A Day in the Life of an Old Library Trainee

7:45: I hop on the bus to town, and get some reading in on my way. I am currently reading Femina by Janina Ramirez, after hearing her interesting insights on the women who embroidered the Bayeux Tapestry, on the history podcast ‘You’re Dead to Me’ with Greg Jenner. I’m really enjoying it and finding it very accessible, as someone who has never really been drawn to that period of history (cue the scandalised gasps from Oxford medievalists).

8:15: With an uncharacteristic lack of traffic on the way to work, I arrive in town in time to head to Black Sheep and get myself a coffee. I like Black Sheep because the coffee is STRONG.

8:42: I arrive at work. This week I have been rota’ed to open up the Duke Humfrey’s Library, which is always a nice space to begin my day in. I am greeted by the grotesques that decorate the walls, including these cheeky chaps, who are displaying two different degrees of excitement that it’s Friday:

This guy has seen some things…

Opening up this reading room includes reshelving, turning on the lights, and opening the blinds.

8:55: With the Duke Humfrey’s Library ready for readers, I head downstairs to the Main Enquiry Desk where I will be spending the morning answering enquiries.

This morning, I am expecting the arrival of some books from the Just William series, for an advance order request for someone who does not yet have their reader card. Because these are early editions, I want to check their condition to confirm that they can be read in the Old Library and don’t need to be flagged up with my colleagues in Rare Books.

The books arrive, and they’re in fine condition, so I give the self-collect slips a temporary ID, change their due date, and notify the reader that they are ready to be viewed.

12:00: Lunchtime. I wolf down a very basic sandwich I cobbled together whilst half asleep this morning, wondering what my housemate, who works in Christ Church library and who is provided an amazing dinner by the college, is probably enjoying at that very same time…

13:00: After lunch I’m stationed at the circulation desk in the Radcliffe Camera for an hour. Working on this desk means I issue books, collect returns, help people connect to Wi-Fi or to locate a book. There’s always loads of people to help here so I really enjoy it!

14:00: I head back over to the Old Bod to get some work done for my trainee project. I’m finding books from offsite storage and assessing whether they’d be suitable for a temporary wellbeing collection in the Bodleian. Today I am looking at some Choose Your Own Adventure books. One is outstandingly and straightforwardly titled You Are a Shark . I’m sure this is what Shakespeare had in mind when he wrote that “brevity is the soul of wit”.

15:30: After my afternoon break, I’m sat on the Proscholium (entrance to the Old Library) where I am writing this blog post whilst keeping one beady eye out for readers entering the library. It can get cold in this part of the building, but I have a small and handy heater that is at the very least keeping my knees adequately warm.

17:00: My workday is done, so I say hello and goodbye to the evening staff member who is taking over for me on the Proscholium. This evening, I am heading to the cinema with my housemates. One fantastic thing about Oxford is the number of cinemas there are with various showings, if only to aid me in updating my Letterboxd account.

“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! 

Nia Everitt, Bodleian Old Library

Hi! I’m Nia and I’m the new Graduate Trainee at the Bodleian Old Library. The Old Library contains two reading rooms, as well as the Duke Humfrey’s Library- of Harry Potter fame. It features as the restricted section of Hogwarts Library, but it is certainly not restricted to students wanting to study or read in there. The staff study in DH has also been home to me whilst completing my mandatory training- the most aesthetically pleasing place any online work training has taken place, I’m sure!  

The Selden End of Duke Humfrey’s

A few months ago, I was studying at the University of Manchester for my undergraduate degree in English Literature. Manchester is home to some amazing libraries and archives, and it is during my time as an undergrad that I discovered my love for this area of work. I volunteered at the Portico Library, located in Manchester city centre, which has a great collection of 19th century ‘polite literature’. I also spent some time archiving for the Pankhurst Centre, which is a women’s centre, heritage site and museum allinone. 

Working at the Old Library, however, is quite different to anything I’ve experienced before. You really feel the significance of hundreds of years of history, with the eyes of 202 great scholars and thinkers following you as you wander the Upper Reading Room. This collection of portraits is called the painted frieze. It’s exciting to play a part in such an awe-inspiring facility.

So far, my favourite part of my job has been that I get to chat to so many different people every day. The Old Library has such a variety of readers and visitors. When I’m working on the Main Enquiry Desk, I answer emails from people who are in the neighbouring building, to scholars on the other side of the world! I’ve also learned how to process new books going on to displays or the open shelves, which includes tattle-taping and stamping items. There is a desk dedicated to this, which sort of feels like an arts and crafts corner. It’s safe to say I am thoroughly enjoying getting to grips with all the different facets of working at the library.

A heron we’ve noticed on our trips back from The Punter- which we hope to see again and are dutifully searching for an ‘H’ name for- any suggestions? Humfrey? Hildegard?

As a student who spent their first year of university locked down in halls, my library was a sanctioned place I could go to feel less isolated. Although we’ve emerged out of the pandemic, I believe that the importance of this has not waned, and so I’m really keen to get involved with using the library as a place to promote student wellbeing. Aside from this, the training sessions that introduce us to different careers in librarianship, such as our recent talk on cataloguing, will be incredibly useful in helping me decide on how to move forward in this field. It also helps that there is a great cohort of trainees this year and that we’ve enjoyed many trips to the pub already!

If you see me in the Old Library or in the Radcliffe Camera (I can often be found in the Lower Gladstone Link, staring quizzically at the Nicholson sequence) please don’t hesitate to say hello and ask me any questions you may have!