Holly Marie, All Souls College

Hi everyone! I’m Holly, and I am the graduate trainee at All Souls College, in the Codrington Library. It was whilst studying for a Master’s in English Literature at Newcastle University, where I worked closely with early printed materials, that I became inspired to pursue a career in librarianship (once you start learning about how to care for and handle books you never look at one in the same way again, which I find to be both a blessing and a curse)… So, after graduating I sought to develop my customer service skills within an information-based environment by working in a public library, a Cathedral library, and as a museum guide and a tourist information officer (amongst many other things)! Even a month on, I still cannot quite believe how fortunate I am to be situated in such a beautiful library and city, and I fully intend to make the most of the experience.

I’ll begin with a brief-ish introduction to All Souls College, as it has a fascinating history that is well worth knowing. The college was founded in 1438 by Henry Chichele, the Archbishop of Canterbury, along with Henry VI as its co-founder, and was initially built as a war memorial for those who died in the battlefield at Agincourt, where Henry VI’s father, Henry V, broke the laws of chivalry and massacred his prisoners of war. Hence, it became ‘the college of All Souls of the faithful departed’, where fellows celebrated divine service for those lost to the war. In fact, one of the most memorable parts of the college has to be the chapel, with its incredible reredos and ornate chapel screen.

(All photographs used in this blog are courtesy of All Souls College)

Its other purpose was to serve as a place of advanced study, with fellows primarily studying or teaching theology, law and medicine, and what really distinguishes All Souls from other Oxford colleges is that, apart from a few exceptions, we have never taken in our own undergraduates. I have been informed that this is in keeping with medieval practice, when fellows lived in college and students would go to them for teaching. Eventually, colleges realised that they could charge students to live on site which many began to do, yet All Souls maintained the medieval custom (can’t say I blame them).

Now on to the library… stepping out into the Great Quadrangle is a sight that one cannot easily forget, with the Radcliffe Camera peering over on the left, the immense two towers to the right, and the long library – the longest library in Europe – and its stunning sundial straight ahead. I will always remember the first time I stood in front of the library as I was walking with the librarian to my interview, trying to act cool and as though I was totally used to seeing such spectacular architecture – no biggie- and to not just stand there paralysed, with my mouth open in utter awe.

The building of the Great Library began in 1716, to a plan by Nicholas Hawksmoor, and was finished in 1751, and we now have around 185,000 volumes. We are a reference only library, though fellows are allowed to borrow, and I must admit, I do feel privileged to be one of the select few who holds a key to access the books! Our strengths are in law and history, and we have our own law reading room, the Anson Room. Knowing very little about law and being slightly (okay, very) intimidated by the sheer number of law reports and journals in there, I did treat it rather like the third floor corridor in Harry Potter and avoided it for a while, but I’d say I’m more than confident with where everything is now.

Hoping that this winter will bring snow so I can re-create this image…

This is the first ‘official’ week of term, which is exciting, although I must say I was glad to have the first month to get over the initial shock of merely working in such a magnificent library, and to ensure that when readers came in, I wasn’t wandering around looking like a lost little lamb. The pace has definitely picked up a lot (and our working hours have increased), but I am enjoying facing new challenges and taking on different jobs each day. My main roles, to list but a few, are inducting and assisting new readers, locating and delivering books to them, managing our journals collections and generally being the first point of call in the library office. I love it when I am able to help someone with an enquiry, and it is a genuine pleasure to witness readers fully appreciating and using the library.

The winding (and very creaky) spiral staircase in our office

All Souls does seem to hold a sort of enigmatic presence within Oxford, and a common assumption seems to be that we are entirely closed to readers– this is definitely not the case, and we are a very welcoming – albeit ‘unique’ – bunch here! (We also have excellent taste in biscuits). That being said, I do enjoy walking past the giant black and gold gates on Catte Street and listening in on the absolute rubbish that tour guides tell tourists about us – for example, that we are a college for retired fellows, or that we do not allow in women. I really have no clue as to where they get this information from!

The Great Library

I cannot wait to see what the rest of the year brings us all, and though I could quite happily keep writing, I must get back to work as someone has very kindly left a huge pile of books for me to shelve…

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