: deconstruction, desire, and medieval French literature) and anthologies of transgender historical scholarship. They are centred around uncovering lost historical narratives, whether that be because of scholarly neglect until relatively recently, or explicit attempts to erase the voices of those who did not “fit” within the heteronormative historical narrative. To recognise these voices, the display also contains the works of 19th and 20th century LGBT+ writers and artists. These include the likes of Renée Vivien, a lesbian Parisian poet whose childhood friend-turned-lover, Violet Shillito, is often evoked in her works such as this display’s A Crown of Violets. Another example you will find is that of Mário Cesariny, a surrealist artist and poet who left Portugal for the UK to escape persecution for his homosexuality. The Taylor recently held an exhibition of his work, which you can read about here. 

As for our DVD display, this aims to celebrate the impact and contribution of LGBT+ artists in cinema worldwide. The collection on display consists of films that were produced by LGBT+ directors and are a mix of early and more recent productions. From French historical drama such as Portrait of a Lady on Fire to South Korean thriller The Handmaiden, Swedish bildungsroman Show Me Love to Thai romance Tropical Malady, these award-winning productions all explore and celebrate the multifaceted experiences of those in the LGBT+ community. Overall, the displays reflect the purpose of LGBT+ History Month as a whole, to create safe and inclusive spaces for all readers and staff members at the Taylorian.

Reading List: Histoire de la Sexualité by Michel Foucault; The Transgender Studies Reader, ed. by Susan Stryker and Stephen Whittle; Queer Genealogies in Transnational Barcelona, by Natasha Tanna; Derivas Del (Mal)decir, by José Javier Maristany; Queer Square Mile: Queer Short Stories from Wales, ed. by Kirsti Bohata et al.; Un Été Avec Colette, by Antoine Compagnon; Pena Capital by Mário Cesariny; A Crown of Violets, by Renée Vivien (trans. by Samantha Pious); Lesbian Decadence, by Nicole G. Albert; Peripheral Desires: The German Discovery of Sex by Robert Deam Tobin; A Little Gay History of Wales by Daryle Leeworthy; Eccentricity and Sameness, by Charlotte Ross; Public City/Public Sex, by Andrew Israel Ross.

DVD List: Tropical Malady, directed by Apichatpong Weerasethakul; Show Me Love, by Lukas Moodysson; Happy Together, by Wong Kar-Wai; Tomboy, by Céline Sciamma; A Fantastic Woman, by Sebastián Lelio; Portrait of a Lady on Fire, by Céline Sciamma; The Handmaiden, by Park Chan-Wook.

Clara Oxley

 

English Faculty Library

This year for LGBT+ month, the EFL has decided to do something a little bit different for its Book Display. Under the capable hands of Sophie, our Reader Services Senior Library Assistant, and in collaboration with the LGBTQ+ Campaign, the EFL put out a call to its readers to help co-curate this month’s display. Our readers were asked to submit their favourite queer book with a short blurb on why they chose it. Needless to say, we were blown away by the response!

10 people took the time out of their day to send in a suggestion, and it was wonderful to see how varied the responses were. Here’s a sample of some of the choices and a taste of why they were chosen:

  • Loveless by Alice Oseman, a contemporary coming-out novel with an aro-ace protagonist. In the anonymous nominee’s words, it’s about ‘the multitude of ways that love can be defined’
  • Ready to Catch him Should he Fall by Neil Bartlett which nominee Jasper described as ‘[capturing] the horror and grief of the 80s AIDS crisis’
  • And (of course) classics such as The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde, in which nominee Isaac highlighted how ‘with the lens afforded to a modern queer man, the homosexual repression jumps off the page’.

A full reading list can be found below if you’re interested!

It has been fascinating to see how different the responses are, and to see what exactly our readers are reading in their own words – particularly as queer voices have been (and are still being) silenced. In the spirit of allowing people their own voice, I’ve asked Sophie to write a few words of her own about the display:

“The idea for the collaborative display between the English Faculty Library and the SU LGBTQ+ Campaign was first raised by student reps  earlier this academic year, who expressed an interest in the library having a display for Trans Awareness Week back in November (which we did!). The LGBT+ History Month display was a natural follow-up from this, and couldn’t have been made without the help of the SU LGBTQ+ Campaign, who reached out to their connections and collected suggestions from the student body. This has helped us to create a display where Oxford’s LGBTQ+ community can talk about their history, experiences, and literature in their own words.”

This display will be on at the EFL for the entirety of LGBTQ+ History Month until March 4th 2024, so we highly encourage you to see it in person! If you’re unable to make it to the EFL though, a virtual display will be being posted onto the EFL Blog later this month so do keep an eye out.

Reading List: Gender Trouble by Judith Butler; The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde; Carmilla by Joseph Sheridan le Fanu; After Sappho by Selby Wynn Schwartz; Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier; Hauntings and Other Fantastic Tales by Vernon Lee; Loveless by Alice Oseman; Gallathea by John Lyly; Tales of the City by Armistead Mapuin; Ready to Catch him Should he Fall by Neil Bartlett

Leah Brown

New College Library

A picture showing New College Library’s LGBT+ History Month display.New College Library’s book display for LGBT+ History Month draws from our extensive Gender and Sexuality collection, a section of the library dedicated to books which explore and amplify LGBT+ peoples’ lives, voices, identities, and experiences, both historically and in the present day. I also identified some exciting new titles which we acquired for the library.

In honour of this year’s theme, ‘Medicine – #UnderTheScope’, the display includes books which explore LGBT+ people’s experiences of and contributions to healthcare and medicine. David France’s How to Survive a Plague, which was based on the 2012 documentary he directed of the same name, provides a raw and powerful social and scientific history of AIDS. France spotlights the vital work of activists of all genders who were the driving force behind the development of life-saving drugs for the management of HIV. Also on display is The Hidden Case of Ewan Forbes by Zoë Playdon. This book chronicles the life of Scottish nobleman Ewan Forbes, a transgender man, and the 1968 court case regarding the inheritance of his baronetcy. Drawing on the fields of medicine, psychology, biology, and law, Playdon provides the first analysis of this little-known event in LGBT+ history, drawing on records that had been suppressed until very recently.

Other books on display in New College Library this year explore a variety of different aspects of LGBT+ history, reflecting something of the range of different experiences, voices, and identities. Dr Kit Heyam’s monograph Before We Were Trans, for example, moves widely through time and space proposing a broader concept of trans history which encompasses everyone ‘doing fascinating, creative, messy things with gender’. Other books on display include a history of the Stonewall uprising in America and the imposition, repeal, and legacy of Section 28 in Britain, alongside explorations of the culture, history, and science of bisexuality and asexuality.

The display has proved really popular, and readers have borrowed several of the books which we have replaced on the display with others from our collection. There are so many amazing new releases in the field of LGBT+ studies, and I am keen to support in the acquisition of more of these books for the library.

Reading List: David France, How to Survive a Plague: The Story of How Activists and Scientists Tamed AIDS (London: Picador, 2017); Zoë Playdon, The Hidden Case of Ewan Forbes: The Transgender Trial that Threatened to Upend the British Establishment (London: Bloomsbury, 2022); Kit Heyam, Before We Were Trans: A New History of Gender (London: Basic Books, 2022); Martin B, Duberman, Stonewall: The Definitive Story of the LGBTQ Rights Uprising that Changed America (New York: Plume, 2019); Paul Baker, Outrageous! The Story of Section 28 and Britain’s Battle for LGBT Education (London: Reaktion Books, 2022); Julia Shaw, Bi: The Hidden Culture, History, and Science of Bisexuality (Edinburgh: Canongate, 2023); Angela Chen, Ace: What Asexuality Reveals about Desire, Society, and the Meaning of Sex (Boston: Beacon Press, 2020).

Jessica Hodgkinson

History Faculty Library

A picture showing the History Faculty Library’s LGBT+ History Month display

At the HFL, a former trainee has put together a display of books covering a wide range of LGBT+ history.

For those keen to delve into this year’s theme of “Under the Scope” and explore how LGBT+ people have experienced and contributed to medicine and healthcare, there are titles such as How to survive a plague: the inside story of how citizens and science tamed AIDS, which tells the story of activists and medics fighting to find a solution to the AIDS crisis.

Looking more broadly at LGBT+ history, there are a number of titles which make a deep dive into British queer history, such as Same-sex sexuality in later medieval English culture, A lesbian history of Britain: love and sex between women since 1500 and Queer voices in post-war Scotland: male homosexuality, religion and society. Or why not venture further from home with Red closet: the hidden history of gay oppression in the USSR or Stonewall: the definitive story of the LGBTQ rights uprising that changed America?

And if you’re not able to come into the Radcliffe Camera in person there is a selection of suggested digital titles, ranging from the broad – such as The Routledge history of queer America – to the highly specific Plane queer: labor, sexuality, and AIDS in the history of male flight attendants.

Reading List:

Tomboys and bachelor girls: a lesbian history of post-war Britain 1945-71

Britannia’s glory: a history of twentieth-century lesbians

Let the record show: a political history of ACT UP New York, 1987-1993

Before AIDS: gay health politics in the 1970s

Before we were trans: a new history of gender

Queer public history: essays on scholarly activism

The shape of sex: nonbinary gender from Genesis to the Renaissance

Same-sex sexuality in later medieval English culture

A little gay history: desire and diversity across the world

Outrageous!: the story of Section 28 and Britain’s battle for LGBT education

Sapphistries: a global history of love between women

Bi: the hidden culture, history and science of bisexuality

Journal of the history of sexuality (Online)

Seeing sodomy in the Middle Ages

GLQ (online)

Xanthe Malcolm

Book Snakes and Library Ladders: a trainee plays the Bodleian board game

 

The board includes 6 libraries and paths between them divided into squares, against a background of a map of Oxford. On it are placed chance cards, catalogue cards and five coloured game pieces.
The game board during play.

Back in 1988, the Bodleian created a truly ingenious piece of merchandise: The Bodleian Game, an incredibly niche board game for those who feel they just don’t quite spend enough time in the Bodleian Libraries in real life. Sadly, it is no longer available to buy new, but when one of my housemates managed to procure a second-hand copy, we were all very excited. (Getting excited over a library-based board game is very normal, actually.)

You begin the game by picking a research subject – we went for Women in Society – and are given the first book you need to read on that subject. The premise is then that for each book, you need to first visit the Old Bodleian; consult one of three catalogues there in order to determine which library your book is housed in; journey across Oxford to the relevant library; locate the book in that library’s catalogue; “read” the book and use the references to determine what you need to read next; and roll the dice to determine how useful the book was to your research. Highest score at the end of the game wins, so there is an incentive to reread if you don’t score highly.

Three cards. They read "Book misfiled - find it next turn"; "Book in place" and "Caught eating and have your reader's ticket confiscated - go to Admissions to reclaim it".
Different cards you might face before you can read your book…

 

Sound like a convoluted process? It was! We’ve never been so grateful for SOLO and the fact that it is accessible everywhere. Impressively, the books in the game were all real items held by the Bodleian, which we were of course able to check from the comfort of our kitchen table.

The fun of the game came from seeing how the mechanics had been created to replicate the true Bodleian Libraries experience. For example, chance cards could banish you to the starting spot for getting caught eating in the library, or delay your reading due to your book being already on loan. By the third time one of us drew the card that says you have left your Bodleian card at home and need to go to Admissions, and had to trek back across the board, I was feeling a distinct twinge of guilt for all the readers I have said the same thing to. And if you landed on the same square as another player, you both had to head straight off to the King’s Arms together – I’ll leave our readers to confirm or deny the accuracy of that one.

 

Two score cards with columns of Reference, Shelfmark, Title and Score. One is significantly more filled out than the other.
Two of our score cards by the end of play – I didn’t get as much reading done as my housemate!

Gameplay was not particularly rapid, and was based more on luck than strategy; think Monopoly or Ludo. We ended up setting a time limit to mark the end of the game rather than work our way through all fourteen suggested books, and elided a couple of rules to speed things up a little. But at times, knowledge was rewarded: at one point my housemate deduced (correctly!) that as she was looking for a letter, she could head straight to the John Johnson collection rather than return to the Old Bodleian to consult the catalogue there.

 

Would I play The Bodleian Game again? If I had time to spare on a relaxed game, then absolutely. Am I glad that in real life the Bodleian Libraries function differently in 2024 than they did in 1988? Very much so.

 

 

Burns Night and the Legacy of Tam

A pencil drawing of Robert Burns
The lovely Rabbie Burns himself. Image courtesy of Dumfries and Galloway Museums

We have just passed Burns Night held on January 25th, a night to celebrate Scotland’s national poet, Robbie Burns, with feasts, speeches, and general good cheer! If you don’t know who Robbie Burns is, he was a poet at the forefront of the Romantic movement in the 18th century who primarily wrote in Scots. You might know such classics as Auld Lang Syne (it’s only sung every year in the UK!).

Aside from Auld Lang Syne, arguably the poem most associated with Burns is Tam O’ Shanter, which he considered his finest work [1]. The Bodleian owns several early editions of the poem which are held at the Weston Library (see here and here). However, if you want easy access to it then you can read a lithograph facsimile of Burns’ own hand here – don’t worry, it does come with a glossary if you haven’t encountered Scots before. Written in 1790, only six years before Burns’ death, Tam is an epic poem of over 200 lines in which after an evening of drinking at the pub (much to his wife, Kate’s, chagrin) our protagonist stumbles across a witches sabbath with the Devil in attendance on his drunken journey home. Tam accidentally calls their attention to him and flees on horseback, barely reaching safety by crossing the Brig o’ Doon as the witches and the Devil can’t cross moving water. Tam comes away alive, only missing a chunk of his horse’s tail.

Of course, many people love a good ghost story, which might be part of the reason why Tam is still so enduringly popular and the pièce de résistance of Burns Night – can you really go wrong with cavorting witches and ghouls? However, as modern readers, it goes without saying that we experience these creatures differently to Burns’ initial audience. Although Burns was writing in Age of Enlightenment, a period during which writing that may maintain irrational (even fantastical) ideas were disapproved of, most ordinary people didn’t really change their patterns of belief to reflect the more ‘rational’ ideas that were in vogue. [2] Instead they stuck to their local folklore and superstitions. [1] For these communities, witchcraft still felt like a very real threat, and it was within a community like this that Burns grew up in Rural Ayrshire.

Burns drew his imagery from elsewhere as well – the Calvinist church; the folklore of his rural farming community in adulthood; Milton’s Paradise Lost and its depiction of Satan; and the fact that in the church condemning witchcraft, it also acknowledged it and made the ‘unreal’ real. [1] In 1773, only 17 years prior to the writing of the poem, the divines of the Associated Presbytery passed a bill that declared their belief in witchcraft, and in addition to that, the Scottish Witchcraft Act of 1563 was only repealed in 1736. [3] All this to say that the environment in which Burns was writing had a profound effect on the content of his work despite his rationalism – in a 1787 letter to Dr John Moore he wrote:

“in my nocturnal rambles, I sometimes keep a sharp look-out in suspicious places; and though nobody can be more sceptical in these matters than I, yet it often takes an effort of Philosophy to shake off these idle terrors.” [6]

There are many ways that Tam can be read, which is part of its charm. Of course, you have the vivid imagery and the terror that Tam’s encounter with the supernatural invokes. Then you can see moralistic undertones to the poem if you squint; Tam encounters the diabolic gang of witches and warlocks while drunk, and reveals his presence due to his inebriation – unable to contain himself as he yells to the witch, Nannie, ‘”Weel done, Cutty-sark!”’. [4] This however, might be little bit ironic considering one of our special collections items regarding Burns is a letter from him beginning “Sunday morning. Dr Sir, I was, I know, drunk last night” (relatable?). [5] It’s more likely that this is Burns’ rye sense of humour – to encounter such spirits and devilries you must have to have been drunk, and perhaps the encounter offers a convenient explanation as to why you got home so late and in such a state (and why your horse has had its tail pulled out!). In any case, it’s easy to see why Burns’ poems have endured, and to that we say sláinte!

A sepia picture of the remains of the Alloway Auld Kirk, graves in the foreground and church in the back
Alloway Auld Kirk, where the witches held their sabbath – you can see why it caught Burns’ imagination! Photo © Billy McCrorie (cc-by-sa/2.0)

 

References

[1] Douglas, Tom, Death, the Devil and Tam O’Shanter: the Supernatural World of Robert Burns (Lewes: The Book Guild, 2002)

[2] Clery, E.J., The Rise of Supernatural Fiction, 1762–1800 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995)

[3] Robbins, Rossell Hope, The Encyclopedia of Witchcraft and Demonology (New York: Crown Publishers, 1959)

[4] Burns, Robert, Tam o’ Shanter & Other Poems(Edinburgh: W. P. Nimmo, Hay, & Mitchell, 1912)

[5] MS. Add. A. 110

[6] Waugh, Butler,  ‘Robert Burns’ Satires and the Folk Tradition: “Halloween”’, South Atlantic Bulletin, 32.4 (1967), pp.10-13

“Cyclone” Nicholson: defying tradition at the Bodleian

Have you ever found yourself trapped between shelves in the Lower Gladstone Link, scouring shelf marks, shaking your fists and cursing the name Nicholson? You wouldn’t be the first, and you won’t be the last.

Graduate Trainee Yells at Books

Okay, maybe I’m being dramatic, but it’s true that whenever a reader asks me to help them locate something in the library, a lot of the time, they’re looking for a Nicholson book. Found in the Lower Gladstone Link stacks, the Nicholson system contains high usage material. The classification number at the beginning of the shelfmark eg. ‘1234 e.1017’ has an imaginary decimal point, which means that ‘12345’ would be found between ‘1234’ and ‘1235’, not after them.

In the spirit of goodwill and charity post-Christmas, however, it seems a shame that this is the most widely known legacy of Nicholson, for the average Bodleian reader. This blog post will explore the real Nicholson: the Bodley’s Librarian beyond the tricky-to-understand classifications, and what we as trainees can learn from him.

Edward Williams Byron Nicholson (b. 1849, d.1912), before he became Bodley’s Librarian, studied Classics at Trinity College, Oxford, and worked as a librarian at other libraries including those at the Oxford Union and the now obsolete London Institution. Nicholson blazed into his posts with a mind to reform their services “without much regard for his famous predecessors.”

Edward Williams Byron Nicholson, by an unknown engraver

It was shocking when Nicholson was appointed Bodley’s Librarian, because studying Classics at Oxford was, at the time, not considered an academic enough background. With suspicion aroused against him because of his lack of education in palaeography, linguistics, and bibliography; a headstrong personality defined by “force and originality”; and a fierce devotion to the Bodleian, Nicholson began his 30-year long tenure as Bodley’s Librarian, from 1882 until his death in 1912.  As Nicholson’s friend Henry Tedder describes, “perhaps a cyclone was wanted to bring freshness into the air of Bodley, but probably no one looked forward to a cyclone which lasted thirty years.”

To paint a picture of the cyclone-like behaviour of Nicholson, I’ll include a story told by the man himself, about when University officials attempted to turn the Proscholium (Entrance to the Old Library) into a bike shed. Even bikes weren’t exempt from cyclone Nicholson!

“The Curators of the Chest tried to use the Proscholium – Bodley’s ‘vaulted walke’, the lower story of his ‘Bibliotheca’ – as a bicycle-shed. They opened hostilities in 1902, when I was still imperfectly convalescing from a great heart-breakdown, … the then Vice-Chancellor refused to allow them either to order the removal of the [bike] stands or to move the Council. Luckily I had my own rights, and had been no party to that resolution. On the evening after the Vice-Chancellor went out of office, I cleared the bicycle-stands away. The new Vice-Chancellor had them put back again. I cleared them away again. At last, in November 1905, the Chest went to Convocation for leave to use the Proscholium as a bicycle-stable, and Convocation gave them the coup de grâce: but fancy such an attempt being possible!”

Now, I am in no way promoting Nicholson’s actions, but it is admittedly pretty funny to picture him calculating his movements immediately after the Vice-Chancellor left, in an obstinate back and forth regarding bicycles, of all matters. Nicholson may not have been popular, but the man got things done.

Indeed, his notable achievements as Bodley’s Librarian include:

“an increase in staff, the introduction of boy-labour, a new code of cataloguing rules, the development of the subject-catalogue, as well as the shelf classification of printed books, MSS., and music, the incorporation of minor collections…”

The mention of “boy-labour” is interesting, because as it has been suggested previously, this could be thought of as a very early form of a library traineeship at the Bodleian, like we are undertaking this year! [1] The scheme was set up by Nicholson to employ young boys to do everyday tasks around the library, with an incentive to then be able to attain a degree from Oxford. After a few decades, women were added to the scheme, with the groups being known as Bodley’s Boys, or Bodley’s Girls. 

Frances Underhill

One of the final clashes that Nicholson faced with other library officials was his appointment of a woman to a permanent position within the library. This woman was Frances Underhill, who definitely deserves her own blog post. In her letter of acceptance, Underhill gave thanks to Nicholson because appointing her was “a progressive step in the recognition of women’s work”. Nicholson’s sub-librarians, however, found it “objectionable”, because of ridiculous reasons such as an inability to climb ladders. Nicholson’s response was that “any woman worth her salt… would gaily ascend on a ladder to any Bodleian ceiling”. [2]

A special Veganuary mention must go to Nicholson’s love of animals. His 1879 text ‘The Rights of Animals’ argues in favour of a largely plant-based diet, “for there can be no question that vegetable food alone will keep a man in the best health and strength.” He argues that animals have reason, feelings, and a soul, and should be awarded the same level of respect as humans. [3] I wonder whether Nicholson would have preferred oat or almond milk in his tea?

It could be considered pretty ironic that we maintain Nicholson’s classification scheme, even though the man himself was dedicated to upheaving tradition. Yet, what makes the Bodleian such a fulfilling place to work is that there is such a respect for history here, as well as a commitment to making necessary and positive change, and adapting to the times. What we as trainees in Oxford libraries can learn from Nicholson is that being a champion of the Bodleian, or indeed of any library we may work in, doesn’t mean that we should never break the mould. There is room for us to celebrate diversity, and try new things, without completely ignoring our history. See, for example, the We Are Our History project, which is doing important work to re-engage with our collections, through the lens of race and the legacies of the British Empire. [4] We can look forward to being innovators of change within libraries – change that even Nicholson could not have foreseen!

 

N.b: The majority of the quotes have come from Henry Tedder’s E.W.B. Nicholson (Bodley’s librarian, 1882-1912): in memoriam (Aberdeen: Aberdeen University Press, 1914) https://solo.bodleian.ox.ac.uk/permalink/44OXF_INST/ogbd98/alma990161434930107026

Further reading

[1] Trainee project showcase – The Oxford Traineeship: Past, Present and Future | Oxford Libraries Graduate Trainees

[2] Women of the Bodleian: personal stories behind progressive steps | University of Oxford Podcasts

[3] #10 – The rights of an animal: a new essay in ethics. By Edward Byron … – Full View | HathiTrust Digital Library

[4] We Are Our History | Bodleian Libraries (ox.ac.uk)

Happy Christmas from the Oxford Library Trainees!

Well! It’s the last day before Christmas closure at the Bodleian Library, and as I am writing this, I imagine that some of the trainees in other libraries are making their way back to family and friends for Christmas. It’s been magical to see how Oxford libraries transform at Christmas time. There have been carols in the Divinity School sung by Bodleian staff, busts decorated with Santa hats, and Christmas trees springing up all over our different sites.  

Like the trainees last year, this year we decided to explore our libraries in the festive season through the medium of our very own 12 Days of Christmas- or should I say, Libmas! Originally posted over on our X (Twitter) X/Twitter account below is a list of all the presents that our libraries have ‘sent’ to us, and now to you!  (Singing along is optional.) 

On the First Day of Libmas, my library sent to me- 

A bust of Chichele! 

Henry Chichele was the founder of All Souls College and also Archbishop of Canterbury from 1414-43. One of our trainees has the privilege of working in the library there! 

 

On the Second Day of Libmas my library sent to me-  

Two book displays 

Part of the trainee role is getting to be creative with book displays. Pictured below are some Christmas book sculptures from the Social Science Library. How cute! 

 

On the Third day of Libmas my library sent to me-  

Three window frogs! 

According to cataloguer Peter Spokes, much of the painted glass in the Old Bodleian Upper Reading Room is of 17th century Flemish origin! 

Top right frog has definitely had too much Christmas pudding. 

 

On the Fourth day of Libmas my library sent to me- 

Four festive busts! 

Pictured below are busts of Professor Hermann Georg Fiedler, Prince Edward and Voltaire. 

  

 

On the Fifth Day of Libmas my library sent to me- 

Five old things! 

1)A papyrus dating from 3 AD from St John’s College, in which the recipient is asked why they didn’t attend the sender’s son’s birthday party ! 

 

 

 

2) MS 61 – a rather lovely 13th century bestiary made in York! 

3) A copy of the 27 Sermons preached by Hugh Latimer and held at the English Faculty Library! This edition was printed in 1562 by John Day, seven years after Latimer was burnt at the stake for heresy on Broad Street near Balliol college in Oxford. 

4) One of a series of letters written by Jane Austen to her niece Anna in 1814. St John’s College also owns a 1797 letter from Austen’s father, George, to a publishing house, offering them his daughter’s novel ‘Pride and Prejudice’ – they said no! 

5) Last but certainly not least in our list of old things, a book on Anglo-American Cataloguing Rules! Although still used in some select libraries, AACR and AACR2 were a cataloguing standard that have largely been superseded by machine-readable cataloguing, known as MARC 

 

On the Sixth Day of Libmas my library sent to me-  

Six Christmas data charts!  

With roast spuds as the top dish, average Christmas budget, most desired gifts, total UK Xmas spending, average Christmas dinner cost, and toys as largest gift spend! Sprouts beat mince pies…hmm? 

 

On the Seventh Day of Libmas my library sent to me- 

Seven damaged books! 

It’s inevitable that some of the Bodleian’s collections will become a little careworn, however, it’s important that they are able to keep circulating. This is when the lovely Bodleian conservation team step in! 

 

On the Eighth day of Libmas my library sent to me-  

Eight totes for packing!  

Artfully (?) arranged by a trainee into a very vague christmas tree shape, these totes contain books to be refiled in our Collections Storage Facility. 

 

On the Ninth day of Libmas my library sent to me- 9 ladies’ dancing (manuals)  

Exhibited in Blackwell Hall, Weston Library, ‘The Dancing Master’ was a widely popular manual of country dances, first published in 1651. 

The Weston Library is holding a Dancing Master’s Ball in January- join the waiting list here: The Dancing Master’s Ball | Visit the Bodleian Libraries (ox.ac.uk)  

Or learn more about the display: The Dancing Master | Visit the Bodleian Libraries (ox.ac.uk) 

 

On the Tenth day of Libmas my library sent to me-  

10 pre-Raphaelite murals! 

In 1857, 8 artists including Rossetti, Morris and Burne-Jones, painted the #OxfordUnion’s Old Library (then Debate Chamber). Their inexperience meant the art faded and some said it should be covered. 

Read more about the murals and the pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood in Oxford here: OXFORD AND THE PRE-RAPHAELITES | Ashmolean Museum 

On the Eleventh Day of Libmas my library sent to me- 

Eleven (House of) Lords (Hansard parliamentary sittings reports) a-leaping (on to their trolley)! Did you know the Bodleian Law Library also houses the Official Papers collection? 

On the Twelth day of Libmas my library sent to me- 

Twelve libraries with trainees wish you a very merry Christmas!

Thank you all for reading our blog and engaging with our X posts over Michaelmas term. There is lots more to come in 2024, so watch this space!  

Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year from us! 

Michaelmas term round-up

As the libraries empty out over the Christmas vacation, the trainees reflect on their first term.

 

A display including fact sheets and images of suggested titles such as Ableism in Academia and The Oxford Handbook of Disability History
The Disability History Month Display in the Old Bod Lower Reading Room

Christmas at the Old Bod has arrived, and although in the last week there have been fewer visitors, the reading rooms are still peopled with studious readers. I’ve put up some fabulous Christmas decorations (circa 1970), and the tree in the quad has drawn even more tourists in.

The past few months working at the Bodleian have been a lot of fun. One of my favourite activities has been making displays and advertising resources that the Bodleian has to offer, like my recent book display for UK Disability History Month . It means I get to interact with a wider variety of books from our vast collection. What it has fundamentally shown me is that my favourite part of working in a library is the opportunities you are given every day to help people!

Nia Everitt, Bodleian Old Library 

 

 

 

My first term at the Sainsbury Library has been busy with tasks varying from processing new books, weeding old journals, and creating and updating signs for the library (which sometimes involves warming up the laminator!). I have three main highlights so far:

  1. Creating a ‘How to Guide’ for readers with Sainsbury’s Circulation and Customer Services Librarian. The guide covers topics like setting up the university VPN, how to use PCAS services, and how to search, find, borrow and request books in our library. It is over 60 pages long and counting…
  2. Creating an AI book display which then led to creating an AI window display at the library entrance and now updating our Business of AI LibGuide to include books from the display and A visitor even came in asking about the display because they saw the post I wrote on our Sainsbury Library News blog.

Both projects have helped me to learn about the variety of support and services that the Bodleian provides. I have explored business databases, SOLO, ORLO, and other University of Oxford resources doing these two projects. I have realised that readers at Oxford have access to a wealth of resources but, through working on the enquiry desk, you come to realise how many readers do not know about it! So, the final highlight is:

  1. Helping a reader discover something they didn’t know before and helping them with problems they have accessing services.

The reader’s gratefulness after helping or even just visiting the library is like extra icing on a cake. The gratefulness is a reminder that helping someone in a way that, as staff we may feel is small or routine, such as scanning a chapter, telling someone about a useful LibGuide or just showing them where the printers are, can be quite significant for our readers.

Anna Roberts, Sainsbury Library

 

What a learning experience a term can be. ALMA, ORLO lists, law reports, legal databases, citation styles, serials processing, loose leaf binders: they were all quite new to me. Happily, thanks to the great training and brilliant support from library colleagues, they aren’t anymore. But never fear: the readers and the library keep coming up with new and intriguing conundrums (missing books, obscure queries, rare Bodcard colours…). I’ve loved assisting the students, faculty and visitors (there was one reader who was so enthusiastic when I showed them our bookable study spaces that I got the firmest handshake I have ever experienced!), but equally have come to really appreciate the mindful calm that can come from a book moving or filing spell (when not interrupted by an urgent scan request for use in court, or a group of new readers to guide round, or a puzzling mountain of books left somewhere seemingly at random – there’s always something going on!). And of course, our visits to the CSF, conservation studio and special collections were a real highlight. The term has certainly confirmed that I’d love a career in libraries, and I’m looking forward to the next term, when there will be a recurring display to organise, some more to learn about cataloguing, and a Libguide to write! Keeping busy…

Wanne Mendonck, Bodleian Law Library

 

A Christmas tree stands on a marble table in the Union Society Old Library. There are bookcases and decorative walls visible in the background.
Christmas tree standing on the mysteriously chimneyless fireplace in the Union Society Old Library.

Working for the Oxford Union Society Library is amazing! This term the Union was visited by Sir Roger Penrose, Nazanin Zaghari Radcliffe, Tom Hanks, etc and I have tried things I have never attempted before, such as creating displays – possibly my favourite task as I get to research everything from Victorian ichthyology to recreational drugs, Oxfordshire geology to gothic poetry, and medieval table manners to historical transgender figures. I had never used Twitter, never posted on Facebook, and had never run a professional Instagram account and this term I began running the Library’s (Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook). Training can be pretty interesting too; so far my favourite day has been the conservation day at the Weston Library where we learnt how books are fixed, what pests to look out for (we were handed round laminated insects e.g. silverfish), and about active and inactive moulds.

Connie Hubbard, Oxford Union Society Library

 

This term has been a wild ride. Alongside learning an incredible amount from my training process at All Souls, there have been some amazing events in the library such as a play, a visit from a youth orchestra and a formal dinner. We had over 700 new reader applications, over 1000 visitors to our open day and over 200 book requests. All in all, these first few months of my traineeship have been immensely positive. The day to day work has often been chaotic, but this meant I was rarely bored and always learning. I am very excited for the challenges Hilary term may bring, and feel ready to face them.

Elena Trowsdale, All Souls College Library

 

It’s hard to believe that it’s been three and a half months since my first day at the Rad Cam – the time has flown by! But when I stop and reflect, a lot has happened over this period, and I have learned a lot.

Besides some of the big stand-out moments from the training sessions, such as the tour of the CSF or our afternoon with Special Collections, I think the main highlights for me have been the pleasure of helping out readers and the variety of the work; my days regularly involve fielding enquiries at the circulation desk or reception, fetching and scanning books for Scan and Deliver, donning glamorous high vis and directing delivery vans through the quad, creating blog or social media content, processing new books, and more. I enjoyed getting to take on the responsibility recently of sorting out the HFL books for rebinding, and I’m really looking forward to getting started with my project next term.

Xanthe Malcolm, History Faculty Library

 

It’s safe to say that as my first full term as a trainee draws to a close, the experience has been jam-packed! From the day-to-day running of the EFL, to our weekly training sessions (not to mention the cheeky post-training pub trips) there’s always something going on, and always something new to learn. Looking back at my introduction post, I can easily say that I’ve enjoyed everything even more than I thought I would. Highlights being (of course) the tour of conservation studios; the opportunity to see incredible literary figures such as Philip Pullman; and learning more about the EFL’s collections through my project! Being a part of the traineeship has really cemented that I want to continue working in libraries and, having seen next terms’ training schedule, I’m even more excited for the new year.

Leah Brown, English Faculty Library

Would you like to be a graduate trainee library assistant?

If the answer is yes, then read on! We are looking for librarians of the future and our trainee scheme is the first step in your career in Librarianship/Information Management. Oxford’s one-year full-time traineeships provide an excellent launch-pad for undertaking a subsequent postgraduate qualifications and a professional career. 9 vacancies will be available, commencing early September 2024 and based in research, faculty and departmental libraries within the Bodleian Libraries. Please visit the vacancies website for more information and how to apply. We will also be running on online session about careers in libraries which you are very welcome to attend.

Exploring Careers in Libraries
19th December 2023, 10.00-12.00, Online via Teams

Have you ever wondered what it would be like to work in a library? Do you like working with people and information? If you answered yes to either of these questions, do come and join us on 19th December to find out about career options in libraries and to hear what working at the Bodleian Libraries could be like. The Bodleian Libraries include the Bodleian Library as well as 26 other libraries across Oxford including major research libraries and faculty, department and institute libraries.  The Libraries hold many unique special collections as well as providing access to many digital resources that users can access remotely. You will gain an understanding of some of the roles you could do as well as how you can develop a career in libraries. Many people think of librarians as quiet gatekeepers of old, dusty books, but the focus of most library roles is on people and information, and how we can bring the two together and whilst books are an important part of libraries a lot of what we do is digital. We will talk about:

  • Options for working in libraries
  • Different sectors and roles
  • The work of the Bodleian Libraries

There will be a short break during the session and there will be time for questions. To book a place, please email: staff-dev@bodleian.ox.ac.uk.

Bodley Medal: Sir Philip Pullman

The prestigious Bodley Medal has been awarded since 2002, in its current iteration, to recognise outstanding contributions to the worlds of books and literature, libraries, science, philanthropy and other fieldsPrevious recipients including include novelists Colm Tóibín, Zadie Smith, and Sir Kazuo Ishiguro, among others. Earlier this month, on a chilly November evening, the Bodley Medal was awarded to author Sir Philip Pullman under the baroque ceiling of the Sheldonian Theatre.  

The evening opened with a panel discussion about Pullman’s work, chaired by author and critic, Erica Wagner, along with children’s author and former Waterstones Children’s Laureate, Cressida Cowell MBE, Dr Philip Goff, author, philosopher and professor at Durham University and Dr Margaret Kean, the Dame Helen Gardner Fellow in English and Tutor in English at St Hilda’s College, Oxford.

A screen at the front of a lecture theatre with a picture of en engraved circular medal on the left hand side. Philip Pullman and Richard Ovenden stand on a stage in front of the screen looked on by a crowded audience.
Philip Pullman presented with the Bodley Medal by Richard Ovenden in the Sheldonian Theatre.

Each of the panellists keenly recalled their own experiences of encountering Pullman’s works for the first time, whether as teenage readers desperately grappling with Pullman’s exploration of dark matter, multiple universes, and philosophy, or as adults: parents, critics, or fellow authors. Amongst the varying accounts of each of the panellists’ initial encounters with Pullman’s work, there were commonalities too: an insistence on the deep visual impressions left, the richness and abundance his prose summons, and the expansivity of the works. Erica Wagner, the panel’s chair, noted “the way in which [Pullman] has created a whole cosmology, a whole universe […] for us to enter.” [1] 

The panel discussion was followed by Sir Philip Pullman in conversation with Richard Ovenden, Head of Gardens, Libraries and Museums at the University of Oxford and Bodley’s Librarian. During their conversation, Richard Ovenden described Pullman as “a great friend of libraries”, which was more than evident from the clear reverence with which Pullman described his experiences of both public and academic libraries. The first library ticket one owns, he suggested, is an “enormous gift, a key to open a wonderland.” The loss of approximately 1000 branches of public libraries in the last 12 years, and the cuts to funding which have both prompted and accompanied this, Pullman described as a “a slow, quiet, subtle, well-concealed disaster.” In the earlier panel discussion, Cressida Cowell exalted Pullman’s aptitude for storytelling itself, explicitly identifying one of the great qualities of Pullman’s work to be its power in creating generations of readers. Pullman charted his own experience of the Bodleian Libraries from his days as an undergraduate English student (a discipline which didn’t allow him to read the texts he was drawn to). Instead, Pullman found himself magnetically pulled to the public library in Oxford. This roving between the public library and the academic spaces of Oxford’s Bodleian libraries is still evident in Pullman’s account of the power of libraries. Pullman added to this with a resounding defence of the role of the school library, and, particularly, he stated, the need for a school library to be cared for by a qualified librarian. This is an especially desperate requirement at a time when the National Literacy Trust has recently published new research suggesting that children’s enjoyment of reading is at its lowest level in two decades. [2] 

 

A reading room of the Old Bodleian with book shelves on hte left and right side of the image under an ornately decorated wooden panelled ceiling. In the centre of the image in the distnace there is an ornate arched stained glass window, with someone sat a desk studying in front of it.
Duke Humfrey’s Library in the Old Bodleian, known in Pullman’s works as Bodley’s Library. photo (c) John Cairns

Whilst rooted in the city of Oxford itself, Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy expands our perspective outwards to a consideration of a multiplicity of universes. Oxford echoes through the series like a palimpsest, resounding throughout Pullman’s created worlds. The Bodleian Library itself appears in a mirrored form throughout Pullman’s work as Bodley’s Library. It is, perhaps, excellent symmetry then, for Pullman to receive the Bodleian’s most prestigious award, the Bodley Medal itself. The honour, and the event accompanying its bestowal, are both a celebration of libraries and the work done by those who love and promote them. 

For more history on the Bodley Medal, see here.  

[1] Wagner, Erica, “Bodley Medal: Sir Philip Pullman”, Event. Bodleian Libraries, Oxford. November 9th 2023. All following quotes unless otherwise stated are transcribed from this event.  

[2] https://literacytrust.org.uk/news/childrens-reading-enjoyment-at-lowest-level-in-almost-two-decades/ Accessed: November 28th 2023. 

 

Astronomy at the Old Bodleian: The 1769 Transit of Venus

When you’re working at the Radcliffe Camera and the Bodleian Old Library, you sometimes end up fielding questions about the history of these establishments from curious readers, and so a colleague advised me early on to do a little bit of reading on the subject. We even keep a helpful printout of the Wikipedia page for the Bodleian Library at the Proscholium (the main entrance), and as I was looking through this a sentence caught my attention:

“The astronomer Thomas Hornsby observed the transit of Venus from the Tower of the Five Orders in 1769”. [1]

Interesting, I thought – having studied astrophysics at university, I’m a little bit of a space nerd. So, I started diving deeper into the topic.

What is the transit of Venus, and why was it important to observe?

Venus appears as a small black dot visible against the Sun, which appears large and orange.
The transit of Venus as photographed in 2004.

The transit of Venus simply refers to Venus crossing directly between the Earth and the Sun, like the moon does during a lunar eclipse. Since Venus is significantly further away from us than the moon, it appears much smaller, and so during its transit we would see a small black dot moving across the face of the Sun. The last two transits of Venus occurred in 2012 and 2004, and the next one won’t be until 2117. [2] Nowadays, an event like the transit of Venus is interesting to watch, and is a good way to get people interested in astronomy, but back in the 18th century, it was also of real scientific significance.

Edmond Halley (1656-1742), of Halley’s Comet fame, was the one to suggest that the 1761 and 1769 transits of Venus would be the perfect opportunities to take some measurements which could be used to calculate the distance of the Earth from the Sun, a question that became known as “the most noble problem in Nature”. [3]

But how would this be done? The answer lies in a phenomenon called parallax. [2] The simplest demonstration of parallax is to hold a finger a little distance in front of your nose, and close one eye, then the other. You should notice that your finger seems to move, because you’re now looking at it from a different angle. If you experiment with holding your finger at different distances from your face, the size of this effect will change. Similarly, if you watch the transit of Venus from multiple places on Earth, it will cross the edge of the Sun at very slightly different times, and if these times are measured accurately enough, you can work out the distances involved.

The 1769 transit

To get the best results, observations need to be made as far apart as possible. James Cook and his crew were to journey to Tahiti to observe the phenomenon there [4], and many scientists and keen amateurs planned to make their own observations all around the world [3]. As Bridgerton fans may recall, even King George III observed the transit.

The phenomenon really captured the public imagination. Lectures were held in the lead up to the event, and a wide range of prints and instruments were sold [3].

Observations in Oxford

Thomas Hornsby, the Savilian Professor of Astronomy at the time, chose to make

The Tower of the Five Orders. It is built of pale stone and is ornamental pilllars and statues decorating it..
The Tower of the Five Orders today.

his observations from the top of the Tower of the Five Orders at the Bodleian Library [5]. He described his reasoning as follows, in an article published by the Royal Society:

“I proposed to observe the transit of Venus and the Sun’s eclipse in the upper room of the tower of the Schools, which, though the floor of it be very unsteady, yet from its elevated situation afforded me the clearest view of the north-west part of the horizon, and is indeed the best place for making occasional observations in different parts of the heavens, and at different altitude, which this place at present affords.” [5]

Others made their own observations in locations including New College Tower and “an unfurnished room of the Hospital”. [5]

Hornsby described that although initially “the wind sometimes blew so hard as to incommode the observer”, the weather conditions soon became favourable to observe the transit. [5] However, he encountered the same problem as all the other observers: a phenomenon known at the time as the black drop effect, whereby Venus appears to stretch out and become pear-shaped as it meets the edge of the Sun’s disk. This, combined with the fact that the edge of the Sun’s disk appears darker than the centre, makes it very difficult to accurately judge the time at which Venus crosses the edge of the Sun. [2]

The results

Thomas Hornsby was one of several scientists who combined some of the data from different locations to attempt to calculate the distance from the Earth to the Sun. I found it fascinating that in his paper he does discuss ideas about errors and accuracy, albeit not in the quantitative way that a modern scientist would:

A series of drawings entitled "Appearances of Venus by Capt. Cook" showing Venus as a black circle with a grey halo around it , with the lower edge of the planet seeming to spread out as it crosses the edge of the Sun's disk.
Cook’s drawings of the black drop effect. [4]
“From the near agreement of the several results before found… and affected only by the necessary error in observing, the accuracy of the observation… is abundantly confirmed”. [6]

I also enjoyed the following sentence, which I can’t imagine ever seeing in a modern scientific paper, in which he explains an alteration he has made to the data gathered by the French astronomer Pingré:

“And Mr. Pingré… will probably be of the opinion, that an error of one minute was committed in writing down the time of his observation, as was conjectured by many persons, as well as myself; a mistake to which the most experienced observer is sometimes liable”. [6]

By the end of his calculations, Hornsby arrived at a figure of 93 726 900 miles [6] as the distance from the Earth to the Sun. Remarkably, there is only a 0.8% error in this compared to the modern value of 92 955 800 miles. [2]

However, different astronomers produced a wide range of different values [7], meaning that unfortunately, what we now know was a highly accurate result for Hornsby was a lucky fluke. Astronomers realised there were large errors in their data: instead of timings being precise to within a second, as they had hoped, there were uncertainties of about a minute, due to the black drop effect and the dark appearance of the edge of the Sun’s disk. [2] The final verdict was that the problem remained disappointingly unsolved. [7]

Final remarks

Despite the lack of a conclusive answer, I think this remains a fascinating part of the history of astronomy. The worldwide nature of the observations to my mind echoes modern enterprises such as the Event Horizon Experiment, which combines radio telescopes all around the world into effectively one huge telescope and so was able to take the first photo of a black hole in 2019. [8] Furthermore, the story of transit observations continues today as a key way in which astronomers are able to discover planets orbiting stars outside of our Solar System. [2] And all of this, to me, makes the connection to our own Bodleian Library site all the more exciting.

References

[1] Bodleian Library – Wikipedia Accessed 6 Nov. 2023.

[2] Transits of Venus | The Royal Astronomical Society (ras.ac.uk) Accessed 6 Nov. 2023.

[3] “The Most Noble Problem in Nature” (ox.ac.uk) Accessed 6 Nov. 2023.

[4] Cook, James, and Charles Green. “Observations Made, by Appointment of the Royal Society, at King George’s Island in the South Sea; By Mr. Charles Green, Formerly Assistant at the Royal Observatory at Greenwich, and Lieut. James Cook, of His Majesty’s Ship the Endeavour.” Philosophical Transactions (1683-1775), vol. 61, 1771, pp. 397–421. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/106113 Accessed 6 Nov. 2023.  https://solo.bodleian.ox.ac.uk/permalink/44OXF_INST/ao2p7t/cdi_jstor_primary_106113

[5] Hornsby, Thomas. “An Account of the Observations of the Transit of Venus and of the Eclipse of the Sun, Made at Shirburn Castle and at Oxford. By the Reverend Thomas Hornsby, M. A. F. R. S. and Savilian Professor of Astronomy in the University of Oxford.” Philosophical Transactions (1683-1775), vol. 59, 1769, pp. 172–82. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/105821 Accessed 6 Nov. 2023.  https://solo.bodleian.ox.ac.uk/permalink/44OXF_INST/ao2p7t/cdi_jstor_primary_105821

[6] Hornsby, Thomas. “The Quantity of the Sun’s Parallax, as Deduced from the Observations of the Transit of Venus, on June 3, 1769: By Thomas Hornsby, M. A. Savilian Professor of Astronomy in the University of Oxford, and F. R. S.” Philosophical Transactions (1683-1775), vol. 61, 1771, pp. 574–79. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/106123  Accessed 6 Nov. 2023.  https://solo.bodleian.ox.ac.uk/permalink/44OXF_INST/ao2p7t/cdi_jstor_primary_106123

[7] “The Most Noble Problem in Nature” (ox.ac.uk) Accessed 6 Nov. 2023.

[8] Press Release (April 10, 2019): Astronomers Capture First Image of a Black Hole | Event Horizon Telescope Accessed 6 Nov. 2023.

 

The Extraordinary Life and Overlooked Death of C. S. Lewis   

 

A row of books is visible. The front book reads: "The Magician's Nephew : By C. S. Lewis". The front cover shows a brown, winged horse with two children on its back – a boy in brown clothes and a blonde girl in a blue dress – flying over a mountainous valley.
The Oxford Union C.S. Lewis book display

This month marks the 60th anniversary of the death of C. S. Lewis, therefore it seemed fitting to write a little about the man who is held so dear by the city of Oxford.

C. S. Lewis attended University College,[1] Oxford, and was a close friend of J. R. R. Tolkien, author of the Lord of the Rings books. Both writers were members of the Oxford Union Society, or “Ugger” as it was called by many a student at the time.[2] Lewis often met with friends in the Union Library and this group of literature enthusiasts became known as ‘the Inklings’. They discussed various writings and, in true Oxford University style, went drinking at the Eagle and Child.[3]

Although C. S. Lewis was himself an extraordinary man and renowned for his stories, most famously his Narnia series, his death went almost unnoticed. “Never!” I hear you cry. How could such a famous man’s passing be so trivial to the world? The answer, sadly, is that Lewis died (at the age of 64) on the 22nd of November 1963 – the same day that American President John F. Kennedy was assassinated.[4]

A row of books is visible. The front book reads: "The Last : By C. S. Lewis". The front cover shows a range of animals, prominently a bear, badger and satyr, battling armoured people.
The other end of the Oxford Union C.S. Lewis book display in case you had a burning desire to see it.

If the extraordinary life of C. S. Lewis has interested you, perhaps it has also rekindled a desire to read his literature; a collection of non-fiction works by, and about, C. S. Lewis is available for loan across the Bodleian Libraries and associated colleges. Additionally, Lewis’ works of fiction are available for loan from the Oxford Union Society Library. Alternatively, for a wander through nature you may like to visit the CS Lewis Nature Reserve, in Risinghurst, which was once owned by the man himself.[5]

Bibliography: 

[1] C. S. Lewis. 1955. Surprised by Joy : The Shape of my Early Life. p.186

[2] Humphrey Carpenter. 1977. J.R.R. Tolkien : a biography. p.54.

[3] Humphrey Carpenter. 1978. The Inklings : C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien, Charles Williams, and Their Friends. p.122

[4] Simon Usborne. 2013. ‘Eclipsed in death: We remember JFK, but what about Aldous Huxley, or CS Lewis?’. Independenthttps://www.independent.co.uk/voices/comment/eclipsed-in-death-we-remember-jfk-but-what-about-aldous-huxley-or-cs-lewis-8957192.html

[5] Berkshire Buckinghamshire & Oxford Wildlife Trust. N.d. CS Lewis Nature Reserve. https://www.bbowt.org.uk/nature-reserves/cs-lewis-nature-reserve