Chris Cottell, Christ Church Library

I was recently asked by a young prospective student from central London, “So what do you think of the Bullingdon club?”

The question wasn’t malicious- just curious. It’s an honest reflection of the many issues that the University of Oxford is currently contending with, balancing its roles as an internationally renowned centre of learning with its cultural history as a centre of class privilege. Working at Christ Church library, and as a recent Oxford graduate (from Hertford College), I will be dealing with these issues all year, and hopefully through this blog we’ll all show the more open, friendly and accessible side of Oxford through detailing our work at one of its most stereotypically closed institutions.

But for now? Top of my to-dos is shelving… so I think I’ll write this blog instead.

Taccio il Cielo in la Terra, Rovetta, 1629, Canto
First page of the Canto part of the madrigal Taccia il Cielo in la terra
(Rovetta, 1629) (Mus 484) [thanks, Alina!]
As an undergrad, I’d been into Christ Church  for occasional tutorials, but never seen the majority of the college. As it turns out, Christ Church is big- with seemingly infinite gardens (rectors’, deans’, fellows’, summer, winter, moon, cheese) and many quadrangles, through which flow an also apparently infinite stream of tourists, who seem to wake up much earlier than any current students.

As a rude introduction to college life, one of the earliest issues I had was not knowing what to say to tourists who would like to look around the library. Apparently, like a “broken record”, I should repeat that the library is for members only. It seemed a shame to shut out people who mostly would just like to wonder at the space that our students (and staff) inhabit and often take for granted- but if there was a possibility of them disturbing our readers, then there isn’t much else that can be done. Unlike most students, I’m rather fond of tourists: their constant presence reminds me how beautiful and full of history these spaces are, and through their presence they support the studies of all of our academics, providing a sustainable source of income for both the central Bodleian Library and many colleges.

Work in the library so far has mostly been processing, tagging, shelving and re-shelving- like Oxford’s other academic libraries, we’re trying to get all of our big jobs completed before the start of term rush. However, we’re currently losing a significant amount of space in our basement storage area due to a redevelopment of the buildings it is situated under, so we’re in the process of re-organising much of our basement stock. In fact, the whole quad is being redeveloped; as part of this plan, a future refurbishment of the library is on the calendar in a few years’ time, so it’s certainly worth the extra work now for the later rewards- though that will be well beyond my time here!

This shifting around of stock has meant that I get involved in lots of book moving, and to my great interest, has meant taking ownership of shelving the music score collection in the student library for the first time in a long while. Hopefully this means it will be borrowed, as it turns out that many of the titles are listed on SOLO under their names in foreign languages and have been impossible to find for many years!

[Image courtesy of David Stumpp,  Antiquarian Catologuer at Christ Church]
Perhaps the most exciting thing that’s happened so far is also the reason I am most eager to be working here at Christ Church. We have the largest college library staff, up to nine on a good day with fair weather, four of us working downstairs in the Student Library. The remainder of the staff work upstairs in the Upper Library, which houses much of our Special Collections, under the supervision of the Keeper of Special Collections, Dr Cristina Neagu, while the Archivist works separately in the archives. The library and archives hold tens of thousands of priceless materials currently being digitised, catalogued and regularly read (under strict supervision!) by readers and academics from the international community.

Recently, Alina, our Photographic and Special Collections Assistant, asked for my help with a project. A significant proportion of Alina’s job is photographic commissions, where a researcher asks for highly detailed reproductions of a particular item that we hold, generally for publication or because they are unavailable to view the item in person. A researcher had asked for photographs of the madrigal (an early type of choral piece) Taccia il Cielo in la terra (1629), from Rovetta’s Madrigali Concertati Libro Primo (Mus 484-488), a manuscript of early music of which we have a copy in Special Collections. Alina asked for my help identifying the piece of music in question, making my music degree significantly more useful than I could ever have expected.

Identifying the individual work was difficult as Mus 484-488 are a set of part-books: this means that the nine individual parts of the madrigal (six voice parts and three instrumental parts) are spread across five physical books. To increase the complexity, each individual part book also includes multiple collections of madrigals! After a struggle, we found the start of the piece, and noted that parts were arranged in pairs: two parts in each partbook, facing each other on opposite pages. This meant that the first violin part was on the opposite page to the highest voice part, et cetera down through the parts, leaving the basso continuo (the instrumental accompaniment part) in its own book. Cross-referencing sections between parts and between books, it was easy to identify where Taccia il Cielo began and ended, and Alina showed me how her camera set-up works, which involves a very expensive camera, a frame and even a vacuum!

Hopefully there will be more like this- Alina’s said she’d love for me to help more often- and I’m expecting the year will be varied. However, one thing’s for sure, as the arrival of students looms: there’ll always be something to do around here.

Now, I’d better get to that shelving…

A view across the back of Tom Quad, taken from Killcanon
A drab day in Christ Church is still pretty magical!