Charles Dodgson’s Photography – a different kind of story-telling

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.[1] 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[2]. 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’[3]: 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.

From Helmut Gernsheim’s Lewis Carroll: Photographer

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[4]. 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.’[5]

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 ‘dark tent’ for the photographer on the move – Gernsheim.
  • 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.’ [6]

Happily, Dodgson was not so bound by convention, and an interest in and playfulness with composition is clear in his surviving photographs[7]. The man that wrote letters to his ‘child-friends’ in ‘mirror-writing’[8] experimented with reflections in his photography too[9]. Stepladders, bannisters and the occasional window ledge[10] are treated as photographer’s props to achieve images that attract and hold the viewers attention.

Barker, Rev. C. and May – Gernsheim


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[11], 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[12].

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.’[13] 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’[14]. 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’[15].  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’[16].

Photograph of the letter dated March 12th, 1875, written by Dodgson at Christ Church.

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’[17]. 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’.[18] Pantomime-like versions of gallant knights[19], acrobats[20] and even Shakespeare[21] 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’[22] 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.[23]

[1] Visit the V&A’s website for a brief overview of the styles of the mid to late 19th century:

[2] 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’.

[3] 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’.

[4] Wakeling, Edward. The Photographs of Lewis Carroll: A Catalogue Raisonné, (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2015), p. 4

[5] Ibid., p. 5

[6] Photographic News, 3rd June 1859, p. 125

[7] I particularly enjoy the slumped petulance of ‘Barker, Rev. C. and May’, IN-1233, Wakeling, p. 160

[8] Gernsheim, p. 20

[9] ‘Reflection’ (IN-0897)

[10] See ‘Brodies and step-ladder’ (IN-0710), ‘Angus Douglas’ (IN-1137) and ‘Mary Lott’ (IN-0746) for instances of these.

[11] For a brief overview of this Victorian custom, see the Oxford Reference entry:

[12] Explore the collection on the library website:

[13] Gernsheim, p. iv

[14] Letter dated 2nd March, 1875

[15] ibid.

[16] Letter dated 17th March, 1875

[17] Letter dated 2nd March, 1875

[18] Gernsheim, p. 20

[19] ‘Joan of Arc’ (IN-2366 and IN-2367)

[20] ‘The Little Acrobat’ (IN-2228)

[21] ‘Shakespeare (Honble. Evelyn Cecil) (IN-2364)

[22] Waggoner, Diane. Lewis Carroll’s Photography and Modern Childhood, (New Jersey: Princeton, 2020) p. 11

[23] Letter dated 3rd October, 1875

Spot Attends a Pop-Up Display

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 Cake[1] come 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.

A screen shot of a listing of spot bakes a cake on a book seller's site. The cover features spot the dog at a mixing bowl and the listing titles asys 'original lift the flap book'.
Literary masterpiece, Spot Bakes a Cake


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’ [2].

The face of an 'ogre' or Medusa is the top layer of the femal figure on this page from Remmelin's book
A Medusa-like figure with snake hair is the first layer to this pregnant body – a somewhat foreboding starting point…

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[3] 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.’[4]



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[5].

A page from Tagliacozzi's book, image shows a man in profile sitting up in bed with his arm strapped to his nose by a special jacket
Tagliacozzi’s stylish suit in action

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.[6]

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’[7]. 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’[8]. 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…


An image of microscopic drawings of the layers and surfaces of skin. Different diagrams fill a large page.
A closer look at skin in this text


Title page from Vesalius's De humani corporis fabrica
Title page from Vesalius’s De humani corporis fabrica

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[9].

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.











[3] Find out more here!

[4] Review: Paper Bodies, by Mimi Cazort






Database Spotlight: Victorian Popular Culture

The A-Z database list on SOLO can take you to many weird and wonderful places. Each database provides a window into a new personality. Will I be the person who knows an uncanny amount about Early Zoological Literature[1]? Or perhaps seleucid coinage[2]? It seems that even just a little light reading in these databases would get me ahead of the pack – though perhaps Oxford is a city in which that is not reliably the case…

As tempting as these avenues of identity re-invention are, I have a feeling that I would have to somewhat crowbar these topics into conversation. Talking a lot about coins is something that is a little less charming when you’re the one who brought them up… Perhaps, I thought, it might be sensible to choose something a little more mainstream. So, this month I decided not to start a new chapter of my persona, but revisit an old one. The topic I’ve selected for this month indulges a subject I was obsessed with as a child, and the database itself is one that finds the perfect balance between accessible and delightfully specific: the database of Victorian Popular Culture. A sprawling resource with countless entries, this database is still extremely navigable and filled to the brim with treasures.


Arriving at the Database

When first opening the database of Victorian Popular Culture, you are greeting by a well laid-out menu. The initial drop down tab is arranged into the sections:

‘Introduction’ to give users a sense of what they can do with the resource

‘Browse documents’ for broad umbrellas of research topics

‘Explore’ for the researcher just dipping their toe into Victorian waters (ideally they’d also be wearing a very fetching Victorian bathing suit to boot)

‘Visual sources’ for photographs, plates, cinema footage – the list goes on

‘Help’ – for a more detialed guide of how to make the most of the database and further information


Screen cap of the home page of Victorian Popular Culture, with the drop down menu open
The drop down menu will take you wherever you want to go!


Having a Browse

While all the headings in the ‘Browse Documents’ section looked tempting, I decided to look into Circuses. Once in the item list, I was met with even more (delightfully organised) drop down boxes. Not unlike SOLO or the Ashmolean Database (our previous database spotlight), here you can select the item type you’re looking for. Perhaps it’s ephemera, or playbills. At this stage you can also filter by the Library/Archive that holds the item. This is a great feature for those that wish to find items they can visit in person.


Screen cap of list of items with thumbnails by each entry


Deciding not to filter the results at this stage, I began scrolling through the items. With thumbnail images of each item, you get a pretty clear idea of the sort of thing you’ll be looking at when you select an item. As I scrolled, enjoying snapshots of photographs and sheetmusic, my eye was caught by a diving figure of gold foiling on the cover of Acrobats and Mountebanks by Hugues Le Roux (1890)[3].


Gold foiling of an acbrobat mid-flip on a dark blue back ground
An eye-catching front cover!

Acrobats and Mountebanks

Clicking into the item took me to the catalogue page with publication information and item type. For example, here I learnt that this text is kept as part of the National Fairground Archive at the University of Sheffield[4]. If I absolutely had to get trapped in an archive overnight, due to what I’m sure would be very legitimate and even likely circumstances, I could do worse than this one. (These are the kinds of scenarios you begin to ponder when you become a library graduate trainee…). If one database just isn’t enough, treat yourself to a browse of the NFCA and find materials on illusions, menageries, pleasure gardens and fairground rides[5].

The text of Acrobats and Mountebanks was digitized and I had the option of browsing the whole text page by page or navigating by chapter. I was struck by the high quality of the images, so entered into the world of the Victorian circus without a particular destination in mind. Weaving through the acts and attractions described in the book I could feel the the ghost of the author’s excitement; gorgeous illustrations throughout the text draw you into a world where horse drawn carriages carry ladies in smart dresses to the fair (p. 38), where ‘everyone is come for amusement and intends to get it’ (p. 39). In the preface it is promised that the reader will be led to ‘the threshold of an unknown world’ (p. vi) and I felt a little like someone about to attend the circus myself.



Further into the book, in the chapter titled The Private Circus, Le Roux writes of a certain number of people for whom simply attending the Circus was not enough. So allured were they by the world of the trapeze artist and conjurer that they would seek out and enter a very particular tent. It seems that during this period, it was possible for the circus itself to be a place that would not only dazzle spectators with the art of acrobatics, but teach them how to perform it themselves. With a suitably mythical turn of phrase, the transition from circus-goer to circus performer is described by Le Roux as a ‘metamorphosis’ (p. 308).

One such individual who engaged in this act of transfiguration was Lieutenant Viaud. A man of many military and literary achievements[6], he gains another string to his bow with his acrobatic endeavours:

‘One feels that in him exists that spring of elasticity which raises a body from the soil and wrests it from the laws of gravitation’ (p. 309).

Despite finding this text through such an ordered sequence of tabs, drop down menus and chapter links, the quality of the digitized images and the ease of navigation within the database made for an immersive reading experience. I was as drawn into the world of the Victorian circus as Lieutenant Viaud, though my forward roll may yet leave something to be desired.


London Low Life

Closing the flap of the circus tent for now, let’s creep a little further into to the back streets of Victorian London with a dictionary of slang[7]. This extensive resource can be found on the ‘London Low Life’ a sister page of the Victorian Popular Culture database. Here is where you can find all things ‘street culture, social reform and the Victorian underworld’. After the bright lights of the circus a little shadiness might do us good.


Screen cap showing entries under the letter 'A' in the London slang dictionary
This dictionary can be browsed in alphabetical order and similarly defined phrases are grouped together for ease of navigation!


Scanning through the entries, a few favourites jumped out. I particularly enjoyed ‘a pig’s whisper’ (a grunt) ‘a bantling’ (a young child) and ‘knights of the rainbow’ (waiters, footmen, lacqueys). Having topped up my slang vocabulary, I thought I would round off my venture into the world of databases with a hop across to the Oxford English Dictionary, or OED.


Oxford English Dictionary Online

Available through SOLO, the OED is an incredible resource: ‘the definitive record of the English language’[8], no less.

The OED serves as a guide to the meaning, history, and pronunciation of 600,000 words— including those that have dropped out of use – from across the English-speaking world.

Every entry has example quotations from across the period the word is/was used in, from literary examples to specialist periodicals, film scripts to cookery books.


Screen cap of OED entry for bantling
Entry for ‘bantling’


As you can see in the red text on the top right of this page from the OED, this entry has not been fully updated. The entries in the OED undergo constant revisions to stay up to date, each revision ‘subtly adjusting our image of the English language’[9].My deep dive into the word ‘bantling’ shows off some of its uses over time, both literal and figurative.

I hope this mini excursion goes some way to show how different databases, available both through SOLO and online, can work together to provide richer detail for whatever it is you’re researching. In my exploration into the world of Victorian circuses, I dipped into the database of Victorian Popular Culture, the National Fairground Archive and the Oxford English Dictionary. Knowledge breeds knowledge! So many potential rabbit holes showed themselves on this digital journey, and I can’t wait to keep digging – right after I’ve perfected my acrobatic routine.





[3] Don’t have a SOLO log in? No problem! View the book here instead





[8] In a recent bid for my heart, it seems, the OED published their word for 2022: ‘Goblin mode is our 2022 Word of the Year, recognising our desire, particularly as we emerged from the pandemic, to engage in ‘unapologetically self-indulgent, lazy, slovenly, or greedy’ behaviour that typically ‘rejects social norms or expectations’.’ Powerful stuff.


Database Spotlight: Not all those who wander (in the Ashmolean) are lost

Despite having visited it on many a rainy Sunday, I always seem to stumble across new rooms in the Ashmolean every time I go. Perhaps through a form of architectural respawning, or maybe just my poor sense of direction, many of the permanent exhibitions in the museum remain shrouded in mystery for me.

Picture of a staircase in the Ashmolean. Tall windows dimly light the area, silhouettes of statues stand in the alcoves.
Shot of some mysterious lighting in the Ashmolean to help prove my point.


I was scrolling through the databases available through SOLO while thinking about what I would write this post on. There were many that caught my eye – perhaps I could plunge into ‘Religion and Urbanity online’, or maybe enter the world of the Utrecht Psalter…tempting as these avenues were, when I spotted the Ashmolean online Catalogue, an idea began to form.

Perhaps this post would be my chance to get to the heart of the museum, once and for all. No more oohing and ahhing over the textile gallery (or the cakes in the cafe) on the lower ground floor. No more slumping in awe on the (rather too comfortable) velvet couches in the cast gallery right next to the entrance. This time I was going to overcome every eye-catching obstacle and make it all the way to the top floor. Using the database as my guide, I would make sure to select objects from  parts of the museum I’d never before stepped foot in.


The Database

The Ashmolean is the University of Oxford’s museum of art and archaeology and it holds a collection that spans over ten thousand years. In recent years, they have been working on digitizing their collection. The Digital Collection programme was established in 2015[1], and as of now, you can now browse or search 200,000 of the treasures of the Ashmolean online.

With this catalogue at my fingertips, I felt sure I held the key to the most enlightening yet efficient visit to any gallery ever before experienced.


The plan

My plan, as it stood, was simple:

  1. Choose the items I want to visit from the data base.
  2. Plan a route.
  3. Get cultured.


Familiarising myself with the database

Whether you’re looking for something specific or just there for a fun like I was, the online collection is a fantastic resource. You can search items based on object type, date, artist/maker, material…the list goes on.

In a moment of weakness, I was in the mood for some 17th century sculpture, so that was where my hunt began.


Screen shot of the Ashmolean database page. A grid with object type and date is showing.
Selecting preferences on the database


Once you select object type and date, you can filter your results in the ‘sort by’ drop down. Here is where you could select a specific artist, place, etc. if you so wished. I went for ‘random’, as beyond my predilection for something early modern, I was happy for the database to surprise me.

A feature I found helpful for my purposes was the database showing you whether an item is currently on display or not – if you can visit it in the museum, there with be a small eye icon next to the entry on the online catalogue.

Another great feature for those with a thirst for knowledge in all its forms is the ‘further reading’ section. Catalogues that feature the item you’re looking at will be linked to the page for your convenience. There’s also a ‘reference URL’ so you can easily save the page you’re looking at for later! Perhaps you wish to share this particularly handsome fellow with a pal over coffee (, or muse over what Ethel might be thinking of on your commute home after a long day (


Choosing my victims

Once I had settled on date and object type, it was as simple as choosing the items that caught my eye. A mix of small and large, intriguing and classic slowly filled up the top bar of my laptop screen as I opened many a background tab.

After a rigorous selection process (click on the thing that looks cool – patent pending) these beauties made it onto my list:


  • One of a pair of Fowlers – 17th century bronze figure


  • Sword hilt – mid-17th century


  • Mystical ring – 16th – 17th century


  • And finally, as this is a library blog after all, a magnificent book case, literally named ‘The great Bookcase’. Mid 19th century


Items selected and museum locations jotted down, I was ready to embark on my mission.

You’ll note that some of these items are not quite sculpture – one is even a book case! My search was also bolstered by the Ashmolean podcast Museum Secrets and some of the fascinating items that are discussed in the bite-sized episodes. The database was a fantastic resource that allowed me to see instantly whether the objects that featured in the episodes were currently on show.



Wall of busts at the Ashmolean
Wall of busts at the Ashmolean

With a plan of action, I felt close to unstoppable. With only my poor sense of direction hindering me, I set out on my mission to get cultured. Item list in hand, I was ready to boldly go where most Oxford inhabitants have gone before…the Ashmolean!

Despite having a slightly humbling few minutes of dithering at the bottom of the what I thought were the stairs to the second floor (but, alas, were not), having a list of the rooms I needed to visit made me feel like something of a consummate gallery-goer. I strode through great halls and corridors with a feeling of purpose, only ever so occasionally getting distracted by the odd shiny thing…









Small bronze sculpture of a man crouching with a brace of birds on his belt
sculpted by Italian Renaissance sculptor, Giovanni Bologna

The first stop on my self-made tour was the second floor, gallery 46. Here I was searching for two of the items on my list: the bronze sculpture of a fowler, that is, someone who hunts wildfowl, and the sword-hilt.

I love the tiny details on this first piece! The clothing, the birds hanging from the belt, the barbs of each feather etched into the surface…also I am jealous of his stylish little hat.

What I first noticed first in this gallery, but also throughout my visit, was that going into a space and being on the hunt for specific objects really changed the energy of my experience. It was less of a passive dander, waiting to be impressed by something amazing, but a pointed search, engaging with each item in order to find what I was looking for.

It was also really cool to see the objects I’d looked at in isolation on the database in the context of some sculpture housemates. Looking at these sculptures in the Ashmolean, you see the object not against a plain background as when photographed for posterity, but amongst other bodies.



In my photographs of the ivory sword hilt you can spot the pair of Fowlers posing in the background. Different materials colour the back drop, the deep red gallery walls lending no small amount of drama.


My next stop was the ring display in gallery 56. Here I was looking for the rather murky toadstone rings.

A glass octagonal case with rings in each frame.
The glorious ring case on the second floor

Toadstone, or bufonite (bufo being Latin for toad), was thought to be great for protecting against poison. Not just a moody fashion statement, toadstones have a history of being worn as a protective amulet or charm[2]. It seems that the logic went as follows: toads are poisonous, therefore toadstones (believed to be formed in the heads of toads) protect against poison and even detect it. Please do not bother any of your friendly neighbourhood toads – this origin of the toadstone does not boast the electrifying acclaim of being peer reviewed. Fun fact – toadstones have nothing to do with toads at all, but are actually the fossilised teeth of an extinct genus of ray-finned fish![3]

Toadstone was allegedly most effective when worn against skin. A lot of these rings that have toadstone in them have open backs so the stone is always in touch with the wearers hand. It was believed that the stone would alert its wearer if they were ever poisoned by heating up or even changing colour. They were seen as something of a cure all, used in treatments for countless conditions and were even thought by some to protect ships from getting wrecked at sea.

Despite all these rather delicious claims to fame, the rings don’t particularly stand out in the display. In fact, I had to lap the jewellery case a couple of times before spotting these mystical little beauties. If you want to take a look for yourself, there is a helpful catalogue of the rings in the display case in folders that are kept near the case in gallery 56.


Toadstone ring, no. 115


For the final item we step away from the 17th century and into the Victorian age – peeking round the door of the office of William Burgess, a famous designer and architect of the gothic revival persuasion.[4]  Made to hold Burges’s art books, this elaborate bookcase had 14 painters contribute to it –  many of them being big names from the pre-Raphaelite movement. Edward-Burne Jones, Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Simeon Solomon were among the artists involved.  Each one was handsomely rewarded at £5 apiece.


Large ornate bookcase. Trimmed with gold and with a red background, this bookcase is covered in paintings of different people, animals and plants
The Great Bookcase in all its glory!


The external decoration relates to the books that would have been housed on that shelf so there is a great variety in the decoration. Biblical scenes mirror stories from ancient Greece and Egypt, and the entire piece is covered in depictions of animals and plants.



This piece is part of the spotlight trail at the Ashmolean, so you can scan the QR code and listen to some of the background of its creation.


With their target of making 25% of their objects available to view online by 2020 reached, the Ashmolean is continuing to make even more of its collection accessible. Collections currently being digitalised include the Egyptian collection and portraits from the collection of Revd F. W. Hope.

What I enjoyed most about this experience was the difference between browsing online to searching for my chosen objects in a physical space. I think I felt more connected to the pieces because I had sought them out. This is not to say I had laser focus…Drifting from room to room in the Ashmolean is a process of delightful distraction – you walk through different exhibitions to reach your destination and charming and unexpected pieces unavoidably catch your eye.



These bonus pieces are not unlike side quests that enhance your journey to your true aim: immunity to everything via proximity to a toadstone. I plan to visit it once a week for the rest of my days in order to experience maximum benefits.

I hope to bug my friends some weekend soon with this makeshift tour – why not put one together yourself with the Ashmolean online database!



[2] Listen to Lucie Dawkins’ podcast Museum Secrets here for a great mini-podcast in which Matthew Winterbottom, curator at the Ashmolean, discusses toadstones and other magic jewellery at the Ashmolean!

[3], at the 5:00 minute mark exactly


Marking Holocaust Memorial Day at Christ Church Library

‘What is abnormal is that I am normal. That I survived the Holocaust and went on to love beautiful girls, to talk, to write, to have toast and tea and live my life – that is what is abnormal.’ Elie Wiesel, survivor of the Holocaust

Holocaust Memorial Day takes place on the 27th of January every year, marking the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz and to remember the more recent genocides which followed in Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia, and Darfur. The Holocaust Memorial Day Trust website provides life stories, information and resources: 

We put together a display at Christ Church library to mark the day. This post shines a spotlight on three of the books in our display: a graphic novel, a memoir and a collaborative autobiography.


Maus, Art Spiegelman

Photo of book cover. Maus in red font, two cartoon mice cowering in eachothers arms together under an image of a cat drawn to resemble HitlerIn Art Spiegelman’s graphic novel, Spiegelman interviews his father, Vladek, a Polish Jew who survived the Holocaust. The comic moves between the father and son’s conversation and depictions of Spiegelman’s father’s memories. Throughout Maus, as the title hints to, characters are depicted as animals rather than people, and specifically depicts Jews as mice and Nazis as cats. This novel combines biography, autobiography, history and fiction in a piece that became the first graphic novel to win a Pulitzer Prize.

Maus comes from humble beginnings, originally published in serial form in Françoise Mouly and Art Spiegelman’s eclectic comics anthology ‘RAW’ in the 1980s. Chapters one to six were later published in ’86 in a volume titled Maus I: A Survivor’s Tale and the latter five chapters were published in 1991 as Maus II: A Survivor’s Tale: And Here My Troubles. The text in our display contains both these volumes.

RAW Magazine began life in whirrings of a living room printing press in the house that Spiegelman and Mouly still share[1]. (Each publication was adorned with its own cheeky subtitle, two of my favourites being ‘Required Reading for the post-literate’ and ‘Open wounds from the cutting edge of commix’). This set up goes a little way to paint a picture of the world Spiegelman was living in. He was working in the underground comic scene, the predecessor of which he had grown up on in ‘60s New York. It was from Justin Green, a fellow alternative cartoonist whose work was often featured in RAW Magazine, that Spiegelman learnt:

“confessional, autobiographical, intimate, unsayable material is perfectly fine content for comics.”[2]


Maus shows how the medium of comics can be one that communicates harrowing themes and strained relationships in a way that feels both sensitive and charged. The experience of reading Maus is one of constant stock-taking. You have to sit with the often-disturbing images, move back and forth between them as you progress through the novel. Spiegelman’s conversations with his father about his experiences in Auschwitz not only frame the recollections, but also often intrude upon the narrative. The form of a comic works exceedingly well as something that can interrupt itself. Embodied memories barge into the present as Spiegelman plays with comic strip borders and ratios. In an interview with Alexandra Alter for the The New York Times, Spiegelman says of the cartoon format, and particularly of depicting the people in the story as animals, that:


“For me, it was powerful just because it allowed me to deal with the material by putting a mask on people. By reliving it microscopically, as best I could, moment by moment — it allowed me to at least come to grips with something that otherwise was only a dark shadow.”[3]


An Underground Life: Memoirs of a Gay Jew in Nazi Berlin, Gad Beck

“For them I was a boy from outside. Why? I was visiting theatres, I was dancing, even ballet dancing.”[4]

Gad Beck and his sister Margot were born in Berlin in 1923. An Underground Life recounts the story of how Beck was able to escape the Nazis and stay living in Berlin throughout the duration of World War Two. Being both Jewish and gay, Beck was doubly at risk of persecution from the Nazis. Nazi conceptions of race, gender and eugenics very much shaped the regime’s aggressive policy on homosexuality. Repression commenced within days of Hitler becoming Chancellor. In spite of all this, Beck’s voice throughout the memoir is playful and unbelievably positive.

Beck decided to actively resist Nazi persecution, taking on a principal role in the Chug Chaluzi Jewish resistance group. The Chug Chaluzi (circle of pioneers) was an illegal group founded on the day that all Jewish forced laborers were arrested and most of them deported. The group was as small as 11 members when it started, but had grown to around 40 by the end of the war.

Jizack Schwersenz was the director of a Jewish youth group that Gad Beck attended in Berlin. In a letter from March 1942, Schwersenz writes about how Erwin Tichauer responded to the continued deportations during a secret gathering of the group in 1942:

“Then one of our members, Erwin Tichauer, stepped forward—at first we had no idea what he was about to do —and read to his group the names of all those who had been taken from us during the past months, since the deportations had begun, and as he read each name the members replied as one: ‘Here’, that is to say, that even those who were missing were with us on this occasion, for we are always with them in our thoughts, just as they are surely with us in their thoughts…”[5]

The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum holds a very precious item in its collection – a handmade book made by a boy that Gad fell in love with, Manfred Lewin[6]. In the same way that the youth group remembered those that had been deported, Gad remembered Manfred through this gift. Small enough to fit in a pocket, this book and Beck survived the war.

Beck and Lewin met at the Jewish youth group in the build up to the war. Clumsy illustrations in green felt tip pen populate the pages of this token of affection, depicting shared memories and private jokes. Slightly underwhelmed with the gift at the time, Beck recollects thinking ‘It’s very simple book, booklet, very simple … and he’s not an artist’[7]. I hope the thoughtful Beck we meet in  An Underground Life was on duty that day, and he managed to keep these thoughts to himself…

With time, and the outbreak of the war, this gift took on a new significance.

‘Dear, kind Gad, I owe you a present, no, I want to give you one, not just so that you get something from me that you can glance through and then lay aside forever, but something that will make you happy whenever you pick it up.’[8]


What is the What: The Autobiography of Valentino Achek Deng Dave Eggers

‘Since you and I exist, together we can make a difference!’[9]

I had only encountered Dave Eggers through his short stories up until this point, so this novel felt like something of a departure for me.

While nominally a novel, the experiences recounted in this book are true. Written in 2006, What is the What is based on the life of Valentino Achak Deng. Deng was a child when the second Sudanese Civil War broke out, a civil war that was to last twenty-two years. Deng was able to immigrate to the United States through the Lost Boys of Sudan programme[10]. Escaping conflict required moving through war zones, however. Named ‘lost boys’, many of these children spent years in life threatening circumstances. Many lost their lives due to hunger and dehydration. Travelling to Ethiopia and then Kenya for safety, around 10,000 boys between the ages of eight and eighteen arrived at the Kakuma refugee camp, ‘a sprawling, parched settlement of mud huts where they would live for the next eight years’[11].

Deng and Eggers came together through Deng’s desire for his story to reach a wider audience. He says that he sees his mission as being to help others ‘understand Sudan’s place in our global community’[12]. While having told his story to many audiences through public speaking, he felt a book about his experiences would reach more people.

‘Dave and I have collaborated to tell my story by way of tape recording, by electronic mailings, by telephone conversations and by many personal meetings and visitations.’[13]

This collaboration has resulted in a gripping read – Deng’s story, communicated to Eggers through so many different modes, finds a fluidity on the page that you can’t help but be engrossed by. As with Maus, the story moves back and forth between past and present. At the time of recounting his story to Eggers, Deng is ‘trying to survive an altogether different struggle: assimilation into a culture defined by its short-term memory and chronic indifference to the world beyond its borders’[14].

I hope this starting point will encourage you to follow Elie Wiesel’s model from the top of this post for a normal life – make yourself some toast and some tea and get reading – just remember no food in the library.



[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] A quotation from an interview with Gad Beck from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum,


[6] Find a page by page break down here:


[8] A translation of the first page of Manfred’s book

[9] What is the What: The Autobiography of Valentino Achek Deng, Dave Eggers (Penguin Books: London, 2006) p.xv



[12] What is the What, p.xiv

[13] Ibid., p. xiv




A Day in the Life at Christ Church Library

7:45 Arrive in Style

My day starts with a cycle into work and a quick change into library-suitable attire. Turtlenecks feature heavily.

A photograph of the back wall of Tom quadrangle, featuring the cathedral spire. The sky is dusky with soft pinks and blues.
Christ Church’s Tom Quad in the early morning


8:00 Doors open

While the library is still pretty quiet I’ll see to turning on lights, printers and our self-checkout kiosk, straightening everything out and tidying away any books left out from the night before.

The library is open until 1am so I’ll also check the evening staff’s notebook to see if there’s anything they recorded that needs following up!


8: 15 Master of Tree Management

Over the festive period we have had a Christmas tree in the entrance hall of the library – it’s both an honour and a privilege to keep it fed and watered (well, mostly just watered). This task is one of my favourites. I do end up wearing quite a lot of pine needles, but I have simply made sure to plan outfits that go well with green accessories.


9:00 Enquiry desk

A staple of the job! This involves monitoring the library email for any updates for Aleph, our catalouging and circulation programme, overdue reminders, or people getting in touch about consulting books from our special collections. Must avoid spending too long looking at emails from Sotheby’s. That way madness lies, along with fantasising about a life in which I frequently buy rare vases at auction and cultivate my collection of modern art.

The desk is also a site for processing books and helping readers with any questions they might have. I secretly thrill at opportunities to find books for readers or, even better, use the ladders in our reading rooms when readers don’t fancy risking the climb. Talk about high-octane…


Picture taken from inside of a window. Looks out onto a stone tower. The sky is grey.
A slightly dreary sky behind a lovely view – the window of our tearoom



11:00 Tea!

A corner stone of both life and the working day. I am blessed with some charming colleagues so tea often comes with both biscuits and a chat.

On sunnier days this room can be something of a suntrap! Such glorious weather feels a bit far away at the moment though…

I have noted a direct correlation between my degree of reclination on the tea-room sofa and time worked here. Some could argue I am getting a bit too comfortable.







11:15 Reclassification

One of the projects I’m working on here at Christ Church is a reclassification system overhaul. This consists of updating the shelf marks on our books from an in house roman numeral system to the more widely used Library of Congress system. A shelf mark is the notation on a book which tells you where it belongs – like library coordinates!


Right now, books will go back on the shelf where they came from when I’ve updated the shelf mark in the book and on our cataloguing system. I’m looking forward to the point when everything comes off the shelf for a reorganisation of biblical proportions.

I’m currently working on the linguistics part of our collection and finding some intriguing titles on my travels.



13:00 Lunch

Words cannot express the beauty of the lunches at the staff canteen here. Bliss.

Sometimes followed by brisk stroll around Christ Church meadow in order to keep feast-induced sleepiness at bay.


14:00 Orangery

Afternoons when I’m not on the desk can take many forms, but one project I’m chipping away at is a reshelving job in one of our storage spaces, called the Orangery. Now filled with books instead of oranges trees, it makes for a satisfying mission of putting the world to rights one book at a time where things have been mis-shelved in the past. Once again, I encounter many a delightful tome and have been enjoying collecting eccentric titles and beautiful cover foilings in my camera roll.



16:00 Home

Finishing just before sunset in the winter is a blessing to be sure – from here I will slink off to enjoy the delights of Oxford at dusk which are many and varied, much like the delights of the Christ Church library!

A Display for Disability History Month

Behind the enquiries desk at Christ Church library there is an array of board games that students can borrow. They used to perch at the bottom of the stairs to the Upper Library, among the various busts of ghosts of Christ Church alumni past. Among the busts that stared longingly at these board games are Richard Busby[1], a headmaster of Westminster school in the 17th century[2] and Richard Frewen, who actually studied at Westminster under Busby and later studied and taught at Christ Church where he became a physician, among other things[3].


Cut off just below the shoulders, these chalky figures are unlikely to ever get truly stuck into a game of Munchkin Deluxe to the degree of enthusiasm that it demands. So, in an effort to put these poor statues out of their misery, we have since moved the board games, but were then left with a spare display shelf. The sensible thing to do seemed to make use of it for a rotation of displays that would keep anyone entertained, even a figure as imposing as Dr Busby…

Over the past few months this shelf has variously been a display point for titles including Super-Infinite: The Transformations of John Donne by Katherine Rundell, Victorian Keats: Manliness, Sexuality and Desire by James Najarian and People Person by Candice Carty Williams as part of ‘New Acquisition’ displays and a display for Black History Month in October.

The 16th of November saw us enter a new awareness period: Disability History Month. While far from an expert in this area, I volunteered to put together a display to mark the month. It has been a great experience in learning about a subject I knew little about and exploring what Christ Church library’s collections hold on the topic.


Using SOLO

I began my hunt for material for this display by jumping onto SOLO (which stands for Search Oxford Libraries Online). SOLO is the first port of call for all resource discovery at the University of Oxford – here you can find locations of physical resources, databases, links to online articles…the list goes on. Handily, you can filter searches on SOLO, so I made sure to select ‘Christ Church Library’ as opposed to ‘search everything’ in the drop-down list when looking up items. This made searching broad terms like the phrase ‘disability history’ a viable option! Such a search will produce 727 results as opposed to 1,097,223 (as of writing this post…) without filtering.

From an initial search I gathered together some promising titles that Christ Church already had as part of its collections:

  • Disability: the Basics, Tom Shakespeare[4]
  • The Oxford Handbook of Disability History, ed. Michael Rembis[5]
  • Early Modern Theatre and the Figure of Disability, Genevieve Love[6]
  • The Minority Body: A Theory of Disability, Elizabeth Barnes[7]
  • The Cambridge Companion to Literature and Disability, Barker and Murray[8]
  • Illness and Authority: Disability in the Life and Lives of Francis of Assisi, Donna Trembinski[9]

Here already was a range of texts that covered quite literally ‘the basics’, but also historical approaches, literary lenses and theory, up to and including an indulgently specific look at Francis of Assisi.

My next task was to identify a theme – what could be drawn out from this array of titles to bring this display together? ‘Founders of religious orders’ seemed, while tempting, perhaps a shade too obscure. My eye was caught by Love’s text on Early Modern theatre and disability. The Early Modern period is a historical crush of mine, and one I studied during the latter part of my degree. I was really interested to learn about the period from a new angle, that of disability history. So, I continued my search beyond the realms of the Christ Church Library. Below are a few of the finds I made – some now feature on our display!


Taking to the stage with Recovering Disability in Early Modern England, Wood and Hobgood[10] 

Photograph of the front cover of a book, white with a blue and green cubist image of a face
Recovering Disability in Early Modern England, ed. Allison P. Hobgood and David Houston Wood

One of the first books that caught my eye on this venture was this selection of essays. In a journey through representations and misrepresentations in Early modern texts, plays and prayer books, these essays touch on Renaissance jest books, revenge tragedies, and propaganda.

Among the essays that drew me in to this collection was ‘Richard Recast: Renaissance Disability in a Postcommunist Culture’. In this piece, Marcela Kostihová takes the reader on a journey to the postcommunist Czech Republic.

We are invited to examine ‘a wildly popular’ staging of Richard III produced by Divadelní Spolek Kašpar in 2000[11]. An injury sustained while protesting the communist regime by the lead,Jan Potměšil, becomes Richard’s “natural deformity” on stage. Kostihová draws out the political nuances of this decision, and it makes for a fascinating read.


Music > tarantulas in The Oxford Handbook of Music and the Body

While not a text dedicated solely to the topic of disability, this book appeared in my SOLO search. Upon examining the sections within the book, I saw that there was a selection of articles on the theme of ‘Music and the Disabled and Sexual Body’. In Howe’s chapter, ‘Musical Remediation of Disability’, Blake Howe discusses the ‘cure narrative’[12], traceable across many cultures in writings about music. This narrative casts music as something with the power to move bodies into states of so-called perfect health. ‘With energetic melodies instead of scalpels, and resonant harmonies instead of potions, the blind simply blink their eyes open, while the dumb simply open their mouths to speak.’[13] Howe warns against the ways this narrative often casts the disabled body as something that needs to be ‘cured’ rather than accepted.

In a slightly more frivolous moment, the article leads us down a delightfully bizarre path; to a case study in which music is elevated above even antivenins. In the introduction to a psalm book from the 1770s, the author (who has later been said to be a Dr Charles Stockbridge) provides a no-nonsense how-to guide for anyone facing the perils of a tarantula bite:

‘whoever is bit by them after some Time loses both Sense and Motion, and dies if destitute of Help. The most effectual Remedy is Music.’[14]

Astute readers might note some parallels from this tale with the tarantella – a folk dance originating in Italy[15]. Once again the story goes that victims of the tarantula bite can be cured with fevered dancing, inspired by the right music, of course. This cultural context would have been a much appreciated piece of the puzzle on all the Saturday mornings I spent confusedly prancing around a church hall with a tambourine as a child…


It’s not all books!

A photograph of the display. Books and posters rest on a wooden set of shelves in an orange hallway
The display in Christ Church library – featuring books, James’ write up and QR codes!

Once I’d learned how to successfully cure any friends of mine that may be struck down by a tarantula bite, I felt ready to venture into the world of online resources.

Historic England[16] have a fantastic page that provides an overview of disability throughout history for those looking to increase their awareness and knowledge. ‘A History of Disability: from 1050 to the Present Day’[17] tracks the changing and varied treatment, perception of and facilities for disabled people in England throughout history.

A feature that makes this page really great is its accessibility – users are able to learn about the different historic periods through audio format or British Sign Language. This inspired me to include some accessible elements in our display at Christ Church. We whipped up QR codes that would take viewers to the Historic England page, the Disability History Month website and also online books so there were multiple ways to access the resources on offer.


Team work makes the dream work

The pièce de résistance of this display was a wonderful contribution we had from a student at Christ Church. James is a PhD student studying the history of ideas, but very kindly took some time out of his schedule to create a piece relating to our display![18] It walks you through the texts available and really brings the display to life, putting the range of resources we selected in conversation with each other – all while inviting you to join in.

Resource discovery becomes a bit of a treasure hunt when you have SOLO and its filtering wonders at your fingertips, so I really enjoyed putting this display together. We were also able to purchase some titles to strengthen Christ Church’s collection in this area of study. Books including Literature and Intellectual Disability in Early Modern England: Folly, Law and Medicine, 1500-1640, by Alice Equestri and Intact by Clare Chambers have made their way onto the display, and soon on to the shelves of the library.

It’s been a great opportunity to learn about a subject I was not well versed on and to dust off my research skills. Here’s to hoping the statues in the stairwell (as well as the students of Christ Church!) were suitably informed by this display – we can but hope!



[1] The British Museum hold a selection of portraits of Busby – see them here!

[2] A not very generous description of whom can be found in Pope’s Dunciad for those willing to put up with its infamously relentless referents.

[3] An interesting and varied character was Richard Frewen! Read more about him here:

[4] Shakespeare, Tom. Disability : The Basics. London, 2018

[5] Rembis, Michael A., Catherine Jean Kudlick, and Kim E. Nielsen. The Oxford Handbook of Disability History. New York, NY, 2018. Oxford Handbooks.

[6] Love, Genevieve. Early Modern Theatre and the Figure of Disability. London, 2020. Arden Studies in Early Modern Drama

[7] Barnes, Elizabeth. The Minority Body: A Theory of Disability. Oxford; New York, 2018. Studies in Feminist Philosophy

[8] Barker, Clare, and Stuart Murray. The Cambridge Companion to Literature and Disability. Cambridge, 2018. Cambridge Companions to Literature.

[9] Trembinski, Donna. Illness and Authority: Disability in the Life and Lives of Francis of Assisi. Toronto, 2020.

[10] Hobgood, Allison P., and David Houston Wood. Recovering Disability in Early Modern England. Columbus, 2013

[11] Ibid., p. 137

[12] Howe, Blake, ‘Musical Remediation of Disability’, in Youn Kim, and Sander L. Gilman (eds),

The Oxford Handbook of Music and the Body, Oxford Handbooks (2019; online edn, Oxford Academic, 10 July 2018), p. 259

[13] p. 260-61

[14] Dahlhaus, Carl. 1982. Esthetics of Music. Translated by William Austin. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.





An Expedition to St Edmund Hall

In the middle of a mild October, myself and some of my fellow trainees attended a tour of the libraries at St Edmund Hall (SEH). This visit was prompted by their exhibition of Poem, Story & Scape in the work of Kevin Crossley-Holland’ and also, admittedly, curiosity to see how another college organised their libraries.

When I reached out to the library team at SEH about visiting the exhibition, they very kindly offered to talk us through not just the exhibition, but also give us a behind the scenes of the Hall and its libraries (and medieval crypt! Result!)

A photograph of pillars in the medieval crypt, a small window lets in a little light. The ceiling is made up of a series of arches.
A snap of the medieval crypt beneath the church, now library!

Curated by Dr Catherine Batt, Senior Lecturer in Medieval Literature at the University of Leeds[1], the Crossley-Holland exhibition was first shown at the Stanley and Audrey Burton Gallery. Since this debut it has made its way to Oxford and, more specifically, the Old Library at SEH.

Crossley-Holland studied English at SEH and is a ‘prize-winning children’s author, translator, poet, librettist, editor and professor’[4]. I was familiar with his Arthur books from reading them as a child. These absorbing stories intertwine Arthurian legend with the story of a boy living at the turn of the 13th century who sees these myths unfolding in a lump of obsidian[5]. It could be fair to say that these books (along with the BBC’s Merlin, of course) sealed my fate with regards to my un-wandering obsession with the knight-errant.

Crossley-Holland is an honorary fellow at SEH so it seems fitting that an exhibition charting his explorations of language, place and legend would be held there, possibly where his love for all things Arthurian began.

On the day of the tour, we learnt that the library collection at SEH began under the crafty eye of Dr Thomas Tullie, who was the principal of the Hall from 1658 – 1676. He introduced a tradition by which departing students would gift the Hall with a book or silver plate worth £5. That was no small fee in those days – £5 would be what a skilled labourer would earn in 71 days![2]. These rather substantial tokens of gratitude for lessons learned at SEH shaped the collection that still survives to this day.

Before Tullie’s scheme, the Hall (the first documented reference to which dates to 1317[3]) had existed for many years without a library, but on our visit to SEH we were treated to tours of not one but two libraries, and I feel as though their addition can only have changed the Hall for the better.


The Old Library

The first stop on our tour was the Old Library – this is where the books that were gradually gifted by students as they left the Hall from the 1680s found their first home.

A photograph of the Old Library at St Edmund Hall. A narrow, long room, the walls either side lined with dark wooden bookcases and a table running down the middle covered in open books that make up the exhibition.
The Old Library at St Edmund Hall – the first library after the Bodleian to have shelves against the wall!

The books in this library cover a range of subjects and serve as a window into the tastes and tilts of the Hall’s attendees across its history. Upon our visit, yet another window into the Hall’s more recent history was open to us.

The ‘Poem, Story & Scape in the work of Kevin Crossley-Holland’ exhibition tracks the works of Crossley Holland chronologically, beginning at one end of the Old Library with books containing the Old English texts and fragments he would have studied as a student, and ending with his most recent publications. This journey through literary history and Crossley-Holland’s own academic ventures ducks and dives in and out of rabbit holes of a creative’s endless fascinations – we see explorations into photography, fiction, poetry, translation…

The closest end of the table upon entering the Old Library was laden with what felt like a crash course in Old English. I felt transported back to the beginning of my own degree in English Language and Literature, with manuscripts holding translations of Cædmon’s Hymn and many versions of Beowulf, including a translation by Crossley-Holland himself. It felt like watching the new iterations of inspiration from texts that have moved readers, writers, artists and students for hundreds of years literally spill out of these works as you moved through the room and exhibition.

A photograph of a book open to a page of an image of a man kneeling, being knighted with a sword on his shoulder by a man dressed in medieval knight's attire.
Crossley-Holland book image – a knighting. Held open by a snake weight!

Prior to starting at Christ Church as a library graduate trainee I spent some time working in a gallery. I am really interested in how the space an exhibition is displayed in influences and informs the work and the way it’s experienced. At the Old Library at SEH you spiral up a narrow staircase to a room filled with dark wood, grated bookshelves and warm light – the exhibition is just asking to be poured over.

One of my favourite aspects of the exhibition was the artworks that Crossley Holland has commissioned over the course of his career to compliment his work. Hung from the grating on the shelves, these images ranged from intricate prints to expressive illustrations.

Here are a couple of my favourites:

Lino print framed image of a battlefield with two knights on horses in the centre attacking each other with spears.
‘Malory’ by Edward Bawden


This piece is titled ‘Malory’ and is a lino print by Edward Bawden: bold, with a particularly playful depiction of chainmail, though a rather violent depiction of everything else…[6]. Bawden and Crossley Holland worked together on Chronicles of King Arthur.

Photograph of the front cover of a book, a block print of a man and a large cat standing behind him.
The front cover of Axe-Age, Wolf Age by Kevin Crossely-Holland, illustrated by Hannah Firmin.


Hannah Firmin’s pieces in Axe-Age, Wolf-Age particularly charmed me. Plus, the brightly coloured block prints in this selection of Morse Myths make for a lovely contrast to the bold black and white of Bawden’s lino prints.


Student Library

Towards the more joyfully bizarre end of the Oxford libraries spectrum we have SEH’s working library – housed in a 12th century church, St Peter-in-the-East. The church was deconsecrated in 1970, but readers in this library still work above a medieval crypt – one wonders if there is a notable influence on student’s work from such proximity…

Photograph of books on a shelf moved aside to reveal tiling with an angel face and gold wings on it.
Tiling revealed from behind a wedge of German Dictionaries – it makes me wonder what other treasures might be lurking behind the books across Oxford…

The approach to the library is a pathway through a graveyard – a rather maudlin approach to a study session, perhaps. (If you want to become better acquainted with those lining such an expedition, SEH’s website has transcriptions of the names on the gravestones[7]). Once in the library and weaving through student desks, our guide pointed out gorgeous tiling decorated with angels – hiding, slightly shyly, behind a row of German dictionaries. Stained glass splashes the working space with colour and a stone tomb stands in line with a study desk. The bronze plates that adorn its surface were apparently pilfered from another tomb – the features of a different family are thought to be engraved on the other side!

A photograph of the surface of a stone tomb decorated with thin bronze plate int he shapes on people, engraved with finer details.
A stone tomb with gorgeous bronze inlays.


All the accoutrements of a church used as a place of worship until 1965[8] brush shoulders with the conveniences of a modern library here, and the effect is distinctly unique. Slinking through the stacks in this library feels like embarking on a treasure hunt – can you spot all the signs of hundreds of years of history?


I’d like to finish this post by thanking the lovely library team at SEH who very kindly showed us around and shared the fascinating history of the Hall and its libraries with us –  we had a wonderful time!






[2] I think this is my new favourite website…




[6] See more of Bawden’s work here:



Ruth Holliday, Christ Church Library

Hi! My name is Ruth, and I am the new graduate trainee at Christ Church library.

The first time I visited Christ Church, passing under the shadow of the somewhat imposing Tom tower, I was headed for my library graduate trainee interview. It felt great to return a few weeks later under more secured circumstances when I began my role this September.

Photograph of the library at dusk - a yellow glow is coming out from the windows from the lights inside.
The library at dusk

The library at Christ Church is not quite visible from the main quad, but rests through an archway and around a corner in Peckwater Quad. It is the home of countless collections, artefacts, art works – and a surprisingly high number of globes.

Prior to applying for the library graduate trainee role, I completed a degree in English Language and Literature. After graduating I made various forays into art and culture scenes, with stints in a theatre and a photography gallery. The working library at Christ Church (that is, the ground floor of the main library) actually used to be a gallery, until the book collection grew too large and necessitated a tactical relocation of the art works next door to Christ Church’s Picture Gallery.

Several interesting artworks still remain in the working library, however, from paintings to figurines and busts. My time at the inquiry desk, for example, is spent with a rather standoffish colleague in the form of a portrait of Cardinal Wolsey, the founder of Christ Church (then Cardinal College). So far, he has steadfastly avoided eye contact and remains looking off to his left with a distinct primness, but I’m sure he’ll warm to me eventually.

Christ Church’s beautiful library holds the opportunity for endless discovery, and such an atmosphere

A photograph of the Upper Library, a long room with dark wooden shelving and a light ceiling with intricate mouldings.
The Upper Library

has characterised my time here so far. Over the last few weeks I’ve been going through a list of books that a departing Professor acquired for their teaching and studies over the course of their career. My task has been to ascertain what texts from this list the library already has a copy of, and where we might stand to improve our collection. Each book on the list provides a window into a potential obsession. I could tuck in to Andrew Dalby’s Siren Feasts: A History of Food and Gastronomy in Ancient Greece, or perhaps take my chances with Esther Eidinow’s Oracles, Curses and Risk Among the Ancient Greeks. Or maybe, on a drowsier day, muse over William Harris’s Dreams and Experience in Classical Antiquity. These are just a few of the particularly tempting titles I’ve come across on this project so far. Each one plays a part in portraying not just a career, but all the different routes and rabbit holes a subject holds within itself.

Another aspect of library life that I’ve been getting involved with at Christ Church is book processing. As    new books arrive at the library they undergo a baptism    of sorts – steps include cataloguing, covering, stamping and eventually shelving. The book covering, that protects the cover of a paperback with plastic so as to give it a fighting chance of survival out on the shelves and in students rucksacks. It is also nostalgically reminiscent of covering my exercise books when I was at school…

The deliciously orange staircase to the Upper Library


For some hardbacks in Christ Church’s collection, care has to be a little more retroactive. I’ve really enjoyed getting the chance to repair the odd wounded tome with the delightfully named ‘Oxford hollow’. This is essentially a tube fashioned from card that when placed in the spine supports both the spine and the text block without sticking them together. This allows for both strength and flexibility and therefore makes the book less vulnerable to further damage.

I have already experienced so many fascinating aspects of the library world thanks to my lovely colleagues at Christ Church, but know I’ve only just scratched the surface – I’m really looking forward to discovering what the rest of this traineeship has in store!