“Cyclone” Nicholson: defying tradition at the Bodleian

Have you ever found yourself trapped between shelves in the Lower Gladstone Link, scouring shelf marks, shaking your fists and cursing the name Nicholson? You wouldn’t be the first, and you won’t be the last.

Graduate Trainee Yells at Books

Okay, maybe I’m being dramatic, but it’s true that whenever a reader asks me to help them locate something in the library, a lot of the time, they’re looking for a Nicholson book. Found in the Lower Gladstone Link stacks, the Nicholson system contains high usage material. The classification number at the beginning of the shelfmark eg. ‘1234 e.1017’ has an imaginary decimal point, which means that ‘12345’ would be found between ‘1234’ and ‘1235’, not after them.

In the spirit of goodwill and charity post-Christmas, however, it seems a shame that this is the most widely known legacy of Nicholson, for the average Bodleian reader. This blog post will explore the real Nicholson: the Bodley’s Librarian beyond the tricky-to-understand classifications, and what we as trainees can learn from him.

Edward Williams Byron Nicholson (b. 1849, d.1912), before he became Bodley’s Librarian, studied Classics at Trinity College, Oxford, and worked as a librarian at other libraries including those at the Oxford Union and the now obsolete London Institution. Nicholson blazed into his posts with a mind to reform their services “without much regard for his famous predecessors.”

Edward Williams Byron Nicholson, by an unknown engraver

It was shocking when Nicholson was appointed Bodley’s Librarian, because studying Classics at Oxford was, at the time, not considered an academic enough background. With suspicion aroused against him because of his lack of education in palaeography, linguistics, and bibliography; a headstrong personality defined by “force and originality”; and a fierce devotion to the Bodleian, Nicholson began his 30-year long tenure as Bodley’s Librarian, from 1882 until his death in 1912.  As Nicholson’s friend Henry Tedder describes, “perhaps a cyclone was wanted to bring freshness into the air of Bodley, but probably no one looked forward to a cyclone which lasted thirty years.”

To paint a picture of the cyclone-like behaviour of Nicholson, I’ll include a story told by the man himself, about when University officials attempted to turn the Proscholium (Entrance to the Old Library) into a bike shed. Even bikes weren’t exempt from cyclone Nicholson!

“The Curators of the Chest tried to use the Proscholium – Bodley’s ‘vaulted walke’, the lower story of his ‘Bibliotheca’ – as a bicycle-shed. They opened hostilities in 1902, when I was still imperfectly convalescing from a great heart-breakdown, … the then Vice-Chancellor refused to allow them either to order the removal of the [bike] stands or to move the Council. Luckily I had my own rights, and had been no party to that resolution. On the evening after the Vice-Chancellor went out of office, I cleared the bicycle-stands away. The new Vice-Chancellor had them put back again. I cleared them away again. At last, in November 1905, the Chest went to Convocation for leave to use the Proscholium as a bicycle-stable, and Convocation gave them the coup de grâce: but fancy such an attempt being possible!”

Now, I am in no way promoting Nicholson’s actions, but it is admittedly pretty funny to picture him calculating his movements immediately after the Vice-Chancellor left, in an obstinate back and forth regarding bicycles, of all matters. Nicholson may not have been popular, but the man got things done.

Indeed, his notable achievements as Bodley’s Librarian include:

“an increase in staff, the introduction of boy-labour, a new code of cataloguing rules, the development of the subject-catalogue, as well as the shelf classification of printed books, MSS., and music, the incorporation of minor collections…”

The mention of “boy-labour” is interesting, because as it has been suggested previously, this could be thought of as a very early form of a library traineeship at the Bodleian, like we are undertaking this year! [1] The scheme was set up by Nicholson to employ young boys to do everyday tasks around the library, with an incentive to then be able to attain a degree from Oxford. After a few decades, women were added to the scheme, with the groups being known as Bodley’s Boys, or Bodley’s Girls. 

Frances Underhill

One of the final clashes that Nicholson faced with other library officials was his appointment of a woman to a permanent position within the library. This woman was Frances Underhill, who definitely deserves her own blog post. In her letter of acceptance, Underhill gave thanks to Nicholson because appointing her was “a progressive step in the recognition of women’s work”. Nicholson’s sub-librarians, however, found it “objectionable”, because of ridiculous reasons such as an inability to climb ladders. Nicholson’s response was that “any woman worth her salt… would gaily ascend on a ladder to any Bodleian ceiling”. [2]

A special Veganuary mention must go to Nicholson’s love of animals. His 1879 text ‘The Rights of Animals’ argues in favour of a largely plant-based diet, “for there can be no question that vegetable food alone will keep a man in the best health and strength.” He argues that animals have reason, feelings, and a soul, and should be awarded the same level of respect as humans. [3] I wonder whether Nicholson would have preferred oat or almond milk in his tea?

It could be considered pretty ironic that we maintain Nicholson’s classification scheme, even though the man himself was dedicated to upheaving tradition. Yet, what makes the Bodleian such a fulfilling place to work is that there is such a respect for history here, as well as a commitment to making necessary and positive change, and adapting to the times. What we as trainees in Oxford libraries can learn from Nicholson is that being a champion of the Bodleian, or indeed of any library we may work in, doesn’t mean that we should never break the mould. There is room for us to celebrate diversity, and try new things, without completely ignoring our history. See, for example, the We Are Our History project, which is doing important work to re-engage with our collections, through the lens of race and the legacies of the British Empire. [4] We can look forward to being innovators of change within libraries – change that even Nicholson could not have foreseen!


N.b: The majority of the quotes have come from Henry Tedder’s E.W.B. Nicholson (Bodley’s librarian, 1882-1912): in memoriam (Aberdeen: Aberdeen University Press, 1914) https://solo.bodleian.ox.ac.uk/permalink/44OXF_INST/ogbd98/alma990161434930107026

Further reading

[1] Trainee project showcase – The Oxford Traineeship: Past, Present and Future | Oxford Libraries Graduate Trainees

[2] Women of the Bodleian: personal stories behind progressive steps | University of Oxford Podcasts

[3] #10 – The rights of an animal: a new essay in ethics. By Edward Byron … – Full View | HathiTrust Digital Library

[4] We Are Our History | Bodleian Libraries (ox.ac.uk)

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