As Oxford University’s library of modern languages and literature, the Taylor Institution has around 750,000 items in its care. These collections represent and explore a wide range of research interests, from Europe to the Caribbean, Celtic nations to Africa, and beyond. In doing so, the collections also recognise the problematic, colonial role Europe has played in Black history around the world. To celebrate Black History Month 2023 at the Taylor, and to demonstrate the diverse yet complex nature of our subject specialisms, I was given the opportunity to put together two book displays, one in the Teaching Collection and the other in the Research Collection, to celebrate this BHM’s theme: Saluting our Sisters. Here, I want to describe the display to you, as well as explain some of the reasoning behind picking out the books that I did!
Deciding where to start when choosing books for the display was difficult, to say the least – there were so many books that deserve the spotlight! Eventually, I settled on attempting to provide a taste of the wide range of resources we provide at the Taylor, while sticking to the theme as closely as possible. I also wanted to demonstrate the ever-evolving nature of the scholarship available. As a result, I decided to start with texts on Black feminism to give readers the chance to understand the theoretical background of the other materials on display. For the most part, these texts can be found in the gender studies section of the Main Reading Room and include the likes of Patricia Hill Collins’ Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness and the Politics of Empowerment (2009) and Jennifer C. Nash’s Black Feminism Reimagined: After Intersectionality (2019). These texts focus on theories of intersectionality and the lived realities of Black women. Collins explores the complexities of Black women’s experiences in dealing with hierarchies of oppression and power. Meanwhile, Nash’s more recent work provides a new perspective by challenging the direction that Black feminist theory is currently headed within the field of women’s studies. By suggesting these two texts, I hoped to provide a basis from which to understand Black feminist theory, as well as an indication of where the field is headed.
In terms of history, some of the texts also explore the contributions that Black women made in establishing civil rights, as well as national independence from colonial oppression. Two that stood out to me the most included Tiffany N. Florvil’s Mobilizing Black Germany: Afro-German women and the making of a transnational movement (2020) and Natalya Vince’s Our Fighting Sisters: Nation, Memory and Gender in Algeria, 1954-2012 (2015). Florvil focuses on sexuality and race to demonstrate the impact that Black German women played in forming the cultural, intellectual and social movement of Black German liberation in the 1980s. Meanwhile, Vince bases her research on women’s oral testimonies of the Algerian fight against French colonialism from 1954 to 2012. In doing so, she provides insight into how women perceived their nation post-independence and how this impacted wider national memory. Both are completely different in their methodological undertakings but are equally fascinating areas of twentieth century history!
Lastly, as I pulled the displays together, picking books and narrowing down my choices, I found that themes of resistance and identity were very strong in almost all of the texts. To provide background for this, I felt it was also necessary to display Franz Fanon’s seminal work on anti-colonialist theory, The Wretched of the Earth (2004 ), as well as the more recent work on postcolonial writings such as postcolonial writings such as American Creoles. Ultimately, this tied into my aim with the display: to recognise where today’s scholarship in Black history and literature stems from, and where it is going now.
Check out our X (Twitter) page to find out what else we Trainees have been doing to celebrate Black History Month!
Collins, Patricia Hill Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness and the Politics of Empowerment, 2nd edition, (London: Routledge, 2009)
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…
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.
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.
‘What is abnormal is that I am normal. That I survived the Holocaust and went on to love beautiful girls, to talk, to write, to have toast and tea and live my life – that is what is abnormal.’ Elie Wiesel, survivor of the Holocaust
Holocaust Memorial Day takes place on the 27th of January every year, marking the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz and to remember the more recent genocides which followed in Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia, and Darfur. The Holocaust Memorial Day Trust website provides life stories, information and resources: https://www.hmd.org.uk/
We put together a display at Christ Church library to mark the day. This post shines a spotlight on three of the books in our display: a graphic novel, a memoir and a collaborative autobiography.
Maus, Art Spiegelman
In Art Spiegelman’s graphic novel, Spiegelman interviews his father, Vladek, a Polish Jew who survived the Holocaust. The comic moves between the father and son’s conversation and depictions of Spiegelman’s father’s memories. Throughout Maus, as the title hints to, characters are depicted as animals rather than people, and specifically depicts Jews as mice and Nazis as cats. This novel combines biography, autobiography, history and fiction in a piece that became the first graphic novel to win a Pulitzer Prize.
Maus comes from humble beginnings, originally published in serial form in Françoise Mouly and Art Spiegelman’s eclectic comics anthology ‘RAW’ in the 1980s. Chapters one to six were later published in ’86 in a volume titled Maus I: A Survivor’s Tale and the latter five chapters were published in 1991 as Maus II: A Survivor’s Tale: And Here My Troubles. The text in our display contains both these volumes.
RAW Magazine began life in whirrings of a living room printing press in the house that Spiegelman and Mouly still share. (Each publication was adorned with its own cheeky subtitle, two of my favourites being ‘Required Reading for the post-literate’ and ‘Open wounds from the cutting edge of commix’). This set up goes a little way to paint a picture of the world Spiegelman was living in. He was working in the underground comic scene, the predecessor of which he had grown up on in ‘60s New York. It was from Justin Green, a fellow alternative cartoonist whose work was often featured in RAW Magazine, that Spiegelman learnt:
“confessional, autobiographical, intimate, unsayable material is perfectly fine content for comics.”
Maus shows how the medium of comics can be one that communicates harrowing themes and strained relationships in a way that feels both sensitive and charged. The experience of reading Maus is one of constant stock-taking. You have to sit with the often-disturbing images, move back and forth between them as you progress through the novel. Spiegelman’s conversations with his father about his experiences in Auschwitz not only frame the recollections, but also often intrude upon the narrative. The form of a comic works exceedingly well as something that can interrupt itself. Embodied memories barge into the present as Spiegelman plays with comic strip borders and ratios. In an interview with Alexandra Alter for the TheNew York Times, Spiegelman says of the cartoon format, and particularly of depicting the people in the story as animals, that:
“For me, it was powerful just because it allowed me to deal with the material by putting a mask on people. By reliving it microscopically, as best I could, moment by moment — it allowed me to at least come to grips with something that otherwise was only a dark shadow.”
An Underground Life: Memoirs of a Gay Jew in Nazi Berlin, Gad Beck
“For them I was a boy from outside. Why? I was visiting theatres, I was dancing, even ballet dancing.”
Gad Beck and his sister Margot were born in Berlin in 1923. An Underground Life recounts the story of how Beck was able to escape the Nazis and stay living in Berlin throughout the duration of World War Two. Being both Jewish and gay, Beck was doubly at risk of persecution from the Nazis. Nazi conceptions of race, gender and eugenics very much shaped the regime’s aggressive policy on homosexuality. Repression commenced within days of Hitler becoming Chancellor. In spite of all this, Beck’s voice throughout the memoir is playful and unbelievably positive.
Beck decided to actively resist Nazi persecution, taking on a principal role in the Chug Chaluzi Jewish resistance group. The Chug Chaluzi (circle of pioneers) was an illegal group founded on the day that all Jewish forced laborers were arrested and most of them deported. The group was as small as 11 members when it started, but had grown to around 40 by the end of the war.
Jizack Schwersenz was the director of a Jewish youth group that Gad Beck attended in Berlin. In a letter from March 1942, Schwersenz writes about how Erwin Tichauer responded to the continued deportations during a secret gathering of the group in 1942:
“Then one of our members, Erwin Tichauer, stepped forward—at first we had no idea what he was about to do —and read to his group the names of all those who had been taken from us during the past months, since the deportations had begun, and as he read each name the members replied as one: ‘Here’, that is to say, that even those who were missing were with us on this occasion, for we are always with them in our thoughts, just as they are surely with us in their thoughts…”
The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum holds a very precious item in its collection – a handmade book made by a boy that Gad fell in love with, Manfred Lewin. In the same way that the youth group remembered those that had been deported, Gad remembered Manfred through this gift. Small enough to fit in a pocket, this book and Beck survived the war.
Beck and Lewin met at the Jewish youth group in the build up to the war. Clumsy illustrations in green felt tip pen populate the pages of this token of affection, depicting shared memories and private jokes. Slightly underwhelmed with the gift at the time, Beck recollects thinking ‘It’s very simple book, booklet, very simple … and he’s not an artist’. I hope the thoughtful Beck we meet in An Underground Life was on duty that day, and he managed to keep these thoughts to himself…
With time, and the outbreak of the war, this gift took on a new significance.
‘Dear, kind Gad, I owe you a present, no, I want to give you one, not just so that you get something from me that you can glance through and then lay aside forever, but something that will make you happy whenever you pick it up.’
What is the What: The Autobiography of Valentino Achek Deng Dave Eggers
‘Since you and I exist, together we can make a difference!’
I had only encountered Dave Eggers through his short stories up until this point, so this novel felt like something of a departure for me.
While nominally a novel, the experiences recounted in this book are true. Written in 2006, What is the What is based on the life of Valentino Achak Deng. Deng was a child when the second Sudanese Civil War broke out, a civil war that was to last twenty-two years. Deng was able to immigrate to the United States through the Lost Boys of Sudan programme. Escaping conflict required moving through war zones, however. Named ‘lost boys’, many of these children spent years in life threatening circumstances. Many lost their lives due to hunger and dehydration. Travelling to Ethiopia and then Kenya for safety, around 10,000 boys between the ages of eight and eighteen arrived at the Kakuma refugee camp, ‘a sprawling, parched settlement of mud huts where they would live for the next eight years’.
Deng and Eggers came together through Deng’s desire for his story to reach a wider audience. He says that he sees his mission as being to help others ‘understand Sudan’s place in our global community’. While having told his story to many audiences through public speaking, he felt a book about his experiences would reach more people.
‘Dave and I have collaborated to tell my story by way of tape recording, by electronic mailings, by telephone conversations and by many personal meetings and visitations.’
This collaboration has resulted in a gripping read – Deng’s story, communicated to Eggers through so many different modes, finds a fluidity on the page that you can’t help but be engrossed by. As with Maus, the story moves back and forth between past and present. At the time of recounting his story to Eggers, Deng is ‘trying to survive an altogether different struggle: assimilation into a culture defined by its short-term memory and chronic indifference to the world beyond its borders’.
I hope this starting point will encourage you to follow Elie Wiesel’s model from the top of this post for a normal life – make yourself some toast and some tea and get reading – just remember no food in the library.
Behind the enquiries desk at Christ Church library there is an array of board games that students can borrow. They used to perch at the bottom of the stairs to the Upper Library, among the various busts of ghosts of Christ Church alumni past. Among the busts that stared longingly at these board games are Richard Busby, a headmaster of Westminster school in the 17th century and Richard Frewen, who actually studied at Westminster under Busby and later studied and taught at Christ Church where he became a physician, among other things.
Cut off just below the shoulders, these chalky figures are unlikely to ever get truly stuck into a game of Munchkin Deluxe to the degree of enthusiasm that it demands. So, in an effort to put these poor statues out of their misery, we have since moved the board games, but were then left with a spare display shelf. The sensible thing to do seemed to make use of it for a rotation of displays that would keep anyone entertained, even a figure as imposing as Dr Busby…
Over the past few months this shelf has variously been a display point for titles including Super-Infinite: The Transformations of John Donne by Katherine Rundell, Victorian Keats: Manliness, Sexuality and Desire by James Najarian and People Person by Candice Carty Williams as part of ‘New Acquisition’ displays and a display for Black History Month in October.
The 16th of November saw us enter a new awareness period: Disability History Month. While far from an expert in this area, I volunteered to put together a display to mark the month. It has been a great experience in learning about a subject I knew little about and exploring what Christ Church library’s collections hold on the topic.
I began my hunt for material for this display by jumping onto SOLO (which stands for Search Oxford Libraries Online). SOLO is the first port of call for all resource discovery at the University of Oxford – here you can find locations of physical resources, databases, links to online articles…the list goes on. Handily, you can filter searches on SOLO, so I made sure to select ‘Christ Church Library’ as opposed to ‘search everything’ in the drop-down list when looking up items. This made searching broad terms like the phrase ‘disability history’ a viable option! Such a search will produce 727 results as opposed to 1,097,223 (as of writing this post…) without filtering.
From an initial search I gathered together some promising titles that Christ Church already had as part of its collections:
The Oxford Handbook of Disability History, ed. Michael Rembis
Early Modern Theatre and the Figure of Disability, Genevieve Love
The Minority Body: A Theory of Disability, Elizabeth Barnes
The Cambridge Companion to Literature and Disability, Barker and Murray
Illness and Authority: Disability in the Life and Lives of Francis of Assisi, Donna Trembinski
Here already was a range of texts that covered quite literally ‘the basics’, but also historical approaches, literary lenses and theory, up to and including an indulgently specific look at Francis of Assisi.
My next task was to identify a theme – what could be drawn out from this array of titles to bring this display together? ‘Founders of religious orders’ seemed, while tempting, perhaps a shade too obscure. My eye was caught by Love’s text on Early Modern theatre and disability. The Early Modern period is a historical crush of mine, and one I studied during the latter part of my degree. I was really interested to learn about the period from a new angle, that of disability history. So, I continued my search beyond the realms of the Christ Church Library. Below are a few of the finds I made – some now feature on our display!
Taking to the stage with Recovering Disability in Early Modern England, Wood and Hobgood
One of the first books that caught my eye on this venture was this selection of essays. In a journey through representations and misrepresentations in Early modern texts, plays and prayer books, these essays touch on Renaissance jest books, revenge tragedies, and propaganda.
Among the essays that drew me in to this collection was ‘Richard Recast: Renaissance Disability in a Postcommunist Culture’. In this piece, Marcela Kostihová takes the reader on a journey to the postcommunist Czech Republic.
We are invited to examine ‘a wildly popular’ staging of Richard III produced by Divadelní Spolek Kašpar in 2000. An injury sustained while protesting the communist regime by the lead,Jan Potměšil, becomes Richard’s “natural deformity” on stage. Kostihová draws out the political nuances of this decision, and it makes for a fascinating read.
Music > tarantulas in The Oxford Handbook of Music and the Body
While not a text dedicated solely to the topic of disability, this book appeared in my SOLO search. Upon examining the sections within the book, I saw that there was a selection of articles on the theme of ‘Music and the Disabled and Sexual Body’. In Howe’s chapter, ‘Musical Remediation of Disability’, Blake Howe discusses the ‘cure narrative’, traceable across many cultures in writings about music. This narrative casts music as something with the power to move bodies into states of so-called perfect health. ‘With energetic melodies instead of scalpels, and resonant harmonies instead of potions, the blind simply blink their eyes open, while the dumb simply open their mouths to speak.’ Howe warns against the ways this narrative often casts the disabled body as something that needs to be ‘cured’ rather than accepted.
In a slightly more frivolous moment, the article leads us down a delightfully bizarre path; to a case study in which music is elevated above even antivenins. In the introduction to a psalm book from the 1770s, the author (who has later been said to be a Dr Charles Stockbridge) provides a no-nonsense how-to guide for anyone facing the perils of a tarantula bite:
‘whoever is bit by them after some Time loses both Sense and Motion, and dies if destitute of Help. The most effectual Remedy is Music.’
Astute readers might note some parallels from this tale with the tarantella – a folk dance originating in Italy. Once again the story goes that victims of the tarantula bite can be cured with fevered dancing, inspired by the right music, of course. This cultural context would have been a much appreciated piece of the puzzle on all the Saturday mornings I spent confusedly prancing around a church hall with a tambourine as a child…
It’s not all books!
Once I’d learned how to successfully cure any friends of mine that may be struck down by a tarantula bite, I felt ready to venture into the world of online resources.
Historic England have a fantastic page that provides an overview of disability throughout history for those looking to increase their awareness and knowledge. ‘A History of Disability: from 1050 to the Present Day’ tracks the changing and varied treatment, perception of and facilities for disabled people in England throughout history.
A feature that makes this page really great is its accessibility – users are able to learn about the different historic periods through audio format or British Sign Language. This inspired me to include some accessible elements in our display at Christ Church. We whipped up QR codes that would take viewers to the Historic England page, the Disability History Month website and also online books so there were multiple ways to access the resources on offer.
Team work makes the dream work
The pièce de résistance of this display was a wonderful contribution we had from a student at Christ Church. James is a PhD student studying the history of ideas, but very kindly took some time out of his schedule to create a piece relating to our display! It walks you through the texts available and really brings the display to life, putting the range of resources we selected in conversation with each other – all while inviting you to join in.
Resource discovery becomes a bit of a treasure hunt when you have SOLO and its filtering wonders at your fingertips, so I really enjoyed putting this display together. We were also able to purchase some titles to strengthen Christ Church’s collection in this area of study. Books including Literature and Intellectual Disability in Early Modern England: Folly, Law and Medicine, 1500-1640, by Alice Equestri and Intact by Clare Chambers have made their way onto the display, and soon on to the shelves of the library.
It’s been a great opportunity to learn about a subject I was not well versed on and to dust off my research skills. Here’s to hoping the statues in the stairwell (as well as the students of Christ Church!) were suitably informed by this display – we can but hope!
Here at New College Library, we put on a number of different book displays each term, ranging from new acquisitions that catch our eye, to showcasing certain awareness campaigns. This week it’s Trans Awareness Week, in which the trans community and its allies highlight the issues faced by trans, non-binary and gender-diverse people, and celebrate those raising awareness. This annual week of observance will culminate in Transgender Day of Remembrance on Sunday, to honour the memory of those whose lives were lost in acts of anti-transgender violence. In light of this week-long campaign for trans issues, I pulled together a display of books from our ‘Q’ shelfmark, set up a few years ago by a former trainee, comprised of LGBTQ+ histories, biographies, and fictional works. With so many interesting titles, I thought I’d take the opportunity to showcase a few of my favourite reads!
This memoir by writer and filmmaker, Juliet Jacques, explores the personal story of her transition, while also critiquing 1990s and 2000s trans theory, literature and film. Jacques narrates her journey of self-discovery, giving an in-depth account of her entry into the LGBTQ+ community and her struggles with her identity; ‘I felt trapped not by my body, but by a society that didn’t want me to modify it.’ From her earliest experimentation with her presentation, we learn how films, books, and music that focus on trans identities helped Jacques explore and come to terms with her own identity. In 2012, Jacques chronicled her sex reassignment surgery in the Guardian, hoping to educate others on the harsh reality of transitioning and the importance of trans rights. Jacques’ memoir combines the personal with the political, exploring controversial issues in trans politics and promising to redefine our understanding of contemporary trans lives.
In this dynamic LGBTQ+ history, Jen Manion uncovers the stories of ‘female husbands’, a term from the 18th and 19th centuries that referred to female-assigned individuals who lived as men and married women. Manion recounts the stories of these queer pioneers, who exposed themselves to media sensationalism and, at worst, violence or threat of punishment. Rejecting the notion that reclaiming transness in the past is ahistorical, Manion refuses to define the gender identity of these ‘female husbands’, among them Charles Hamilton, George Johnson, Frank Dubois, walking the line between recovery and historicization. It is precisely this complexity that makes this such a powerful read, forcing us to challenge modern binaries of gender and sexuality as we retrace the histories of our queer ancestors.
Through a number of very personal stories, this book retraces the journey of the trans community in Britain from the margins of society to the visible phenomenon we recognise today. In their own words, trans rights advocates tell the story of the fight for their rights in the face of overwhelming opposition, and it is impossible not to respect their determination. For those interested in the current ongoing discussions about trans rights, this book is an excellent resource, despite being a difficult read at times.
This surrealist novel tells the story of a young, unnamed, transgender woman who lives with other trans women on the Street of Miracles, where different kinds of sex work take place. In response to the murder of another trans woman, the others form a vigilante gang and start attacking men on the street. Kai Cheng Thom herself is a non-binary transgender woman, who, as a writer and poet, exaggerates people from her life as characters in her work. As a response to the trope of transgender memoirs educating cisgender individuals about trans lives, Thom instead wrote Fierce Femmes to be the book that would have best helped her as a transgender teenager.
‘Never give up, you might be closer than you think’ seems like the kind of statement you would find on a fridge magnet, but also has surprising relevance when it comes to one of the greatest archaeological discoveries in modern history.
After several fruitless dig attempts, Howard Carter and his team were almost at the point of downing tools and leaving the Valley of Kings for good when, one hundred years ago exactly, the steps to the tomb of Tutankhamun were suddenly unearthed, and the field of Egyptology changed forever (Carter, 1972).
Although Carter seemingly adopted an air of nonchalance, simply recording ‘first steps of tomb found’ in his diary (The Griffith Institute, 2022a), the excitement at such a significant discovery must have been palpable. 100 years on, Tutankhamun remains somewhat of a figurehead of Egyptology, and our fascination with the Boy King shows no signs of slowing. In Oxford alone, there are talks and exhibitions celebrating the anniversary of the discovery, and I was lucky enough to assist the Egyptology subject librarian, Susanne Woodhouse, with a book display in the Sackler.
As the Sackler houses a large collection of Egyptology books, there is naturally a plethora of resources related to Tutankhamun. Fortunately for me, Susanne had already decided which books should be featured in the display, focusing on four clear categories: the excavation of the tomb; Tutankhamun and the British Museum; Tutankhamun and Oxford (Howard Carter’s excavation archive was moved to the Griffith Institute, housed within the Sackler by his niece, Phyllis Walker after his death (The Griffith Institute, 2022b)); and Tutankhamun’s place in history. All that was left for me to do was track down the required titles (with a little help from the incredible interactive floorplan of the Sackler) and create a mock-up of the display to make sure it was aesthetically pleasing but with enough structural integrity to prevent collapse if readers wanted a closer look at some of the items, before setting up the final display on the ground floor. As well as the books and journals, we also added some flyers for the exhibition on Tutankhamun at the Weston Library and used a reproduction of one of the painted sides of a box found in the tomb to create a visually striking display (Davis and Gardiner, 1962).
As someone working in the library sector, I particularly enjoyed learning how objects from the tomb were handled- Carter had no formal archaeology training, but working with a small team, managed to carefully catalogue, transport and protect over 5000 items (López and Healy, 2022).
Tutankhamun has captivated people around the world for one hundred years- from cigarette cards and hieroglyphic wallpaper in the 1920s (Masters, 2014/ Riggs, 2019) to today’s increase in Egyptian-led excavations in and around the Valley of the Kings. And with the new 889-million-pound home for the objects found in Tutankhamun’s tomb (The Grand Egyptian Museum) hopefully opening in 2023 (Mueller, 2022), Tutankhamun’s popularity shows no sign of waning.
Although we may never know the full truth about Tutankhamun’s short life and unexpected death, the tomb and its contents still have secrets to share. Professor Yehia Gad, a geneticist and expert in the field of DNA analysis of ancient mummies, is currently studying samples from Tutankhamun with the hope of shedding some light on his family history and potential hereditary conditions (Mueller, 2022).
It’s clear that although Tutankhamun may be long gone, his legacy continues to inspire- who knows what the next 100 years will uncover?
Tutankhamun: Excavating the Archive is a free exhibition at the Weston Library (in collaboration with The Griffith Institute) running until the 5th of February 2023. More information can be found here.
[NB the Sackler Library has now been renamed to the Art, Archaeology and Ancient World Library]
Carter, H. (1972) The tomb of Tutankhamen. [Abridged]. London: Sphere. CHAPTER 5, p.31
Davies, N.M. and Gardiner, A.H. (1962) Tutankhamun’s painted box : reproduced in colour from the original in the Cairo Museum. Oxford: Griffith Institute.
López, A.L. and Healy, P. (2022) Filled with riches- and meaning. Washington: National Geographic. November 2022, pp.74-75
One of my favourite trainee jobs is getting to spend time with all the new books that arrive at the EFL – from stamping and stickering to putting them out on display. I also write a blog post each month highlighting a few of the new books that caught my eye. Some months, we have so many interesting books that I simply can’t choose and end up writing two posts! That’s what happened in October – we had a lot of new books by black British and African American writers arrive at the library and, seeing as October is Black History Month, it seemed like a good opportunity to spotlight a few. If you’re interested in other new books at the EFL, you can check out our monthly blog posts or find all our new books on LibraryThing. If you’re visiting the library, be sure to check out the selection on the new books display!
Ferdinand Dennis was born in Jamaica before moving to London with his family at the age of eight, and themes of migration and one’s roots are woven into the very fabric of his work. The Black and White Museum, a short story collection which follows a series of characters in London, is no exception. Together, the stories encompass ‘generational conflict, the social threat of black men, the wistful longings that disrupt lives, [and] the powerlessness of the old’ (from the publisher) against a backdrop of gentrification and change in London since the mid-twentieth century. As Dennis’s characters grow older, some are tempted to leave London and return ‘home’, only to find that just like the London of their youth, home has changed too. Dennis often leaves his characters and their stories abruptly, before any sense of resolution is reached. This has the effect of underlining the uprooted, interrupted, and diasporic experiences of so many of Dennis’s characters, all of whom ultimately want only to feel that they belong.
Perhaps the first thing you might notice about Natasha Brown’s debut novel is its brevity – it runs to only 100 pages, and even the narrative style is characterised by brief and fleeting vignettes in the life of its unnamed narrator. That narrator is a black British woman who has achieved all the trappings of success, from an Oxbridge education to homeownership and a successful career. But when she is diagnosed with cancer, those successes start to ring hollow. By unpacking her narrator’s experiences, Brown confronts the reader with the endless, everyday racism black British women face. This, then, is ‘a story about the stories we live within – those of race and class, safety and freedom, winners and losers’ (from the publisher). The brevity of Brown’s prose does not detract from the relentless and exhausting racism her narrator comes up against, nor does it diminish the emotional punch of the novel’s conclusion.
June Jordan (1936-2002) was an American poet, activist, journalist, essayist, and teacher. She wrote prolifically, publishing over 25 works of poetry, fiction, and essays, as well as children’s books, journalism, and even lyrics for musicians, plays and musicals. Not only was she an active participant in the politics and struggles that defined the USA in the second half of the twentieth century – from civil rights and feminism to the anti-war and gay and lesbian rights movements – she chronicled those movements too. In this collection, you will find poems exploring issues of gender, race, immigration, and much more, all characterised by Jordan’s ‘dazzling stylistic range’. These are poems ‘moved as much by political animus as by a deep love for the observation of human life in all its foibles, eccentricities, strengths and weaknesses’ (from the publisher). While her poems can and indeed should be read as revealing the heart of the politics, debates and struggles of twentieth-century America, they should also be celebrated for their beauty and musicality.
This anthology of African American poetry, edited by Kevin Young, covers an incredible breadth of poets, poetry, and time periods. The poems are presented in chronological blocks, taking the reader all the way from 1770 to 2020. The poetry styles range from formal to experimental, vernacular, and protest poetry. The selections are hugely varied in terms of theme, too, encompassing ‘beauty and injustice, music and muses, Africa and America, freedoms and foodways, Harlem and history, funk and opera, boredom and longing, jazz and joy’ (from Young’s Introduction). Featuring contemporary African American poets alongside little-known and often out-of-print older works, this is a truly expansive anthology. But Young doesn’t only offer us an enormous breadth of poetry and poets. Each work sits alongside a biography of its author, as well as comprehensive notes which highlight the cultural and historical contexts of the works and, indeed, of the African American experience since the late eighteenth century.
Gloryis NoViolet Bulawayo’s second novel and, just like her debut (We Need New Names, 2013 – also at the EFL), it features on the Booker Prize shortlist. Bulawayo here satirises Robert Mugabe’s surprise fall from power in Zimbabwe, in the form of a reimagining of Orwell’s Animal Farm described as ‘allegory, satire and fairytale rolled into one mighty punch’ (from The Guardian’s review, March 2022). The country of Jadada has the longest-serving leader any country has ever had, a horse named Old Horse – that is, until he is deposed and supplanted by his erstwhile vice-president turned rival. The hope that regime-change brings quickly gives way to despair once it becomes clear that the corruption, violence, and struggles of daily life in fact remain the same. Into the gap left by lost hope steps Destiny, a young goat newly returned from exile, who seeks to witness and document the cycle of revolution and violence. While anyone familiar with the events in Zimbabwe of late 2017 will recognise certain figures and moments, there is also a universality to Bulawayo’s observations and the innovative dexterity of her prose that speaks to something timeless and entirely human.
In this volume of essays, edited by John Ernest, you’ll find explorations of the representations of race in nineteenth- and twentieth-century American literature, representations which – it is argued – are key to understanding the whole of the United States. After all, race shapes everything, from economic policy to where people live, forming the ‘ominous subtext’ of the legal, judicial, and wider governmental infrastructure of the state. The contributors to this volume explore how literature has variously been used both to cement racial visual images in the public consciousness and to fight back against those images, to separate people along racial lines and to form communities. Taken together, the essays do not aim to provide a comprehensive or chronological history of race in American literature; rather, they seek to ‘place readers in this chaotic process of literary and cultural development – caught up in a story, already in progress’ (from Ernest’s Introduction).
9:00 – I switch on my computer, load up the main enquiries email box and begin filtering through queries from readers. These commonly include researchers struggling to access a database, students who can’t return to the UK but have a pile of books due at the SSL, and suggestions for resources to add to our collections. I really enjoy being able to make a difference to someone’s research by helping them find a resource they’ve been struggling to access. Additionally, the main inbox is where the room booking requests from our Google Form are delivered, so I filter through these and add them to the calendar.
9:15 – I begin opening up the library with a colleague, switching the self-issue machine and printers on, and deleting any expired hold requests. Once we’ve wheeled in the out of hours book returns box, we open up the doors and begin to let readers in.
9:30 – The library is now open, and I take the first desk shift of the day. This involves assisting readers with their questions, lending and returning books, and answering the phone. When I first started this job, I was nervous to be on the desk on my own as the thought that the readers could ask me anything felt intimidating. However, working with the students and academics has become one of my favourite parts of the job, and I know I can always ask a colleague for advice if the question is a bit rogue. When the desk is quiet, I work on a project which involves making sure any online resources for Social Science courses (eBooks, podcasts, YouTube videos) are marked clearly as viewable online on the reading list, and that the links to these work.
10:30 – I take a break! Sometimes I take a trip to The Missing Bean Café in the St Cross Building next door to catch up with a fellow trainee and reward ourselves with a doughnut.
10:50 – For the rest of the morning, I’m processing new books. This involves some physical processing: sticking in a slip about returning books, stamping it with an SSL stamp, covering it with sticky back plastic, and inserting “tattle tapes”, which are thin magnets that stick in between the pages of our books to trigger the exit gates unless desensitised when loaned to the reader. After this, I process the book on Aleph, our library management system, which involves creating a holding and adding the shelf mark, reading list codes, and marking the book as loanable or a library use only copy. Once this is complete, the information will display on the user’s end – SOLO – so that they can search for and find the book.
12:30 – It’s lunchtime! Time to take a walk to the University Parks around the corner for some fresh air and a break away from the library.
1:30 – Another desk shift! I continue responding to the enquiries in the SSL’s email box. I also log a reader onto our Bloomberg terminal. This is a high demand PC that has access to current and historical financial data on currencies and the stock market. To keep the data secure we don’t give out the password for it, which is why we have to assist researchers in accessing the terminal. I also make sure to organise the post that has been delivered to us, sifting through new physical copies of journals and letters for the librarians before popping them in their pigeonholes. I finish up by scanning in and popping onto the shelves the newly arrived Bodleian stack requests that readers order from the storage facility to be accessed in the reading rooms.
2:30 – I take some time to create a blog post advertising upcoming Bodleian iSkills sessions which are relevant to researchers and students in the Social Sciences. These usually cover topics such as Open Access, referencing, or finding appropriate research materials. Once this is written up, I schedule the post along with a Tweet and Facebook post so the sessions reach as wide an audience as possible. I then fetch some books requested by the Accessible Resources Unit who take our print copies of books and transform them into electronic text, Braille, audio and tactile diagrams for users with disabilities. I make sure to select a clean copy as sadly there is often lots of highlighting or written notes which can make the process difficult! However, the turnaround for this process can be really quick, which always impresses me and is great news for the students that require them.
3:30 – Time for another break! Snacking gets me through the day.
4:30 – After taking 5 minutes to water the plants, I update the new books display with brand new legal deposit books, research books and print outs of some new eBook covers too. This helps keep the library looking fresh and up to date whilst also allowing our readers to access the new releases in their field quickly. It’s also an opportunity to be a bit creative and directly contribute something to the readers’ experience at the library.
5:30 – Time to go home! No need to lock up as the SSL is open until 10pm on weeknights, so after handing over to my evening colleagues, my day is done.