Happy Birthday, Dostoevsky…

…and a belated welcome to your new home!

Photo of library books related to Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoevsky
Above: A selection of Dostoevsky-related works from the Undergraduate Collection

After my recent experience of assisting in the Taylor Institution Library’s (and the wider University’s) celebration of 700 years of Dante Alighieri’s contribution to literature, philosophy and the arts, another birthday of note from among the literary canon is almost upon us: Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoevsky, the Russian novelist, essayist and journalist, celebrates his 200th birthday on 11 November 2021.

While Italy continues to hold a very special place in my heart, Russia is never far from my thoughts. Thus, an exciting discovery since returning to Oxford and joining the Taylorian has been finding the Russian and Slavonic Collections of the library reunited with the rest of its holdings. When I was last in the city, many Russian texts relevant to my research could be found housed in the Faculty of Medieval and Modern Languages buildings on Wellington Square. Their transfer – along with the rest of the library’s Slavonic holdings – back into the main site means that I’m never far away from a chance to reconnect with this fascinating region – and its literary heritage!

In fact, another key project from my opening months in the new role has been the reclassification of the Slavonic Undergraduate Collection – which includes many classic works of fiction in their original language and English translations – from an old, almost-Library-of-Congress-but-not-quite catalogue system into the more standardised version of this shelfmarking standard. It will bring the Undergraduate Collection in line with both new additions to our Slavonic Research Collection (also housed in the basement) and other languages (and subjects) represented across the library.

Photo of Undergraduate Russian and Slavonic Collection Bookshelves and Basement Office
Above: A View of the Undergraduate Russian and Slavonic Collection and Basement Office

In recent weeks, I’ve been working with one of the senior librarians in this process, Jola Hood, who is working like a labour-prize-worthy Stakhanovite to overcome the disruption of the last couple of years and its delay of the work, and ensure the collection is ready for students to access, as the new academic year begins.

Jola is responsible for re-cataloguing each book with a new shelfmark in Aleph (the University’s current computerised catalogue system) according to Library of Congress conventions. The item then comes to me (or one of my colleagues), ready to have this new identification recorded in the book itself, alongside the new collection reference (“Slav UG / LC” – Slavonic Undergraduate Collection / Library of Congress) in pencil, before crossing out any pre-existing shelf marks and barcodes that pre-date the changeover. You can find images showing the separate stages in this process in the gallery below. This crossing-out of the old record, rather than its complete removal or erasure, is actually an important step in preserving the historical record of each book’s life in the library’s collections. Inevitably, books can become lost, misplaced or misidentified over their lifetime, and it’s useful to maintain this physical record of their past journey through the catalogue should some detective work be needed to bring them back to their proper place on the shelves.

The final step is printing a new spine label with the LC shelfmark and adding an identifying red spot to distinguish the Undergraduate Collection from our Research Collection (which have green spots). With so many languages represented in the library, and the further separation of teaching and research collections, these extra steps are essential to the smooth running of the day-to-day re-shelving process.

All this is to say that, aside from the birthday wishes that Dostoevsky is due, a belated ‘welcome to your new home’ on the shelves of the Taylorian is offered from one former-Siberian exile to another:

С Днем Рождения, Достоевский! Добро пожаловать!

(S Dnem Rozhdeniya, Dostoyevskiy! Dobro pozhalovat’!)


I’m sure that with many of the usual opportunities for current students and researchers to be properly introduced to the holdings of the library being curtailed by lingering pandemic protocols, I’ll be called on to direct them to our basement shelves over the coming weeks. And having now been involved in the process of making sure the right books find their way to their new home – Dostoevsky’s works included – it already feels like one of the areas of the library where I, too, feel most at home already.

Malcolm L. G. Spencer

Graduate Trainee, Taylor Institution Library

Emerging from Pandemic Purgatory

Taylor Institution Library, View from St Giles’
Above: Taylor Institution Library, View from St Giles’

Sadly, for many of us, the last eighteen months have seen the cancellation, curtailment and delay of countless celebrations, including birthdays, holidays, anniversaries and achievements. At the very least, we’ve been forced to relocate those festivities online and connect with family and friends via laptops and phone screens in a kind of digital limbo.

Re-emerging into the real world from this pandemic-induced Purgatory, I recently returned to Oxford, a city that I’d previously called home for many years. My arrival overlapped with many of the restrictions of the last year and a half being (cautiously) rolled back. As the new Graduate Trainee at the Taylor Institution Library (known colloquially as the ‘Taylorian’), my first week saw the steady disappearance of one-way systems, sign-in slots and restricted access for readers to many of the library’s more intimate spaces.

Taylor Institution Library, Aerial View
Above: Taylor Institution Library, Aerial View (2008)

Like the Bodleian Libraries more broadly, many institutions and historical personages have also found their usual cycles of anniversaries and commemorations disrupted by lockdown measures and restrictions on large gatherings. Excitingly, the prospect of more freedom for staff and readers at the University of Oxford has coincided with another cause for celebration: the 700th anniversary of the death of Dante Alighieri (1265–1321), the great Italian poet and philosopher. As a result, the Taylor Institution Library, Weston Library and the Ashmolean Museum have prepared three exhibitions of works from among the libraries’ and museum’s many and varied holdings, which provide visions of, and insights into, the author’s most famous work, the Divine Comedy (Divina Commedia). Works from the Taylorian’s collections are included in the Ashmolean and Weston displays. The Taylorian exhibition, ‘Illustrating Dante’s Divine Comedy’, meanwhile, also draws upon the collections of the Sackler Library, Oxford’s principal research location for the study of visual culture. Alongside my regular duties at the library (with which I’m slowly familiarising myself), I’ve been fortunate enough to join Clare Hills-Nova (Librarian in Charge, Sackler Library, and Subject Librarian for Italian Literature and Language at the Taylorian) and Professor Gervase Rosser, curatorial lead on all three Oxford Dante exhibitions, in their preparations for the display of prints, manuscripts and illustrated books spanning the seven hundred years since Dante’s passing.

Taylor Institution Library, University of Oxford
Above: Taylor Institution Library, University of Oxford (Architect C. R. Cockerell, 1841-45)

The photos provided here offer a window on the range of texts and images that were chosen for the Taylorian exhibition and the process that went into preparing them for public display. I came into that process after Clare and Gervase had agreed on the works to be included and their gathering from the Taylorian’s rare books and manuscript holdings and other library locations was complete. The exhibition handlist includes an introduction to the works on display as well as a list of works they considered for inclusion.

Together, Clare and I spent an afternoon preparing the exhibition space – among the already impressive holdings of the library’s Voltaire Room.

Taylor Institution Library, Voltaire Room
Above: Taylor Institution Library, Voltaire Room (ca. 2010)

A provisional placement of the exhibits according to the chronological layout agreed by Clare and Gervase gave us a sense of how the various prints, manuscripts and books would fit within the display cases.

Working with a number of old and rare editions – including some of the oldest books that I’ve had the opportunity to see first-hand during my time in Oxford – required careful handling and the use of foam rests and ‘snakes’ (long, cotton-wrapped metal ‘beads’ designed to hold open books). Clare has a background in conservation, so provided an experienced eye and guiding hand throughout the process.

Open exhibition display case pictured with box of foam rests
Above: Preparing the display cases

After this initial test-run of the display cases, I was tasked with assisting in the preparation of a bibliography to provide visitors to the exhibition with a comprehensive list of texts on display, and those consulted during the curation process. This not only gave me an excellent opportunity to re-familiarise myself with the Bodleian Libraries’ SOLO (‘Search Oxford Libraries Online’) catalogue, but required some further detective work to collect the full details of some of the more obscure texts included in the exhibition.

Although I’m familiar with this kind of work from my time researching and writing Russian history, and searching for texts catalogued in various forms of transliterated Cyrillic, the preparations for this exhibition included consideration of works in Italian, French and German too. Exploiting the automatic citation tool provided on the SOLO also exposed the potential drawback of relying on technology alone. Each of these languages inevitably has its own bibliographic conventions for the formatting of references (authors, titles, publishing info, etc.), not all of which are captured by auto-generation of citations. Obviously, I still have plenty to learn on that front being based in one of Oxford’s key research centres for modern languages and linguistics!

Open display case with selection of illustrated books
Above: Testing the layout of the exhibits within the display case

The whole process also brought home how inconsistent and incomplete some of the catalogue descriptions are within the Bodleian Libraries’ older collections and more unique items. This is quite the mountain to climb for those librarians faced with such a vast (and ever expanding) number of books, journals, periodicals and other ephemera in every language under the sun.

One particular exhibit of note is shown below:

Title page of Italian edition of Dante’s Divine Comedy dedicated to Empress Elizabeth Petrovna of Russia
Above: A copy of Dante’s Divine Comedy dedicated to Empress Elizabeth Petrovna of Russia (daughter of Peter the Great). Published in Venice, Italy in 1757

It was wonderful to find such a striking connection between the history of Imperial Russia and Dante’s life and work!

The second set of photos below provides a view of the final layout for each display case. Supporting information to be included alongside the works was still being prepared at the time of taking, but a sense of the diversity of images and lasting influence of Dante’s work on artists, writers, print-makers and publishers across the world is evident already.


Students, faculty and staff from across the University are welcome to visit the Taylorian’s exhibition during library opening hours, from the beginning of Michaelmas term through December 2021. The parallel exhibitions marking Dante’s centenary celebrations are on display for a similar period: Ashmolean Museum (17 September 2021 – 9 January 2022) and Weston Library (8 September 2021 – 14 November 2021), which will give everyone interested in the life, history and influence of Dante the opportunity to explore the wider collections of the University.

Further Oxford Dante events, ranging from concerts to film screenings, to lectures and (of course!) at least one book launch celebrating the 700th anniversary are planned for autumn 2021.

Having now had an insight into the complexities involved in preparing, curating and displaying materials from our impressive Dante collections, the chance to come face-to-face with these exhibits sounds like Paradiso itself!

If you want to know more about Dante-related holdings in Oxford, please check out the Taylorian’s earlier blog posts in this regard (linked below):

Listening to Dante: An Audio-visual Afterlife

The Image of Dante, the Divine Comedy and the Visual Arts, Part I

The Image of Dante, the Divine Comedy and the Visual Arts: Part II

Malcolm L. G. Spencer

Graduate Trainee, Taylor Institution Library