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A piece of Bodleian History: Clues from the Stacks

In my first blog, I mentioned the twice-daily deliveries of books from our Book Storage Facility in Swindon to the Old Bodleian site- as well as other Bodleian Libraries.  Something exciting arrived in a recent delivery:

The Yellow Fairy Book (ed. Andrew Lang) was called up from the closed stacks. This was not interesting in itself (although it is a first edition and has a nice cover) until we opened up the book and saw that the last borrower had left their slip in there.

The Yellow Fairy Book, borrowed by J. R. R. Tolkien

That’s right- the J.R.R. Tolkien used this very book! The book mustn’t have been touched for several decades and so the slip has remained in place.

I contacted the Bodleian’s Tolkien Archivist, Catherine McIlwaine, who was able to confirm this. She explained that Tolkien looked at the book ahead of giving his famous Andrew Lang lecture at the University of St Andrews on 8th March 1939. The lecture was published as an essay entitled ‘On Fairy Tales’ in Essays Presented to Charles Williams, alongside contributions by contemporary academics such as C. S. Lewis and Dorothy L Sayers who also went on to have literary success.

Library records show that Tolkien consulted the book, among others, on the 27th February 1939. He was obviously working hard, preparing for the lecture, just ten days prior to delivering it (this makes me feel less guilty about all those essays hastily put together days before they were due!).

Rare Books and Manuscripts Reading room where I consulted the Bodleian Library’s Records

I went to Weston Library, which houses the University’s Special Collections, to look at the library records and see what else Tolkien looked at on the day. At the time Tolkien visited the library, the basement space underneath the Radcliffe Camera was a closed stack where only staff were allowed. Librarians would fetch any books stored there for readers to consult in the reading rooms. (The area is now called the Gladstone Link and is open to readers to use as a study space and to find books on the shelves themselves.)

MS. Library Records b. 618  ‘Camera Basement and Underground Bookstore Volumes fetched for Bodleian Readers’ & the inside of the book where you can see Tolkien’s name was recorded. The shelf mark ‘93 e.71’ is ‘The Yellow Fairy Book’.

The librarians recorded number of items requested each day, the time each book was requested, the shelf mark of the book, name of the reader and the seat number where they were sitting. Books were then fetched and delivered to the desk. I checked on our catalogue to see what items the shelf marks referred to.

At 10:30am Tolkien requested to see:
The Olive Fairy Book, ed. by A. Lang (1907)
The Book of Dreams and Ghosts, by A. Lang (1897)
The Lilac Fairy Book, ed. by A. Lang (1910)
The Green Fairy Book, ed. by A. Lang (1892)
Favourite Fairy Tales (Fairy tales retold) 1907
The Brown Fairy Book, ed. by A. Lang (1904)
The Crimson Fairy Book, ed. by A. Lang (1903)
The Violet Fairy Book, ed. by A. Lang (1901)
The Yellow Fairy Book, ed. by A. Lang (1894)

Later on, at 11:30am, he requested:
Fairy Gold, a book of old English Fairy Tales chosen by Ernest Rhys (1907)
The Secret Commonwealth of Elves, Fauns and Fairies (compiled in 1893) by Robert Kirk
Essays in Little by A. Lang (1891)
Perrault’s Popular Tales, ed. by A. Lang (1888)
The Magic Ring, and other stories from the Yellow and Crimson Fairy Books, ed. by A. Lang (1906)
English Fairy and other folk tales, selected and edited by Edwin Sidney Hartland (1893)

As well as for use in his upcoming lecture, the stories in these books would no doubt have inspired Tolkien with his own fiction. The slip we found was left in the book at the beginning of The Dragon of the North a story about a courageous youth who defeats a man-eating dragon. He manages this feat with a magic ring, stolen from a witch maiden. Amongst many of its powers, if placed on the third finger of the left hand, it turns the wearer invisible. In the end, the ring is too powerful, and the youth learns that ‘ill-gotten gains never prosper’ when the witch retrieves the ring and punishes him for his deception. There is a eucatastrophe- the term Tolkien coined to describe happy endings in Fairy Tales- as the youth is rescued and made king.

It looks like Tolkien must have returned to consult The Yellow Fairy Book at least once more, as the slip suggests he sat in seat 23 of the Upper Reading Room- whereas the records from the 27th February state seat 22. He obviously liked that particular area of the reading room (I must say, it has a nice view of the Radcliffe Camera through the window!)

Here’s me, sitting in seat 23 in the Upper Reading Room, pretending to be Tolkien!

It was pretty thrilling to open up the book and find the Tolkien slip; and interesting to trace his steps and see what other books he used, during the period when he would have been writing Lord of the Rings. It makes him feel more real, somehow, to know that he used the library just like us!
It also makes me excited for the upcoming exhibition, curated by Catherine McIlwaine, entitled Tolkien: Beyond Middle Earth which will open at the Weston Library in June 2018.

George White and Jennifer Bladen-Hovell at Reader Services

The Old Bodleian Library lit up as part of Night of Heritage Light 29-09-2017 (Photograph by George White)

Hello, we are George and Jennifer and we’re the two Graduate Trainees who are based at Reader Services in the Old Bodleian Library this year. We thought we’d do a joint blog so we don’t repeat any information. We’ve been working here a month, which has flown by. As with any new job, there is an awful lot to learn and we have attended a fair few training sessions already, to get us up and running with the library systems. Things are starting to make a bit of sense now – but we are still relying on our very supportive team of colleagues to help us out with the more complicated reader enquiries. Term starts next week, so the new students are starting to descend – wish us luck over these next few weeks of chaos!

George says: Before my traineeship started, I studied English Literature and History at Sheffield University – where I spent a lot of time reading in the library! After graduating, I worked in public libraries for a few years- in Rochdale, where I grew up. I loved uni and working in my local library, so working at an academic library seems like the perfect place for me. I feel especially lucky to be working in one as beautiful as the Bodleian (I keep finding excuses to visit Duke Humfrey’s, the oldest part of the building, which is particularly lovely!).

Jennifer says: Prior to becoming a trainee, I completed an MA (Medieval History) and BA (History) at the University of York. After graduating, I worked in retail for a while, alongside volunteering in my local library and applying to a range of Graduate Trainee Schemes. I’m really looking forward to my year in Oxford, and at the Bodleian specifically, with the range of activities organised for us and the responsibilities I’ll have.

The Bodleian Library is one of the oldest libraries in the Europe; it was first opened in 1620, although it includes a much earlier library (Duke Humfrey’s Library) which dates to the 15th Century. The library has a long-standing tradition that none of its books are lent to readers – even to royalty. Charles I was apparently refused permission to borrow one – it’s good to mention this to readers, should they complain! The Bodleian is a Legal Deposit Library, which means we’re entitled to a copy of every book published in Britain. As you can imagine, this means we have an awful lot of books (around 12 million, last time we counted…) so the vast majority are housed at our Book Storage Facility in Swindon. Books can be ordered in by readers and will likely arrive the next day. As a result, staff are kept busy with twice daily deliveries from Swindon.

George in very fetching (i.e. mandatory) Hi Vis whilst doing the van delivery

Van delivering books to the Old Schools Quad

In addition to being a working academic library, the Old Bodleian is also a tourist attraction; running daily tours of the Divinity School and Duke Humfrey’s Library. It is also, occasionally, a film set. Duke Humfrey’s Library was used as Hogwarts Library in the Harry Potter films. It holds special collections which may be looked at, but which must be consulted in the Special Collections reading rooms over at the Weston Library. These books are alarmed and there is a member of the security team in the library at all times. Although they don’t actually scream at you, these books are about as close as you’re going to get to the Restricted Section at Hogwarts.

As Graduate Trainees, we float between the several teams that ensure that the library functions. So far, this has included:
• Stints on the Proscholium (fancy Oxford term for reception) which has involved a lot of nice conversations with tourists and directing nervous-looking undergrads and postgrads around the maze that is the Old Bodleian.
• Covering the Main Enquiry Desk, answering telephone calls and email enquiries (these vary greatly!)
• Processing deliveries from the BSF.
• Re-shelving items used by our readers (there are lots of classification schemes used it the Old Bodleian, just to keep us on our toes!)
• And, perhaps the most useful skill in a librarian’s repertoire, helping readers connect to the library’s Wi-Fi.

Another great aspect of the Bodleian’s Library Graduate Trainee scheme is that we’ve started the job at the same time as 23 other trainees. It’s nice to be part of this network and find people with similar interests- especially having just moved to a new city, where we don’t know many people. We expect our weekly training sessions, will soon become a highlight of each week (especially if we keep up the tradition of heading to the local pub afterwards… speaking of which, we’ll say goodbye for now.)