What’s in a library? “Information” is perhaps the most exhaustive answer to that question. But what counts as information, and who decides? Even as library trainees, especially in a digital age, we might be tempted to think of the words on the page as rather abstract concepts, rather than of their shape, the page that carries them, the material book that preserves them, or any of the ways in which the physical material of library and archive collections – paper, pictures, binding, type – can be meaningfully shaped. These, however, are important things, and not only for the archivist. On this blog, we like to think about questions like this, and highlight the library talks and events that suggest them. Because that is another thing that can be in a library: discussion, the library as a space for figuring out its own role, the nature of books, images and text, and the ways they interact with and are shaped by their social context. A library is anything but silent. Just like a book is anything but silent, and its very materiality can itself serve as a medium for relevant artistic expression. More than that: as Tia Blassingame argued at the Weston Library this week, the artist book – art in the form of the book – can serve as a ‘vehicle for social change and racial unity’.
Tia Blassingame, an example of whose work is featured in the new Weston Library exhibition Alphabets Alive!, is a book artist, printmaker, educator, Associate Professor at Scripps College, current printer in residence at the Bodleian Bibliographical Press, and founder of the Book/Print Artist/Scholar of Color Collective. Her talk, ‘We Rise (Together): Taking and Making Space for BIPOC Book Arts Creatives, Cultures, and Histories’ (part of the We Are Our History Conversations at the Bodleian), presented the work of the Collective in advocating for and forging collaborations between BIPOC/Global Majority book artists and scholars, illustrated by a wealth of wonderful photographs. Its audience was introduced to, among many other works and artists, the giant pop-up books of Colette Fu celebrating ethnic minorities in China, the traditional handmade Korean paper (Hanji) dresses of Aimee Lee, Colette Gaiter‘s handcrafted editions of Black Panther artist Emory Douglas’ writing, and the woven book art of Skye Tafoya. It was interesting to see how books can evoke meaning not only in the words and information that they contain, but in their actual physical composition, like Sun Young Kang’s work In Between Presence and Absence, I. And fascinating questions were asked: what qualifies as paper, for instance, and why? What if we remove those qualifiers, and see links between fibre-working traditions from Hawaii to Korea? What if quilting might be regarded as a very meaningful African American paper making tradition?
Amidst all her examples, from paper cast sculptures over Japanese woodblock printing to miniature illumination and experiments in bookbinding, Tia Blassingame was pointedly sparse in talking about her own work in letterpress and print. Instead, she practised the solidarity at the heart of the Collective’s purpose of what she called taking and sharing space, through project grants, artist residencies, and celebrating members’ work. At the same time, she also noted the importance of established institutions’ (like the Bodleian) and individuals’ allyship – making space, through fundraising assistance, commissions, and more thoughtfulness in giving space to artists and scholars. A thought-provoking talk, that opened up to us the social aspects of book arts, as well as the material side of library information, and how the library can be a venue for discussing and creatively thinking about both.
As a final goodbye from the Trainees of the year 22-23 we thought we’d share with you a look at some of the trainee projects which were presented at the showcase this year! These descriptions, each written by another trainee who viewed the original presentation, are designed to give you a flavour of what our year with the Bodleian and College libraries have been like.
Jenna Ilett: Creating an interactive map of the Nizami Ganjavi Library
By Alice S
Kicking off our Trainee showcase with a bang, Jenna’s presentation hit all the right buttons. With an amusing title and appropriately themed presentation, Jenna talked us through the ins and outs of coding an interactive map, complete with hoverable shelfmark labels!
The inspiration for this project came from a slew of wayfinding projects that have been taking place across the ‘Section 3’ Libraries (which include the Taylor, The Art Archelogy and Ancient World and the Nizami Ganjavi libraries) as well as Jenna’s own background in tech thanks to a GCSE in Computer Science and a module in Web Design during her undergraduate degree.
Using Inkscape, Jenna made the underlying vector graphic for the map itself, working off a previous design, but keeping the styling consistent with maps currently available at the AAAW Library. She used the feedback she received to refine her design before moving on to the coding itself.
Remaining humble throughout, Jenna also treated us to an inside look at her thought processes in the form of increasingly anxious WhatsApp messages she had sent about her project to friends and colleagues, as well as a demonstration of a particular bug that caused her map to flip itself over when zoomed out, both of which earned a hearty chuckle from the audience. But with the amount of skilled work Jenna has put in already, the audience and I are in no doubt that Jenna will soon have the kinks worked out, and the Nizami Ganjavi Library will have a swanky new interactive map!
The most interesting thing I learnt from Jenna’s presentation would probably have to be the benefits of scalable vector graphics. As someone who has all too often fallen foul of the perils of trying to resize images only to be left with a grainy and illegible mess, it’s great to know that using a vector graphic will allow me to scale an image to any size my heart could desire. Through the magic of mathematical graphing it preserves the shape and position of a line so that it can be viewed at any scale. Thanks to Jenna for a fabulous presentation and enlightening me to the wonders of vector graphics!
Alice Zamboni: Audio-visual archive of former Prime Minister Edward Heath
The second presentation of the day came from Alice Zamboni, one of the two Digital Archivist trainees based for two years with the Special Collections team at the Weston Library. Alice’s project was concerned with adding the audio-visual material donated by former Conservative Prime Minister Edward (Ted) Heath to our catalogue.
As with most of his predecessors and successors in the role of Prime Minister since the Second World War, Ted Heath began his political involvement at Oxford, studying PPE at Balliol College and winning the Presidency of the Oxford Union in 1937. Therefore, it is no surprise that the Bodleian chose to purchase his personal archive in 2011 to add to its collection. Covering mainly the period from the mid-1970s to the early 2000s, Alice related how many of the cassettes and tape reels held information on music and yacht racing connected to the love of European culture which inspired Heath’s drive – and eventual success – to gain admission for the UK in the European Community in 1973.
Most of the material was held in analogue formats so Alice’s first step before cataloguing was to convert them into digital MP3 files. Then, one of the main challenges she faced was that the sheer scale of the material (481 tapes some up to ninety minutes long) meant that not every recording could be listened to in its entirety. An educated assessment on the contents, and how it should be catalogued, had to be made from listening to a portion of each. This allowed some of the material, such as recordings made from radio programmes, to be weeded out of the collection.
Perhaps the most interested thing I learned from Alice’s talk was the broad scope of Heath’s recordings, including some in foreign languages. One interestingly was in Mandarin Chinese, and of a children’s programme on learning languages.
As with most of the trainee projects, there is always more to be done after the showcase and Alice’s next main step is to place the original tapes back into boxes according to how she has catalogued them. An even longer-term plan for ensuring that the archive can be opened to researchers is acquiring the rights for many tapes recorded from musical recitals, for instance, where the copyright is owned by the composer or conductor rather than Heath himself.
Miranda Scarlata: Web archiving and the invasion of Ukraine.
Although the phrase ‘once it’s on the internet, it’s there forever,’ is common, Miranda’s talk highlighted the ephemeral and volatile nature of websites, and the importance of capturing and preserving information from these sites.
Although it would be impossible to capture every single website in existence, there are times when the digital archivists undertake a rapid response project – for example capturing information on Covid-19, or the ongoing war in Ukraine – the latter being the focus of Miranda’s talk.
Soon after the Russian invasion of Ukraine (on the 24th of January 2022), the Digital Archivist team launched a rapid response project to preserve information regarding Ukrainian life and culture, as well as the war itself, which was at risk of being lost. A campaign was launched that asked people to nominate websites that fit certain criteria.
Miranda discussed some of the challenges involved in a project like this. Although 53 sites were nominated, only 21 were deemed viable. Twitter accounts of Ukrainian citizens were also included, and additional news, cultural and war specific sites were crawled, leading to a total of 72 sites. There is a limit on how many sites can be preserved due to the strict data budget, which means that difficult decisions had to be made about what to prioritise. Another added level of complexity was the limited Ukrainian and Russian language skills within the department, which made it difficult to determine types of content and assign metadata tags.
The normal processes when archiving websites involves contacting site owners to obtain permission before beginning the capturing process, but due to the high risk of information loss, site owners were contacted after capturing the sites to gain permission for publication. With the help of a Ukrainian and Russian speaking intern, site owners were contacted, but there was an understandable lack of response given that many of the site owners would have been directly impacted by the war.
Miranda’s talk was a fascinating insight into the world of digital archiving and the challenges within, particularly with the more arduous and intricate rapid response projects, which are hugely important when it comes to capturing important events as they are happening.
The most interesting thing I learnt was that digital archiving involves capturing a functional version of the site that could continue to exist even if the original host site was removed, rather than a static capture, which leads to added complexity when it comes to external links and embedded content.
Caitlín Kane: Maleficia: Curating a public exhibition at New College Library
By Alice Z
In her talk on the exhibition that she undertook as her trainee project, Caitlín focused on her experience of organising and curating the exhibition of rare books and manuscripts from the collection at New College. A chance encounter with the New College copy of Malleus Maleficarum (The Hammer of Witches), a well-known 15th century treatise about witchcraft, sparked in Caitlin the idea of organising a display of special collections about magic, witchcraft, and astrology.
The promotional material devised by Caitlín to advertise the exhibition on social media and in print was what stood out most for its originality and it is clearly something that contributed to making the exhibition a success in terms of visitor numbers. I think the most interesting thing I learned from her talk was how you can create moving graphics using services such as Canva and how these can be used on social media to promote events such as exhibitions.
Caitlín reflected on some of the logistical challenges of organising this kind of collection-focused public engagement event, such as the selection of material and collection interpretation. For one thing, identifying relevant material from New College’s collection of manuscripts was more difficult in the absence of an online catalogue. Without the benefits of a neatly catalogued SOLO record to guide her, she was required to rely on previous staff members’ handlists as well as serendipitous browsing of New College’s rare books shelves.
Another aspect of the exhibition she touched upon was the interpretation of the materials. It was important for the labels accompanying the items on display to strike the right balance between content and context. Providing insights into the objects themselves was key, especially as many were texts written in Latin, but so was giving visitors enough background on the early modern philosophical and theological debates underpinning witchcraft.
Caitlin’s work clearly resulted in a fascinating and well-attended exhibition, and she was able to make great advances in increasing awareness of some of the amazing collections held by her library.
Abby Evans: Professor Napier and the English Faculty Library
Abby’s trainee project concerned a fascinating collection of dissertations and offprints gathered by Professor Arthur Napier, a philologist and Professor at Merton College in 1885. Held by the English faculty library, this collection consists of 92 boxes
containing 1058 items that needed to be reassessed ahead of the library’s move to the new Schwarzman centre for the Humanities in 2025.
Her project showcased the speedy decisions and minute details that must be considered when working at a library as she had only two weeks to determine the content of the collection and assess what material was worthy of making the move to the new building. The process required lots of skimming through documents to understand their content, the deciphering of previous systems from librarians past, and a strong head for organisation!
The collection itself was also able to provide some insight into how the English Faculty used to operate. Many of the materials were annotated with small markings and references to an older organization involving different box numbers and labels.
The collection also surprisingly held works from female authors – a rarity for the time – but their work was clearly well-enough regarded that Professor Napier saw the benefit in collecting and preserving it in his collection.
The most interesting insight the Napier collection provided however is perhaps its demonstration of the of the workings of Royal Mail years gone by. The collection contained several items which bore evidence of travelling through the UK postal system, some which were simply folded up with the address written on the back – no envelope required! Additionally, a simple name and general neighbourhood were enough to get the letter to its intended location, postcodes clearly had yet to hit it off!
Overall, Abby’s talk demonstrated the myriad of small and large details that must be considered when continually maintaining library collections. And the efficiency with which she was able to work through the collection is an example to us all!
Morgan Ashby-Crane: Making Collections More Visible: Displays and Data Cleanup
At the SSL, Morgan embarked on a mission to improve the visibility of collections, both in making items easier to locate within the library system, and in highlighting diverse voices in the collections.
During awareness months throughout the year they curated book displays which allowed them to improve the circulation and physical accessibility of collections such as those for Black and LGBTQ+ History. For Black History Month, they asked subject librarians to recommend a book with an accompanying caption. Morgan then curated the display, and added QR codes linked to e-resources that the subject librarians recommended. They then collated these into a post on the SSL blog to reach those who couldn’t access the display physically.
For LGBT+ History month, Morgan organised another pop-up display, but this time the focus was on recommendations from readers in previous years. One of the most interesting ideas I gleaned from Morgan’s presentation was their approach in designing new recommendation slips for readers to fill in and recommend their own books to make sure the displays stayed relevant to reader interests. As books were borrowed and recommendation slips filled in, Morgan was able to track the circulation of items and provide evidence of engagement.
Another way in which Morgan improved accessibility to the collections was in cleaning up data on Aleph, our old library system. Over the past few months, the trainees have been busy helping our libraries prepare for the changeover to a new library system, Alma. With thousands of records being transferred across, a lot of data clean-up has been required to make sure records display correctly in the new system.
Some outdated process statuses, such as AM (Apply Staff – Music), can be left attached to records long after they fall out of use. Other books, that are on the shelves to be loaned, can be left marked as BD (At bindery). To single out any irregularities, Morgan made a collection code report to see if any items stood out as unusual. When items appeared under unusual process statuses, Morgan investigated them further to see if their statuses needed changing.
Similarly, some items without shelfmarks had slipped under the radar, and Morgan set about adding them back to the books’ holdings records. They worked backwards from potential Library of Congress classifications to figure out where the books might be on the shelves and, once they’d identified the physical shelfmark, restored it to the item’s holdings record. These data cleanup tasks will make it easier both for readers in locating the items they need and will help the collections transition smoothly from Aleph to Alma.
Ruth Holliday: Investigating the Christ Church Library Donors: Research and rabbit holes
For her presentation, Ruth discussed her project to research donors to Christ Church’s ‘New Library’, with a particular focus on their links to slavery. The incongruously named New Library was constructed between 1717 and 1772, and over 300 benefactors contributed to the project! Given the time constraints involved, in this presentation Ruth chose to focus on just three:
The first donor Ruth spoke about was Noel Broxholme, a physician and an alumnus of Christ Church, who during his time there was one of the first recipients of the Radcliffe travelling fellowship. This was a grant established by Dr John Radcliffe (a rather omnipresent figure in Oxford) that required medical students to spend years studying medicine in a foreign country. Ruth was able to establish that at one time Doctor Broxholme was paid for his services not in cash, but instead in ‘Mississippi stock’. As one might be able to deduce from the name, this was effectively shares in companies who had strong ties to the slave trade.
The next donor Ruth discussed was George Smallridge, Bishop of Bristol. Again, we have a man whose profession is seemingly at odds with involvement in the trade of human lives. However, as part of his donation for the foundation of the new library he included two lottery tickets. One of the prize options for that lottery was South Sea Stock – more shares with ties to the slave trade. It has proven difficult to determine whether the tickets he donated were, in fact, winning tickets, or whether they were ever cashed in, but once again the foundation of this library has found itself fiscally linked to slavery.
The final donor to feature in Ruth’s presentation was Charles Doulgas, 3rd Duke of Queensbury, whose financial investments included shares in the British Linen Company. Whilst British linen does not ostensibly appear to have clear ties to slavery – being both grown and manufactured domestically by paid labour – there is in fact a significant connection. Whilst cotton was becoming the more popular fabric for textile production in the mid-late eighteenth century, the fabric was seen as too good to be used to clothe the people forced to grow it. As such, linen, in its cheapest and least comfortable format, was exported in droves to be used to clothe the slaves labouring on cotton plantations.
What all these donor case studies in Ruth’s fascinating presentation showed, and probably the most interesting thing I learned, was how enmeshed slavery was in the eighteenth-century economy. Whether in the form of shares received in lieu of payment, shares won as prizes, or as custom to the textile industry it was growing to dominate, Ruth’s project demonstrated that making money in the eighteenth century was almost inextricably tied to slavery.
Rose Zhang: As She Likes It: The Woman who Gatecrashed the Oxford Union
Rose’s project and subsequent presentation touched on a captivating aspect of the history of women at Oxford. As the trainee for the Oxford Union, she undertook some first-hand research on an unusual event in the early history of women’s involvement in the Union’s debates.
Rose first gave us a summary of the Union’s history. Set up in 1823 (and therefore currently celebrating their bicentenary), The Oxford Union has been famous (and infamous) for its dedication to free speech over the years. As women were only formally admitted to the University itself in 1920, it is unsurprising that they were also barred from entry to the Union debating society. This restriction against women members continued until well into the latter half of the 20th century, although rules had become laxer by this point, allowing women into the debating hall itself, but only in the upper galleries.
By the 1960s, there was increasing pressure from female students who wished to access the main floor of the debating hall, rather than be confined to the gallery, where they were expected to be silent, and could not get a good view of the proceedings. The pressure built to a point in 1961, when two students achieved national press coverage for their successful gate-crashing of the debating chamber, which they did in disguise as men!
Rose gave us a captivating account of the gatecrashing, using newspaper clippings from the time and information from one of the gatecrashes herself, Jenny Grove (now a published journalist), to really bring this moment of Oxford History to life. One of the most interesting things I learned from Rose’s presentation was how library projects can handle, preserve and communicate data that’s less discrete – which tied in well with our keynote talk from Phillip Roberts, especially focussed on how heritage organisations have a power to preserve and convey stories that otherwise might be suppressed or overlooked.
Thankfully, the actions of Jenny grove and her co-conspirator Rose Dugdale were successful in bringing wider attention to the issue, and within two years successive votes won women the right to be full and contributing union members.
Rose’s presentation on this project was interesting not just for such a fascinating bit of history, told with good humour, but also for how it differed to most trainee projects methodologically in using first-hand oral histories to bring context to her library and its collections.
Grace Exley: Creating online exhibitions
One of the later presentations in the day, Grace kept the energy flowing as she discussed her experience creating online exhibitions. The inspiration for Grace’s project was accessibility. While Jesus College puts on termly exhibitions in the Fellows’ Library, not everyone can make it on the day, and having some kind of record of past exhibitions would be beneficial to many.
Taking the initiative, Grace sought out training on how to curate and manage online exhibitions. She worked her way through a course which introduced her to the platform Omeka. Using Omeka, visitors can scroll through photos of the exhibition items and read captions for each one, making it both a great way to experience exhibitions that you cannot make it to physically, and a way of preserving physical exhibitions in a digital space.
With this new knowledge at her fingertips, Grace set out to organise her own exhibitions that she would subsequently upload to the Jesus College website using the Omeka platform. The books that featured in these exhibitions were selected by Grace from the Fellows’ Library at Jesus College – a stunning 17th century room that holds 11,500 early printed books.
Grace told us about the botany exhibition she curated in Michaelmas term, which featured a first-time find of an inscription in John Parkinson’s Theatrum Botanicum. One of the most interesting things I learned from Grace’s presentation is that this is one of the very few books in the Fellows’ Library to have had its title page inscribed by a female owner, Elizabeth Burghess. From the style of the handwriting, we can tell that the signature is likely to have been penned near to the time of publication, though we don’t know for sure who Elizabeth Burghess was.
We were in a Jesus College lecture theatre for the showcase, and due to running ahead of our schedule we were able to sneak into the Fellows’ Library and look around. It’s a gorgeous space, and it was great to see where the exhibitions take place when they’re in 3D! If you’re interested, you can view Grace’s Botanical Books exhibition along with some of Jesus College’s other exhibitions on the website the Grace created here: Collections from the Fellows’ Library and Archives, at Jesus College Oxford (omeka.net)
Alice Shepherd: The Making of a Disability History LibGuide
A theme running through many of the trainee projects this year was accessibility, and Alice proved no exception. For her trainee project, she worked on creating a LibGuide on Disability History, to help people find resources relevant to researching that topic.
A LibGuide is an online collection of resources that aims to provide insights into a specific topic of interest. They are created across all Bodleian Libraries and often act as a launch pad for a particular subject to signpost readers to the plethora of resources available. The resources for Alice’s LibGuide were largely collated during a Hackathon event organised by the Bodleian Libraries team, during which 36 volunteers shared their expertise on Disability History and put together a list of over 231 relevant electronic resources on this topic.
Alice started by working through this long list of resources. She spent a considerable amount of time cleaning, screening, and processing the data collected at the Hackathon. Specifically, she removed website links that were no longer active, evaluated the quality of the materials, and carefully selected those that were most appropriate and relevant to the topic of Disability History.
With this newly complied ‘shortlist’ of scholarly resources, Alice then started putting them together on the LibGuide website, adapting the standardised Bodleian LibGuide template to better fit the needs of researchers by including resources grouped by date, topic, and format. With the resources carefully curated and added to the LibGuide, Alice put some finishing touches on the guide by doing her own research to fill in some of the gaps left after the Hackathon.
There will be a soft launch of the LibGuide in the Disability History month this year. Although this LibGuide is mainly created for students and scholars with research interests in Disability History, the LibGuide will be available to the public as a valuable educational resource.
Charlie Ough: Duke Humfrey’s Library Open Shelf Collections
As the trainee for the Bodleian Old Library, Charlie gets the tremendous pleasure of working in the Medieval precursor to Oxford’s centralised Bodleian libraries, Duke Humfrey’s Library.
Whilst the setting and atmosphere may be one of academic serenity, after a few months of working there, Charlie identified that something ought to be done to make the organisation of its Open Shelves Collection slightly less chaotic. He had found that books were difficult to locate, some were physically difficult to access, the shelf marks were confusing, and certain volumes from the collection were missing entirely.
With a plan in mind, the first task in addressing this issue was to create a comprehensive list of everything on the shelves. Part way through this venture, Charlie stumbled across a file hidden away in an archived shared folder from 2017 and discovered that a previous trainee had already make a handlist for Duke Humfrey’s. This saved lots of time and allowed him to focus on making improvements to this cache of information by slimming it down, rearranging it according to area, and dividing it into different sections.
During this time Chalrie also designed and conducted a reader survey that was distributed within Duke Humfrey’s to determine who the main users of the library are, and whether they were there to use the Open shelf books specifically, or more because they enjoyed using the space. With the results of that survey to sort through and analyse, Charlie now has a permanent position working at the Bodleian Old Library and intends to continue working with the Duke Humfrey’s Open Shelves Collection. His plans involve new shelf marks, updating the LibGuide, a complete stock check, and barcoding the collection.
The most interesting (and mildly terrifying) thing I learned from Charlie’s talk is that the population of cellar and common house spiders in the Duke Humfrey’s Library ceiling were intentionally introduced at the beginning of this century, to combat an infestation of deathwatch beetle that was burrowing into the wooden beams and panels. In fact, the spiders still thrive there to this day! Not something to think about when you’re peacefully studying in the picturesque Duke Humfrey’s Reading Room…
In April a few of us trainees adventured to the beautiful city of Cambridge, also known as “The Other Place”, for a whirlwind tour of some of their libraries.
Our first stop was the Judge Business School, located in the former Addenbrooke’s Hospital building with colourful balconies and floating staircases (think Hogwarts meets Art Deco meets 1920s fairground). The Library is a small but welcoming user-friendly space catering for the needs of Judge Business School staff and students, with access to the specialised business databases Bloomberg and Eikon. My personal highlight has to be beanbags within the stacks. Or potentially the graffiti wall for readers to leave question drawings, messages of hope (or dread), for the librarians to respond to. Student wellbeing and enjoyment of the space was clearly a key consideration, with sections such as ‘Boost’ for wellbeing books and a less formal ‘Weird Ideas and Disruptive Thinking’ section.
Next we took the bus over to the West Hub, a sustainable three-storey development open to all departments at Cambridge University and members of the public. The library in this building, forming part of the Technology Libraries Team and Biological Sciences Libraries, is on the upper floor, which is naturally quieter than the lower floors thanks to the architectural design of the building. There are study spaces to suit everyone, comfortable booths and sofas, areas for group work and individual study pods. With huge floor to ceiling windows looking out onto what we’re assured will soon be lakes, gardens, and urban orchards, the building was incredibly bright and open. It was incredible to visit such a green and modern space, a completely different world to some of the medieval libraries in both Oxford and Cambridge. I have since declared that every library should have a tree growing inside.
Our last stop was the Cambridge University Library, the main research library of the university. One of the six UK legal deposit libraries, the UL is a huge, imposing 1930s structure, designed by the very same Giles Gilbert Scott who designed the Weston Library building here in Oxford, Battersea Power Station, and the red telephone box. The library houses nearly 10 million books, maps, manuscripts, and photographs, stored across 17 floors and more than 130 miles of shelving (which I can imagine is easy to get lost in). Unlike other legal deposit libraries, such as the Bodleian, much of the UL’s material is kept on open shelving for readers to borrow. We got a chance to look around some of the reading rooms and inspect one of the UL’s old card catalogues. It really is an impressive space, with a great view from the tower.
We finished the day with a walk around the market place and a quick pint by the river. It was great to see how some of the libraries in Cambridge function day-to-day and their different approaches to what a library should look like. I’m sure we all came away with lots to think about for our own libraries. We’re very grateful to the staff at the Judge Business School Library, the West Hub, and the UL for showing us around, as well as the Cambridge Libraries Graduate Trainees who joined us for some of the tours!
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 Cakecome 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.
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’ .
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 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.’
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.
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.
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’. 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’. 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…
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.
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.
This is Part IV of our four-part series on our interview with Richard Ovenden.
For more background information on who Richard Ovenden is and how he came to be Bodley’s Librarian please see Part I.
For information about how libraries and the Bodleian itself aim to tackle issues of accessibility, please see Part II.
For a discussion of the role of libraries moving forward into the digital age, please see Part III.
Last week we discussed the duty and future of libraries and archives especially with regards to the digital age. This week, in our final post of the Richard Ovenden Blog Post series, we will look at some examples of how libraries are able to collaborate and serve their various communities.
“we’re [not] just a supporting service … we are actually part of the University.”
As previously mentioned in our first post of this series, Richard Ovenden is Head of Gardens, Libraries & Museums (GLAM) as well as being Bodley’s Librarian. This is a post he took over from Professor Anne Trefethen early last year, “I became head of GLAM in February”, which Richard Ovenden has described as involving “trying to build on all of the work of my predecessors as head of GLAM in supporting the cultural and scientific collections in the University”. Following our interview, Richard Ovenden mentioned that he had a meeting with “the University and Strategy Plan Programme Board which is working on the University’s new strategy”. In particular, Richard highlighted his aim of emphasising the importance of libraries, and their contribution to the University of Oxford: “What I’m trying to do is to help the University develop a strategy that has these kinds of issues that we have just been talking about, as centrally as possible” libraries are “[not] just a supporting service” but instead “we are actually part of the University.”
Throughout our interview, Richard makes a point of discussing Libraries within the context of the communities that they serve. For the Bodleian that primarily encompasses the staff and students at the University of Oxford (although not insignificant are the various independent researchers and even members of the general public who may also interact with our collections). But each library will have diverse communities that they need to determine how best to provide for.
One anecdote in particular that stood out was Richard’s mention of Uma-Mahadevan-Dasgupta, a woman he met who is not a Librarian, but in fact “a civil servant in India … her whole raison-d’être is to build a public library network in rural India”. The community she serves in this process is one that is “disenfranchised from knowledge, if you like, and as part of their educational experience they don’t have those opportunities and that seems to me tragic.” But the work that she’s striving to achieve is “just incredible … it’s very, very simple stuff but it’s kind of transforming the opportunities for people in rural India – young people opening books for the first time, it’s just phenomenal.” Richard’s admiration for Uma and the work she’s doing is clear, and understandable. There are few library staff who wouldn’t see the appeal in getting to create, shape, and expand a new network of libraries across a nation with previously limited access to such resources. As Richard says, “she’s been one of the most inspirational people I’ve met in a long time, and just incredible.”
“Public libraries are on the front line serving their community in every possible way that they can.”
But one doesn’t need to travel all the way to India to see ways in which libraries can change to better serve their underrepresented communities. Richard mentions a recent trip to Berlin where he “gave a talk in a public library”. He describes the library itself as, “a very good public library with a children’s library section and books, but not many. Small, on a modest scale.” It serves “an area of Berlin that has a big immigrant community, they’re facing defacement and vandalism from the far right because they have services directed towards the Turkish” and other marginalised groups. These groups are just as fundamental a part of the local community as any of the other residents and these “public libraries are on the front line serving their community in every possible way that they can.” The talk Richard was giving was in fact directly intended to address the issues of vandalism faced by the library and the wider community, it was on the subject of “censorship and banning books” which shows just how much work even ‘modest’ libraries will put in to serve and protect its users. As Richard says, “they’re really standing up for [their community].”
On the same trip to Berlin, Richard made a visit to the director of the Staatsbibliotek, or ‘Berlin State Library’. The Staatsbibliotek is a part of a wider organisation called the Stiftung Preussischer Kulturbesitz, or ‘Prussian Culutural Heritage Foundation’ which is “responsible for the museum and state libraries and state archives, state everything.” The Foundation is one of the largest cultural organisations in the world and “responsible for these amazing institutions.” Lucky for us then that Oxford’s Gardens, Libraries and Museums (of which Richard is the head) already have “an MOU” (Memorandum of Understanding – a non-binding letter that says the institutions will work together.) “with that organisation, which sits alongside the MOU between Oxford university and the four Berlin universities.” As Richard says, “this is a cultural and knowledge partnership alongside the academic partnership,” the opportunity for two such prestigious institutions to be able to work together on future projects is a wonderful opportunity for both parties. However, as this MOU was signed just before the pandemic “we haven’t really been able to do much collaboration.” Now that restrictions are loosening however, “we actually have an agenda for collaboration between the Bodleian and the Staats.” This agenda is hopefully one that will continue into the future as, “next year we’re re-signing the MOU with the Stiftung and GLAM.”
One can’t help but feel that this all harks back to the advice Richard gave in our first article. The importance of networks and connections between library staff is central, not just to developing one’s personal career trajectory, but also between institutions as a way of supporting global efforts to protect and preserve knowledge and serve individual communities. Libraries can only continue to do the fundamental work that they are engaged in if they cooperate, share knowledge, and support one another. After all, isn’t that really what libraries are all about?
We would like to thank Richard Ovenden for very generously giving up some of his time to meet with us. We really enjoyed our conversation with him and learned a lot by listening to his experiences of the library world. We hope these blog posts will be useful to those wanting to learn more about what happens behind the scenes at the Bodleian and the wider world of libraries!
This is Part II of our four-part series on our interview with Richard Ovenden.
For more background information on who Richard Ovenden is and how he came to be Bodley’s Librarian please see Part I.
For a discussion of the role of libraries moving forward into the digital age, please see Part III.
For a look at how various libraries are able to collaborate and serve their individual communities, please see Part IV.
Last time we spoke about Richard’s early career and how he was supported by mentors and colleagues as well as having a solid grounding in a variety of different libraries and library jobs. This time we focus more on one of the biggest issues facing librarianship as a career: accessibility.
Accessibility issues are a wide topic for discussion, encompassing not just physical accessibility of, in many cases, listed buildings, but also the accessibility of the profession to people who are members of certain marginalised groups. “If you look at the make-up of the Bodleian staff it doesn’t reflect society as a whole.” Richard acknowledges. For him part of this issue is “how can we change that when – the make-up, particularly when you go up the organisational structure it’s increasingly white.” And race isn’t the only issue, “there are other forms of diversity that are slightly better represented but still not adequately represented.” One of the more recent comprehensive surveys of the LARKIM (Libraries, Archives, Knowledge and Information Management) industry backs this up. It found that the lack of ethnic diversity within the profession is pronounced and whilst we are a female dominated profession, there is still a significant gender pay gap.
“This is one of the major issues for our industry at the moment.”
For Richard Ovenden, accessibility is “one of the major issues for our industry at the moment.” An issue that he acknowledges is not unique. “We share that across the museums and the cultural and scientific collections at Oxford. Particularly thinking about Oxford as an institution that has been … very implicated in empire and all of what that entails.” It’s a legacy that will take more than a few years to undo, but the Bodleian is in the process of addressing at least some of the issues it caused. This impetus for change is coming from the very top. Richard mentions a “Bodleian strategy to address diversity and equality” and looking at the Bodleian Libraries Strategy for 2022-2027 you can see that the drive to improve diversity runs throughout the objectives laid out, as well as being explicitly stated as one of the core Guiding Principles in delivering the strategy.
Pre-dating this strategy, however, is an ongoing project called ‘We are our history’. The project involves several teams working on a variety of key issues related to improving diversity. One aspect of this is metadata, or the information we keep about the items in our collection. This can range from something as simple as the title and author of a work to descriptions of the item, its provenance or even how and when it was printed. With so much information to consider there are many ways in which we need to pay mind to the language we’re using and how we’re using it. As Richard puts it: “is our metadata fit for purpose, and how do we change that?”
Another aspect that Richard mentions is “How do we diversify the collecting of books?” The Bodleian libraries are of course one of six legal deposit libraries in the UK, meaning that we are entitled to a copy of every book published here. But as Richard points out, “we’re one of the great libraries for the study of Sub-Saharan Africa – are we buying books from African publishers, are we supporting the book trade in Africa? Or are we just buying books because it’s easier and cheaper to do it from library suppliers in the UK?” Being aware of where we source our collections and the potential biases that might entail is crucial to ensuring we have a strong and diverse body of knowledge available to our readers.
But it’s important also to consider how we present that knowledge to the wider public, to “look at our exhibitions” as Richard explains. We’re sat with him in the main hall of the Weston library and he gestures behind him, “asyou can see here at the moment”. Currently the newest exhibition at the Weston is ‘These Things Matter’, a fantastic collaboration between the Museum of Colour, the Bodleian, and Fusion Arts. The exhibition examines items from the Bodleian’s collection that illustrate the horrific legacy of colonialism and slavery, and invites seven artists to interpret and respond to the material in a variety of mediums, including sound, art installations and digital displays.
Beyond even the collections, however, we also need to think about our staff. Richard points out that biases can creep in “even in how we advertise our jobs”. He wants to strive for job postings that are “easy for people who might not have thought about working at the Bodleian – from communities who do not usually send their members to work in university libraries.” Unless we are able to employ a diverse staff, these projects become more difficult to carry out, and less impactful.
“It’s got to be part of our everyday business”
Whilst all these initiatives under the ‘We are our history’ project are fundamental to addressing these issues of accessibility, Richard warns against becoming too complacent. “Funding has allowed us to get a project manager to help co-ordinate that but really, it’s for my senior colleagues in the library to take the responsibility for that. So, it can’t just stop when the funding for the project has run out. It’s got to be part of our everyday business.” Until we make accessibility and diversity as intrinsic to libraries as the books themselves we cannot really say we have made true progress. And as Richard rightly points out, “that project’s really looking most at race and ethnicity but there’s also gender, equality, sexuality, even disability to think about.” Libraries are meant to protect and preserve information to be accessed by everybody, and unless we consider the different needs of some of the myriad groups who, arguably have greater reason than many to make use of our services, we’re falling short of the basic requirements of the profession.
Richard has delivered numerous talks about the delivery of e-content by libraries in the UK and the US, the role of libraries and archives, and the 2018 Tolkien: Maker of Middle Earth exhibition at the Weston . He has also written a number of articles, essays, research reports, and is the author of ‘Burning the Books: A History of Knowledge Under Attack’ , which was shortlisted for the 2021 Wolfson History Prize.
Last year a few of us trainees had the very exciting opportunity to speak with Richard Ovenden at the Weston Café over tea (and delicious cakes). Throughout the next few weeks, we will be sharing what we discussed in a series of blog posts, beginning with Richard Ovenden’s journey to Bodley’s Librarian – his interest in librarianship and where it came from
This is Part I of our four-part series on our interview with Richard Ovenden.
For information about how libraries and the Bodleian itself aim to tackle issues of accessibility, please see Part II.
For a discussion of the role of libraries moving forward into the digital age, please see Part III.
For a look at how various libraries are able to collaborate and serve their individual communities, please see Part IV.
After settling down with our beverages and cakes, we asked Richard how his journey into libraries began.
For him, it started early, “being taken to my public library with my mum when I was about three. So, borrowing books from one of my public libraries, and then, when I was a teenager, going by myself and reading.” This kind of memory may be familiar to many, but over the years, Richard made the change from reader to staff member after becoming a student librarian at his college library in Durham. The role was fairly typical, “mainly tidying – nothing very exciting”. But it was in his second year there when an opportunity arose that seems to have lit a spark in the young Richard Ovenden. The construction of a new college bar meant that he was offered the chance to move the secondary sequence “which was basically a basement room full of mouldering books” and told that if he stayed over the summer holidays he would be paid for his trouble. As Richard recalls, “this was great. I was the first from my family to go to university so my parents thought this was great as I was being paid.”
“For the first time, I could see myself doing a job.”
Whilst working on this book move, Richard came across some early books, “15th century things”. Not knowing what to do with them he went over to the University Library “to ask someone some advice – literally walking up to the enquiry desk”. The staff there “pointed to this door that had a brass plaque on it, which said: ‘Keeper of Rare Books’, which I thought was quite cool. There was a wonderful holder of the office called Beth Rainey, and she was incredibly kind and generous and patient and helpful, and I thought – wow, this is really good. For the first time, I could see myself doing a job.” After this revelation, he then stayed on as a trainee librarian at Durham with three others. “We moved around different departments of the university library and then went to library school”. For Richard, the event that really shaped his future in libraries “was really that moment – becoming a student librarian and meeting lots of serious professional librarians.”
After leaving the traineeship at Durham, Richard’s career progressed through a number of library jobs. Notably, at one point he became a member of what is now ‘The Rare Book and Special Collections Group of CILIP’ a title equally as impressive to impressionable young graduate trainees as the grand ‘Keeper of Rare Books’ must have been to Richard. But through all of his inspiring career moves, he credits his colleagues as being key mentors who were instrumental in his path towards becoming Bodley’s Librarian.
Whilst he was a member of the special collections group at CILIP, the chair of that same committee, Barry Bloomfield, “was a very senior figure in librarianship. He was just, again, very kind and helpful.” Another key figure in Richard’s early career was Ian Mowat, Chief Librarian at Edinburgh University Library. “He was a fantastic leader,” Richard reminisced. “Just working with him for four years, I learnt a huge amount. Not that he taught me but just watching him – I absorbed it.” After Ian Mowat died young, Richard felt the need to move on. “I couldn’t think of staying there and not working with him. So, I came to Oxford.” Whilst there Richard had the opportunity to work under his two predecessors in the role of Bodley’s Librarian. First was Reg Carr, who was instrumental in the integration of the departmental libraries at the Bodleian. Richard recalls that he “was also very involved in digital things and JISC – in the old days of JISC. So, he was great.” Then Richard’s direct predecessor Sarah Thomas “was a very different character, and I learnt a huge amount from her – I worked very closely with her. So, that was like a masterclass.”
“The variety of libraries continues to be a source of joy and wonder.”
Part of the strength of Richard’s career history is not only in the calibre of colleagues he has had the pleasure of working with
over the years, but also the sheer variety of roles he has undertaken. In Richard’s own words, “the older I get, and the more I look across the profession, I think the variety of libraries continues to be a source of joy and wonder.” Obviously he has a strong background in academic libraries, and he admits, “I’ve worked in university libraries most of my career” but as mentioned above he also has experience “in National Libraries and in parliamentary libraries” as well as being “involved in various ways with other special libraries as a trustee, like at the Chawton House Library which is for Rural Studies and has rural literature.”
Richard’s opinion is that “it’s good to be involved with all those different aspects because there are commonalities between them all, but their variety is partly what makes life interesting.” Beyond just keeping the spice in life however, he also makes the point that “they all serve their communities differently,” a sentiment which rings true for many of us in the library world.
We finished our interview by asking Richard Ovenden if he had any final pieces of advice for those looking to pursue a career in Librarianship. Ever the generous boss, he gave us two: Firstly, “just try and visit and talk to as many libraries and archives as possible. Just seeing the work of a diverse range and talking to professionals of a diverse range is just really good.” And finally, “your network – your own network. My network has in the past and continues to sustain me in different ways. I utilise it to ask questions and see who I can get to come and speak and see who I can connect my new colleague with to help him or her and the problem that they’re trying to solve. So that network that you’re building now – think about it as you are doing it. Collect people’s business cards, capture their profiles in your contacts lists, follow them on social media, go on LinkedIn – it’s really, really important. Nurture it and curate it and stay in touch with each other.”
Our hope is that the advice and information provided by this blog will help those of you out there who are also interested in pursuing a career in Librarianship and can serve in some small way to kickstart your own network of information and contacts. Anyone who is interested in connecting with other people at the beginning of a career in Libraries should check out the ECLAIR (Early Career Library & Information Resource) Community.
One of the exciting projects we can get involved in as trainees is preparing for and promoting library exhibitions, whether open to the public or exclusively to university staff and students. For LGBT+ History Month, New College Library will be putting on an exhibition on Queer Love & Literature in our collections on 25th February. We have a display case in the main library for small, longer-term exhibitions of about ten items, accessible to college members only. However, this is not suitable for large exhibitions like this one. We therefore book a room in college with enough space for long tables, which also allows us to open our exhibitions to the public. The downside is the room is not secure enough to leave any of our rare books and manuscripts overnight, therefore our large exhibitions are open for one day and one day only! This involves a lot of preparation to make sure we can set up and take down the exhibition as quickly and securely as possible on the day.
However, without people coming to see our wonderful collections, all our preparation would be in vain. For this exhibition, we’ve used some successful promotion tactics from our previous exhibitions as well as some new ones to usher as many people as possible through our doors on the day. First of all is the fun bit, designing a poster for the exhibition on Canva, with a uniform logo we’re using on all of our social media channels. We then sent the design off to a print company to have it printed in A2, A3, and A4. We “launched” the news of our upcoming exhibition on the 19th January on our social media, and sent an email out to the OLIS, Oxford Libraries Information System, mail list. I also changed our Twitter and Facebook profile headers to advertisements for the exhibition. Thanks to my fellow trainees, I sent out some posters to go up in other libraries and increase awareness of the exhibition throughout the university. I also go on a wander around college putting up posters in common areas such as the café/bar and the JCR. I’m also trialling some QR codes, linked to the event page on our website, displayed around the library. The LGBTQ+ Officers for the college’s JCR and MCR do a great job of organising their own events throughout the year such as queer drinks and LGBTQ+ formals, so we let them know about our exhibition so they can spread the word around college.
As our exhibition is for LGBT+ History Month, a campaign founded by Schools OUT to increase the visibility of queer people’s histories and experiences, we added our event to their public calendar. However, we’ve found social media is the most effective method to reach a wider audience outside just New College and the University. On our Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook, we’ve been further teasing our exhibition by posting some of the items we’ll be displaying on the day with our exhibition banner underneath to make sure our followers don’t get sick of the same poster over and over again. I have scheduled a sneaky motion graphic to go out in the week before the exhibition, just to add a little spice. We also asked the Lodge to let us put a poster in an A-frame outside the college entrance on Holywell Street on the day to draw in any walk-ins and notify visitors where the exhibition actually is, as New College can be a bit of a maze. We’re quite lucky that our collections speak for themselves, including a 15th-century manuscript copy of Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, early printed books relating to King James VI and I, Oscar Wilde’s Ravenna inscribed by the author, and a first-edition copy of Virginia Woolf’s Orlando. There might be a few surprise additions on the day as we continue compiling the labels, but we’re hoping to show at least 30 items of queer literature.
We’re quite a small library and our exhibitions only last one day, so we don’t have the same resources and following to generate as much hype as some larger libraries’ incredible exhibitions, such as those at the British or Bodleian libraries, but we try our best! We’re also looking into putting on online exhibitions, so that our collections can be viewed digitally for longer, as it’s a shame they’re only on display for 6 hours at a time. This is the first of our exhibitions that we’ve put in this much work to promote, particularly on social media, so only time will tell if it works.
Outside my day job as a graduate trainee librarian, I am a keen climber with an interest in climbing and mountaineering history and literature. In the past, I served as the Librarian of the Oxford University Mountaineering Club and the editor of its journal, and I spent long days paging through the OUMC’s rich guidebook collection, dreaming of working in a specialised library. When I first started my library traineeship and was encouraged to see various libraries, arranging a visit in the library of the Alpine Club was one of the first things on my to-do-list.
I do not suppose many of our readers will be familiar with arcane mountaineering terminology, so a bit of a background: the Alpine Club is the oldest mountaineering club in the world, founded in 1857 to facilitate access and exploration of the mountains of the world. Since its inception, its members have been the leading mountaineers and explorers of their generations, including household names such as George Mallory, one of the first mountaineers to attempt to climb Qomolangma (Mount Everest) in 1921, 1922, and 1924. Today, the Alpine Club is based in Shoreditch, London, and houses one of the most extensive collections of mountaineering literature in the world: over 30 thousand books, magazines, photos, and other archival material. Truly an exciting place for a budding climber-turned-librarian.
To organise the visit, I reached out to Nigel Buckley, Assistant Librarian at Balliol College (my DPhil home) and the former Librarian of the Alpine Club. Nigel very kindly agreed to travel with me to London to show me around on a particularly sunny November Tuesday.
Upon our arrival to the hip borough of Shoreditch, the first of our two stops was the Library itself. Full of excitement, I foolishly did not take many photos, so my description will have to do. The Library, located in the first floor of the club house, is a small room with a handful of reading spaces, full up to a brim with all kinds of mountaineering literature: guidebooks, maps, biographies, historical accounts of climbing, or magazines. I even spotted the issues of Oxford Mountaineering Journal that I edited! After some time ogling at the shelves, Nigel showed me the digital catalogue that he created during his appointment using the free library management software called Koha.
The second stop – the basement – proved to be even more exciting than the Library. It houses all kinds of material, from journals, outdated climbing guidebooks, and historic collections, to paintings, photographs, and all sort of mountaineering paraphernalia. Ice axes, ropes, compasses, tents, you name it. At one point, Nigel opened a random drawer, and there was a pair of solid leather mountain boots!
What were some of my favourite objects? I fell in love with ice axe that used to belong to Dorothy Pilley (1894-1986), a pioneer British female climber who established many routes in Wales as well as further afield in the Alps. Although hundred years old, this tool seemed much lighter and sleeker than my own modern ice axe, and it has probably seen more action in the mountains as well.
I also want to mention a couple of illustrations. The 19th-century edition of Edward Whymper’s Scrambles Amongst the Alps made me excited for its excellent illustrations and lovely Victorian binding. Whymper (1840-1911), the first ascensionist of Matterhorn in 1865, was an engraver before he was a mountaineer, and his illustrations are an absolute joy. Furthermore, I loved the book plate of The Ladies Alpine Club (founded in 1907 and merged with the Alpine Club in 1975) which seems to capture the spirit of mountaineering very well.
There are many more books, paintings, and objects that Nigel showed me that day, but these should be enough to showcase the atmosphere of the library and the collection. We eventually made our way back upstairs to see the archives, and then moved towards the bar to finish our tour off with a pint. There was a lecture planned that evening – the cutting-edge British mountaineer Tom Livingstone spoke about his latest ascents in the Himalayas – so we stayed in London until about 10pm before catching the train back to Oxford.
I have enjoyed the visit tremendously, and I encourage you to make use of the Alpine Club collections if you are in the slightest interested in mountaineering and climbing. Many thanks, of course, go to Nigel Buckley for taking the time to show me around and chat about librarianship and mountaineering.
From reading rooms that smell of Rich Tea biscuits to practising calligraphy and visiting the fascinating Tutankhamun exhibition, the Library Lates at the Weston Library have been among the highlights of the first Michaelmas term working in Oxford for myself and previous and current trainees. The Library Lates took place in the evening between 7.00pm and 9.30pm and featured free talks, drop-in activities and exciting performances.
The first Library Late took place in October and showcased the delightful Sensational Books exhibition at the Weston. It began with a guided tour of the exhibition by one of the curators, who spoke about the aims of the exhibition: to highlight different ways in which readers engage and interact with books using senses such as sight, sound, taste, smell, touch and proprioception. Books on display included illuminated manuscripts, pop-up books, very large and very small books that need to be moved with extreme care, books made from fruit and vegetables, the ‘cheese book’ (a book kept permanently in a fridge and made entirely of cheese slices, as the name suggests!), along with many more interesting and unusual items.
I was very much intrigued by the collection of bottled scents available for visitors to smell. Each one captured the aroma of certain books in the Bodleian Library’s vast collection, or the smell of certain readings rooms. For instance, the Duke Humphreys Library, I can now testify, smells of Rich Tea biscuits.
Following the tour, we had the opportunity to engage with a number of activities set up in the Blackwell Hall. These included embossing our initials in a Gothic font, attempting calligraphy, speaking with members of Bodleian Conservation and learning a bit more about the work they do. Along with other trainees, I found myself gravitating towards the Guide Dogs and then the printing press, where we had the exciting opportunity to create our own little prints which we proudly took home. We also had the chance to choose and take home a flip book – artwork commissioned by Oxford for the Sensational Books exhibition .
As well as activities, there were also several short lectures that visitors were invited and encouraged to attend. Topics ranged from the creation of multisensory books to the use of smells to support children’s engagement with books and their stories, as well as unusual books (including a presentation on a book covered in mushroom spores!) and what this means for libraries and conservators.
Excavating the Egyptians:
The second Library Late took place in mid-November (100 years since Howard Carter and his team discovered Tutankhamun’s tomb) and celebrated the wonderful exhibition: Tutankhamun: Excavating the Archive, which is still on at the Weston. A wide range of performances, presentations and activities awaited us in the Blackwell Hall. From watching screenings of an artist’s work, listening to analyses of Carter’s diaries, writing our names in hieroglyphs, playing ancient Egyptian board games in the Weston café, to being inspired by images of the golden Shrine to Nekhbet in order to create and emboss our own foil decorations, we trainees had an enjoyable and entertaining evening at the Weston.
I highly recommend visiting the wonderful (and free) Tutankhamun: Excavating the Archive exhibition, which is running until the 5th of February next year. Items on display include photographs and annotated drawings of the archaeological discoveries made during the excavation of Tutankhamun’s tomb, as well as pages from the diary Carter kept in 1922. Nearer to the end of the exhibition there was a short video which used records from archives to show what the tomb must have looked like originally in 1922 when it was first discovered.