A Day in the Life at the Old Bodleian

Opening (8.42-9): LGL

Like Alice’s over at the Rad Cam, my day begins at 8.42 precisely. This week, I have been allocated to open the Lower Gladstone Link, turning on the computers and the printer (PCAS machine). Rather too often, one of the pesky History Faculty team get here before we do despite the fact that the Lower part of the link contains almost exclusively Old Bodleian books and is part of our opening rota! As much as I might want it to be in these instances, my work is, unfortunately, not done, with the LGL always seeming to have quite a bit of reshelving to do each morning. Perhaps it’s the fact it’s a little tucked away, perhaps it’s that it closes half-an-hour earlier than the rest of the library, or perhaps it’s due to the large number of book scans it seems to generate, but I quite often don’t make it through the whole replacing trolley before my 9am shift.

This subterranean segment of the Old Bodleian (named after nineteenth-century Liberal Prime Minister William Ewart Gladstone who designed its distinctive rolling metal stacks when this was a staff-only, closed-stack space) also contains two shelfmarks endemic to it, and notoriously difficult to understand or explain (which I would, no doubt, fail to do adequately if I tried now): the “M” shelfmark containing all different types of Humanities material categorised by size and the year they entered our catalogue; and the “Nicholson” sequence named after a nineteenth-century Bodley’s librarian who designed it, presumably as a nasty trick to confuse readers for at least the next century-and-a-half. All I will say is that each digit after the first in the first part of the call number clarifies the first, so 3265 e. 46 is between 326 e. 567 and 327 e. 1308, not after both. And look out for the letter in between; despite being in the middle, this is the first way the books are classified so you won’t find a “d” and an “e” next to each other!


Three wooden desks with plastic screens sit next to a large window. The desks are decorated with tinsel. Behind the desks is a wall with built in bookshelves, two of the shelves also have tinsel stars.
The Main Enquiry Desk at the Bodleian decorated for Christmas.


MED (9-12):

Well, enough of boring you with shelfmark explanations that took me weeks of hands-on practice to get my head around! Every Monday, Wednesday and Friday morning I help out on the Main Enquiry Desk (MED) which serves both as the first point-of-call for in-person enquiries about the Old Bodleian and as the place where all emails sent to the Reader Services address, regarding all of the Bodleian libraries, end up and our answered. I’ll head up there in the Lower Reading Room just before opening time at 9am on these days, help out with clearing the off-site books whose loans have expired (lapsed) from Lower’s Self-Collect and check the inbox. This will usually consist mainly of questions regarding access to the library, advance off-site book requests and technical issues. Updating myself with the latest emails landing in the junk folder can also be an entertaining way to start the day!

Today, after an extended correspondence, I am expecting a visit from television producer who has come to view past issues of University of Oxford student newspapers looking for information regarding a certain former PM who studied here (like all other university-educated Prime Ministers since the Second World War except for Gordon Brown). Much to my disappointment, and despite asking if I would be onsite to help, the producer doesn’t come to see me. I thought, perhaps, I might be interviewed for the documentary with a short video of the “librarian” and his views on said Prime Minister an invaluable contribution. But, alas, it was not be and my five minutes of fame are delayed to some other occasion.

Still, my morning on the MED did involve researching the works of amateur botanist and early photographer Anna Atkins (1799-1872) after an enquiry by an undoubtedly precocious Year 9 school student. Atkins is best known for her 1843 book Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions, reputed to be the first published book illustrated with photographs and making her possibly the earliest female photographer in history. Though these facts are impressive, the prints themselves which she produced are even more so in the beautiful simplicity of the process used to achieve them and the beauty of the colour and pattern of the end result. Invented only a year earlier by a friend of hers, this is how the New York Public Library, which holds one of the extant copies of British Algae, describes the process of cyanotype:

“Herschel… discovered that colorless, water-soluble iron salts, when exposed to sunlight, form the compound known as Prussian Blue; unexposed areas remain unaffected and the salt rinses away in plain water, leaving a blue ‘negative’ image. Inexpensive and easy to use, the blueprinting process, or cyanotype, is familiar today as an artists’ medium as well as a popular children’s pastime…”

And so my morning, waiting for a brush with stardom that never arrived, was lightened by looking through the NYPL’s digitised, open access version of these cyanotypes, seeming to foreshadow the paintings of Yves Klein and Henri Matisse’s cut-outs in their brilliant, if incidental, use of the colour blue.



Lunch (12-1.30):

Finishing at the Old Bodleian at 12 for early lunch, I wolfed down my sandwich in expectation for a bit of a wander round town before the walk up to the Oxford Brookes Headington campus for this week’s training session. Deciding that a trip to the charity shops of Jericho might be a bit ambitious in the time I had, I opted instead for a quick jaunt to the Oxfam on Broad Street which, despite being the first and oldest branch in the world, I had always found rather disappointing. I was rewarded today though with some bargain vinyl to add to my collection and I started my journey up Headington Hill with a jaunty spring in my step while I chatted to my artist sister on the phone about the Atkins cyanotypes.


A big glass fronted building stretches up four stories. There is an open section for the front door with the words "John Henry Brookes Building" written next to it in large white letters. Above the main door a large metal section extends out from the main building formin an arch perpendicular to the entrance.
The front entrance to the John Henry Brookes Building


Trip to Brookes (1.30-4.30):

I then arrived at Brookes after the slightly-strenuous climb in time for our tour of the library kicking off today’s training. My first impression was that it could hardly have been more different than the Old Bodleian, mainly in its attitude towards readers which also informs its architectural style and physical layout. Throughout the afternoon, whether admiring its individual and group-study spaces, or learning about staff’s marketing initiatives, teaching, and reading list organisation, I was struck by how the student experience of using the library informed pretty much everything the librarians did. Although the Bodleian clearly must cater to a far larger number of academics and external researchers, contains an almost-infinitely greater number and variety of books, and appeals to those with a taste for the gothic over the metallic, I would say the University of Oxford as a whole has a lot to learn from Brookes in its emphasis on the importance of pedagogy as an indispensable discipline for all its lecturers and academic librarians. As I said, the physical space, set over six floors, was designed for comfortable, relaxed study with both quiet and group discussion areas and rooms while there were also several self-service borrowing machines spread throughout. From my perspective as a former Master’s student at St Antony’s College, Brookes was much more proactive too in using posters and social media to get students engaged and informed about the library while also pushing for lecturers to make their reading lists available through the university’s online platform. Subject librarians (in Oxford’s terminology) or Academic liaisons (in Brookes’s) also made sure they met students in lectures, and one-on-ones at dissertation level, to explain the different resources on offer and how to use and access them.


Rows of white shelves extend down the left-hand side of a corridor that ends in a glass window looking outside. Along the right wall desks and chairs stand empty. Just before the window at the end of the corridor one person sits at another desk.
The Brookes Library


We had the chance too to visit the Special Collections part of the library, held in the basement, of course. Rather than medieval manuscripts and government files, however, their archives were devoted in part to collections around food and drink. These included the late Antonio Carluccio’s library, Ken Hom’s “golden” wok made to celebrate the sale of one million units and, most excitingly and tantalisingly for me, only part way through Dry January, the collections of the National Brewing Library. My appetite somewhat sated by the acquisition of a commemorative beer mat, we ventured back out to the rest of the library. Alice had very kindly invited us all round to her nearby flat for coffee and a chat afterwards where we then lingered for an hour or two before venturing back out to the depressing January drizzle and, eventually, home.

Database Spotlight: Kanopy

The word "Kanopy" is written in white in an all lowercase serif font on a black background.
The Kanopy logo

One of the characters in Wong Kar-wai’s 2000 motion-picture masterpiece In the Mood for Love tells us that, “In the old days, if someone had a secret they didn’t want to share… They went up a mountain, found a tree, carved a hole in it, and whispered the secret into the hole. Then they covered it with mud. And left the secret there forever”. While one of the many poignant moments from a heart-breaking film, the libraries of Oxford have now very much entered the modern day and are committed to sharing as much as we can about the myriad real and virtual secrets we hold in our collections. For the next instalment of the Graduate Trainee blog’s “Database Spotlight” series, I would like to showcase the streaming platform Kanopy.

Accessible under “Databases A-Z” on the “Useful Links” section of the SOLO homepage, Kanopy is “dedicated to thoughtful and thought-provoking films… that foster learning and conversation”, providing access to a wide array of feature films, short works and educational documentaries. In actual fact, their raison d’être is broad enough that we can enjoy many different styles of content, some of which I will highlight here. Though I first came across Kanopy around three years ago as an undergraduate student at SOAS, University of London which also subscribed, the Bodleian Libraries has only this autumn provided access so I believe this will be an unheard-of resource for most Oxford students and staff (the institutional Single Sign-On login is required) which needs promoting!


A black and white image of Tarkovsky, a man with light skin, short dark hair and a moustache. He points to the camera and stares at something just behind the viewer. He wears a patterned scarf around his neck.
Legendary Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky


One of the first films I came across on the platform was the aforementioned In the Mood for Love, now widely considered one of the greatest films of the twenty-first century exemplifying both Wong Kar-wai’s distinctive lush, colourful visual style and subtle storytelling in its presentation of the impossible love affair between the film’s two married protagonists. Most of the films included on Kanopy belong more to the ‘traditional’ canon of classic films, however. Though filmed in the 1970s Soviet Union and set in a distant dystopian future, legendary director Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris (remade in 2002 and starring George Clooney) centres around a similarly-impossible love story with the science-fiction and philosophical themes much more in the background. French filmmaker Chris Marker’s 1962 short film La Jetée also combines a fated romance with darker, denser contemplations on the Cold War and would be of interest to fans of the 1995 Terry Gilliam Hollywood remake 12 Monkeys, echoing and expanding on many scenes of the earlier work and featuring outstanding performances by Bruce Willis, Brad Pitt and Christopher Plummer.

In contrast, Tarkovksy’s other films, like Stalker, Andrei Rublev and Mirror would appeal to audiences more interested in the philosophical and existential themes and preoccupations of the director as he struggled continuously with the impositions placed on artistic freedom in the later years of the USSR. For others interested in the history of Russian cinema, Kanopy has selected Sergei Eisenstein’s epics Battleship Potemkin, Ivan the Terrible and Alexander Nevsky as integral instances of its must-see works for Film Studies students.




By far the most complete genre collection I would say Kanopy has selected would be Hollywood Film Noir, running from its origins in the 1930s and ‘40s to revisionist and complex 1970s’ “New Hollywood” offerings. Particular recommendations would be the definitive 1944 noir Double Indemnity directed by Billy Wilder, well known for his comedies Some Like It Hot and The Apartment but really an all-rounder of the old and best type, together with the quite comical Suddenly! worth watching for Frank Sinatra’s charismatic performance. Of the later noirs, The Killing of a Chinese Bookie would stand out to those attracted to the genre’s seedier side and to its cult status as part of actor/director John Cassavetes’ canon. And, on that note, fans of his would be very much interested in his performance alongside Peter Falk (AKA Lieutenant Columbo) in Mikey and Nicky who also stars in Cassevetes’ directorial magnum opus, A Woman under the Influence.




As you can see, for the one who is willing to have a good hunt through a fair few less-desirable offerings, Kanopy presents a veritable treasure trove for any cinephile. And I haven’t even mentioned that you can find both parts I and II of The Godfather!


Charlie Ough, Bodleian Old Library

A view of St Aldates street on a misty grey morning with Christchurch College's Tom Tower appearing through the mist and a cyclist on the street ahead.
A misty walk to work past Christ Church College.

Hello, my name is Charlie Ough (pronounced “Oh”) and I started just a little more than a month ago now as the new Graduate Trainee at the Old Bodleian Library, the building composed of the fifteenth-century Divinity School and Duke Humfrey’s reading room together with the seventeenth-century Quad connected to the Radcliffe Camera via the Gladstone Link. Though I was a Master’s student at St Antony’s College up until I started the traineeship (handing in my dissertation less than 24 hours before my first day!), I have only just gotten to know my way around this central complex of Oxford’s Bodleian Libraries with the particular help of Alice at the Rad Cam. Previously, I could count with ease on just one hand the number of times I had visited during my year’s study!

I also did not have any experience of working in libraries or information management before I started. However, the time I have spent studying and researching in libraries and archives during my undergraduate degree at SOAS, University of London and Master’s in Modern Middle Eastern Studies here at Oxford really got me interested in finding out what goes on on the other side behind the now-ubiquitous plastic screens! After finishing my BA in History shortly after the first coronavirus wave in the summer of 2020, I spent over a year back in Devon working at the café of the Donkey Sanctuary just outside my home town of Sidmouth and then at a pub in Oxford alongside my studies. This experience of customer service with some of the most difficult punters out there (drunks, dogs, and donkeys) means I’ve very quickly come to enjoy helping readers at the Bodleian despite my lack of formal knowledge of the building itself and profession more widely.

The front entrance to the Bodleian Old Library which has beautiful ornate masonry and a statue of the Earl of Pembroke in front of it.
The “proscholium” or main entrance to the Old Bod.

One of my favourite duties so far has to be working at the Enquiry Desk on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday mornings with Alan and Morwenna. This desk is always staffed during the Old Bodleian’s opening hours and serves, from its convenient location by the main entrance to the Lower Reading Room, as the first point of contact for all email and telephone enquiries sent to the Bodleian Libraries. While helping readers reset passwords and find books, I have the opportunity to track down obscure texts, find and present information about medieval representations of rats and photographs of 1930s’ Chad Valley board games, and iron-out irregularities in our catalogue all the while chatting with my colleagues about our weekends, Cary Grant’s suits and the latest bizarre and apocalyptic junk mail we’ve received!

Aside from that, the only other main activity I have been tasked with that Alice hasn’t already mentioned is investigating some of the oddities in the classification of the collected primary documents and local history material in the oldest part of the Old Bod, the Duke Humfrey’s Reading Room. Though it can be frustrating to try to understand why volumes 4, 6 and 19 of the List & Index Society Series (I assure you as exciting as the name suggests!) were sent to our offsite storage facility in Swindon when all the other volumes are on the Open Shelves, requesting items up from the closed stack and realising you have solved at least a piece of the puzzle can be rather rewarding! As rewarding as reading the editor’s apologist defence of the tradition of feudalism in the 2003 edition of Burke’s Landed Gentry is entertaining, unsurprising, and deeply worrying all at once!

In the months ahead, I’m looking forward to our Trainee trip to the storage facility in Swindon and to giving more tours for new undergraduate students which I have thoroughly enjoyed and also discovered as a brilliant way of forcing myself to memorise and retain a lot of the diffuse information and advice I have received over the past month. If anyone reading this comes on one of my tours, or simply sees me around the library, please do come up to ask any questions you have which I’ll be more than happy to answer or pass on to the veritably-omniscient Alan! You might also see me in the evenings or weekends working the occasional shift at Oxford’s oldest pub, the Bear Inn off the High Street, though do not perhaps expect me to be quite as polite!

A view of the Bodleian Old Library tower with a blue sky behind it and sun reflecting off the windows. The right-hand walls throw shade across the base of the tower.
The tower at the Bodleian Library