Bodley Medal: Sir Philip Pullman

The prestigious Bodley Medal has been awarded since 2002, in its current iteration, to recognise outstanding contributions to the worlds of books and literature, libraries, science, philanthropy and other fieldsPrevious recipients including include novelists Colm Tóibín, Zadie Smith, and Sir Kazuo Ishiguro, among others. Earlier this month, on a chilly November evening, the Bodley Medal was awarded to author Sir Philip Pullman under the baroque ceiling of the Sheldonian Theatre.  

The evening opened with a panel discussion about Pullman’s work, chaired by author and critic, Erica Wagner, along with children’s author and former Waterstones Children’s Laureate, Cressida Cowell MBE, Dr Philip Goff, author, philosopher and professor at Durham University and Dr Margaret Kean, the Dame Helen Gardner Fellow in English and Tutor in English at St Hilda’s College, Oxford.

A screen at the front of a lecture theatre with a picture of en engraved circular medal on the left hand side. Philip Pullman and Richard Ovenden stand on a stage in front of the screen looked on by a crowded audience.
Philip Pullman presented with the Bodley Medal by Richard Ovenden in the Sheldonian Theatre.

Each of the panellists keenly recalled their own experiences of encountering Pullman’s works for the first time, whether as teenage readers desperately grappling with Pullman’s exploration of dark matter, multiple universes, and philosophy, or as adults: parents, critics, or fellow authors. Amongst the varying accounts of each of the panellists’ initial encounters with Pullman’s work, there were commonalities too: an insistence on the deep visual impressions left, the richness and abundance his prose summons, and the expansivity of the works. Erica Wagner, the panel’s chair, noted “the way in which [Pullman] has created a whole cosmology, a whole universe […] for us to enter.” [1] 

The panel discussion was followed by Sir Philip Pullman in conversation with Richard Ovenden, Head of Gardens, Libraries and Museums at the University of Oxford and Bodley’s Librarian. During their conversation, Richard Ovenden described Pullman as “a great friend of libraries”, which was more than evident from the clear reverence with which Pullman described his experiences of both public and academic libraries. The first library ticket one owns, he suggested, is an “enormous gift, a key to open a wonderland.” The loss of approximately 1000 branches of public libraries in the last 12 years, and the cuts to funding which have both prompted and accompanied this, Pullman described as a “a slow, quiet, subtle, well-concealed disaster.” In the earlier panel discussion, Cressida Cowell exalted Pullman’s aptitude for storytelling itself, explicitly identifying one of the great qualities of Pullman’s work to be its power in creating generations of readers. Pullman charted his own experience of the Bodleian Libraries from his days as an undergraduate English student (a discipline which didn’t allow him to read the texts he was drawn to). Instead, Pullman found himself magnetically pulled to the public library in Oxford. This roving between the public library and the academic spaces of Oxford’s Bodleian libraries is still evident in Pullman’s account of the power of libraries. Pullman added to this with a resounding defence of the role of the school library, and, particularly, he stated, the need for a school library to be cared for by a qualified librarian. This is an especially desperate requirement at a time when the National Literacy Trust has recently published new research suggesting that children’s enjoyment of reading is at its lowest level in two decades. [2] 


A reading room of the Old Bodleian with book shelves on hte left and right side of the image under an ornately decorated wooden panelled ceiling. In the centre of the image in the distnace there is an ornate arched stained glass window, with someone sat a desk studying in front of it.
Duke Humfrey’s Library in the Old Bodleian, known in Pullman’s works as Bodley’s Library. photo (c) John Cairns

Whilst rooted in the city of Oxford itself, Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy expands our perspective outwards to a consideration of a multiplicity of universes. Oxford echoes through the series like a palimpsest, resounding throughout Pullman’s created worlds. The Bodleian Library itself appears in a mirrored form throughout Pullman’s work as Bodley’s Library. It is, perhaps, excellent symmetry then, for Pullman to receive the Bodleian’s most prestigious award, the Bodley Medal itself. The honour, and the event accompanying its bestowal, are both a celebration of libraries and the work done by those who love and promote them. 

For more history on the Bodley Medal, see here.  

[1] Wagner, Erica, “Bodley Medal: Sir Philip Pullman”, Event. Bodleian Libraries, Oxford. November 9th 2023. All following quotes unless otherwise stated are transcribed from this event.  

[2] Accessed: November 28th 2023. 


Library Lates: Sensational Books and Excavating the Egyptians

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.

Sensational Books

Sensational books print
Sensational Books print

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 [1].

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:

Excavating the Egyptians print
Excavating the Egyptians print

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.



Classifying the world: John Wilkins and the invention of a universal language

I decided to allow my inner geek have a trip out, and so we went to the talk at Magdalen College Library ‘Classifying the world: John Wilkins and the invention of a universal language’, by Tabitha Tuckett, who is one of the librarians there.

John Wilkins was a clergyman and scientist from the seventeenth century who decided to try and make up his own language, to be understood by all, and his method of doing so was essentially to classify the world. As Wikipedia says, it was “brilliant but hopeless”.

I wasn’t sure what to expect. I mostly associate language invention with Tolkien, and my immediate mental image of an invented universal language is something like Esperanto. Wilkins’s invention of a universal language was different to both.He did not base his language on other European languages, rather, he believed that the way to achieve a language to be characterised by ease and usefulness was to base it on a logical system of classification. He would use categories and subcategories to create building blocks for conveying meaning, and attach phonemes to each building block to create words.

In the seventeenth century there was a movement to try and bring about a universal language, to create a language that could be understood by all. This movement was in part brought about by the decline in Latin as a lingua franca, and also by the increase in travel to parts of the world where the people spoke languages nothing like the European ones.

Wilkins developed a system of hierarchical classification, which he intended to be both spoken and written. The gist I got was that Wilkins’s aim was to arrange all human knowledge into categories, like Linnaeus would later do (with more success) with plants. He tried to arrange all of human knowledge into categories. Wilkins started with a broad concept, represented by one letter, and then added suffix after suffix to narrow it down. He had forty broad categories (genuses), ranging from God to disease to stones. Each genus could then be divided into sub categories, to aid the defining of them. Stones, for example, could then be divided into vulgar stones, middle prized, or precious; dissolvable and non-dissolvable. And vulgar stones could furthermore be sub categorised into greater or lesser magnitude, and so on.

His work then becomes of interest to linguists. I found the relationship between Wilkins’s language to his script and pronunciation quite hard to grasp. He developed a script, all squiggles, represented meaning directly. This means that his words could be written without ever being spoken, and his language was more of a classification scheme than a language that Tolkien might have made up.

I found it extremely interesting, especially how his language was limited by the inability to classify the extent of human knowledge. It was also limited by issues with tense and voice, and was a very brusque way of communicating. Nevertheless, it was fascinating to see how even attempting to add a classification system to the world could create a comprehendible language.