In the middle of a mild October, myself and some of my fellow trainees attended a tour of the libraries at St Edmund Hall (SEH). This visit was prompted by their exhibition of ‘Poem, Story & Scape in the work of Kevin Crossley-Holland’ and also, admittedly, curiosity to see how another college organised their libraries.
When I reached out to the library team at SEH about visiting the exhibition, they very kindly offered to talk us through not just the exhibition, but also give us a behind the scenes of the Hall and its libraries (and medieval crypt! Result!)
Curated by Dr Catherine Batt, Senior Lecturer in Medieval Literature at the University of Leeds, the Crossley-Holland exhibition was first shown at the Stanley and Audrey Burton Gallery. Since this debut it has made its way to Oxford and, more specifically, the Old Library at SEH.
Crossley-Holland studied English at SEH and is a ‘prize-winning children’s author, translator, poet, librettist, editor and professor’. I was familiar with his Arthur books from reading them as a child. These absorbing stories intertwine Arthurian legend with the story of a boy living at the turn of the 13th century who sees these myths unfolding in a lump of obsidian. It could be fair to say that these books (along with the BBC’s Merlin, of course) sealed my fate with regards to my un-wandering obsession with the knight-errant.
Crossley-Holland is an honorary fellow at SEH so it seems fitting that an exhibition charting his explorations of language, place and legend would be held there, possibly where his love for all things Arthurian began.
On the day of the tour, we learnt that the library collection at SEH began under the crafty eye of Dr Thomas Tullie, who was the principal of the Hall from 1658 – 1676. He introduced a tradition by which departing students would gift the Hall with a book or silver plate worth £5. That was no small fee in those days – £5 would be what a skilled labourer would earn in 71 days!. These rather substantial tokens of gratitude for lessons learned at SEH shaped the collection that still survives to this day.
Before Tullie’s scheme, the Hall (the first documented reference to which dates to 1317) had existed for many years without a library, but on our visit to SEH we were treated to tours of not one but two libraries, and I feel as though their addition can only have changed the Hall for the better.
The Old Library
The first stop on our tour was the Old Library – this is where the books that were gradually gifted by students as they left the Hall from the 1680s found their first home.
The books in this library cover a range of subjects and serve as a window into the tastes and tilts of the Hall’s attendees across its history. Upon our visit, yet another window into the Hall’s more recent history was open to us.
The ‘Poem, Story & Scape in the work of Kevin Crossley-Holland’ exhibition tracks the works of Crossley Holland chronologically, beginning at one end of the Old Library with books containing the Old English texts and fragments he would have studied as a student, and ending with his most recent publications. This journey through literary history and Crossley-Holland’s own academic ventures ducks and dives in and out of rabbit holes of a creative’s endless fascinations – we see explorations into photography, fiction, poetry, translation…
The closest end of the table upon entering the Old Library was laden with what felt like a crash course in Old English. I felt transported back to the beginning of my own degree in English Language and Literature, with manuscripts holding translations of Cædmon’s Hymn and many versions of Beowulf, including a translation by Crossley-Holland himself. It felt like watching the new iterations of inspiration from texts that have moved readers, writers, artists and students for hundreds of years literally spill out of these works as you moved through the room and exhibition.
Prior to starting at Christ Church as a library graduate trainee I spent some time working in a gallery. I am really interested in how the space an exhibition is displayed in influences and informs the work and the way it’s experienced. At the Old Library at SEH you spiral up a narrow staircase to a room filled with dark wood, grated bookshelves and warm light – the exhibition is just asking to be poured over.
One of my favourite aspects of the exhibition was the artworks that Crossley Holland has commissioned over the course of his career to compliment his work. Hung from the grating on the shelves, these images ranged from intricate prints to expressive illustrations.
Here are a couple of my favourites:
This piece is titled ‘Malory’ and is a lino print by Edward Bawden: bold, with a particularly playful depiction of chainmail, though a rather violent depiction of everything else…. Bawden and Crossley Holland worked together on Chronicles of King Arthur.
Hannah Firmin’s pieces in Axe-Age, Wolf-Age particularly charmed me. Plus, the brightly coloured block prints in this selection of Morse Myths make for a lovely contrast to the bold black and white of Bawden’s lino prints.
Towards the more joyfully bizarre end of the Oxford libraries spectrum we have SEH’s working library – housed in a 12th century church, St Peter-in-the-East. The church was deconsecrated in 1970, but readers in this library still work above a medieval crypt – one wonders if there is a notable influence on student’s work from such proximity…
The approach to the library is a pathway through a graveyard – a rather maudlin approach to a study session, perhaps. (If you want to become better acquainted with those lining such an expedition, SEH’s website has transcriptions of the names on the gravestones). Once in the library and weaving through student desks, our guide pointed out gorgeous tiling decorated with angels – hiding, slightly shyly, behind a row of German dictionaries. Stained glass splashes the working space with colour and a stone tomb stands in line with a study desk. The bronze plates that adorn its surface were apparently pilfered from another tomb – the features of a different family are thought to be engraved on the other side!
All the accoutrements of a church used as a place of worship until 1965 brush shoulders with the conveniences of a modern library here, and the effect is distinctly unique. Slinking through the stacks in this library feels like embarking on a treasure hunt – can you spot all the signs of hundreds of years of history?
I’d like to finish this post by thanking the lovely library team at SEH who very kindly showed us around and shared the fascinating history of the Hall and its libraries with us – we had a wonderful time!
Special thanks to Josie from the Law Library for the transcription.
What is a college?
Heather (St Edmund Hall): A college is a community of students and staff who are all part of Oxford University, but within the university community they’re also part of their own separate college community. Most colleges have undergraduates and postgraduates, but some colleges are postgraduate only. Some colleges are very big with lots of students and staff, and some are much smaller.
Georgie (St. John’s): Students can get accommodation, catering, and teaching through their college, and as part of that, the college will have its own library.
Jemima (New): There may appear to be some discrepancy between older and newer colleges but they essentially all do the same job for their students. Even though some of them look bigger or older or have a particular reputation, they all serve the same purpose.
How does the library fit into the college?
Jemima: I think generally a college library will cater for most undergraduate academic needs, but from my experience (as a graduate student here) there was more of an expectation that a college library wouldn’t cater for more in-depth academic research. Whether that’s true or not, a college library is definitely more of a centre for undergraduates, perhaps because it’s seen as less overwhelming than a bigger Bodleian library.
Ben (Pembroke): Yes, the library is at it’s heart a hub for students. We have a few postdocs and fellows who use our library, but mostly it’s used by undergraduates and taught postgraduates who all study a wide array of disciplines, reflecting our growing library collection. We’re open 24/7 and the library is also open for all Pembroke staff. Also our library is a space for holding Pembroke’s archives and special collections which attracts visiting researchers and research students.
Heather: It’s definitely more of a direct service for the students, and I think it’s interesting that when people apply to Oxford or Cambridge, they don’t really think about the fact that they’ll have a college library, but it’s actually a really important aspect. It’s really there to cater to a student’s own needs, so at Teddy Hall, for instance, we buy a lot of student requested books, which something you can do through your college library, but is not something Bodleian libraries tend to do.
Lizzie (All Souls): All Souls Library is mainly there for the Fellows* (as there aren’t any undergraduate students at All Souls). The Fellows can request that we buy books, and also if a particular Fellow with a particular research interest is there for a number of years, we can develop a significant collection relating to that interest. But the library does serve a dual purpose because it is also open to external readers. Because the college doesn’t have its own students, if there is a book that is highly requested across the university, or quite expensive, the library will buy that book so that it’s potentially available to all students.
*Fellows are senior members of a college, whose responsibilities typically include teaching, research, administration, and participation in the college’s governance.
Georgie: Another thing to mention is study spaces. College libraries mean that the students who want to use the library can do that somewhere which, in a lot of cases, is near to their accommodation.
Heather: We have height-adjustable desks, and printing and photocopying facilities and they all get used a lot. We’re open 24 hours and you can see from the records that there are people in here throughout day and night.
Jemima: That’s actually a good point: I think a key difference between Bodleian libraries and college libraries is that Bodleian libraries aren’t open as late as college ones. At New, we’re not open 24 hours, but we are open until 2:00 in the morning. I would say that a college library is accessible at most times of day whereas the Bodleian is less so.
Lizzie: At All Souls, all the books are confined so readers can’t borrow them. That means the library is used more as a study space, since it’s very quiet and there are fewer people taking books off shelves, as all the books are locked up (though you can request me to get them for you). The library also serves as a venue for the college for events such as Encaenia, or drink receptions. Sometimes you can be participating in college stuff more than library stuff.
Can you describe your Library in three words?
Heather: Church, friendly, busy.
Ben: Unintimidating, 1970s, welcoming.
Lizzie: Unique, architectural, research.
How many staff members are there in your Library?
Jemima: We have four of us in the main office, basically full-time, then there’s the Archivist, the Curatorial Assistant (who was a trainee last year, and is now part-time), and a Shelving Assistant in the mornings in term time. I think it’s a relatively big team for a college library.
Ben: In the library team, it’s just me and the Librarian, so I often wear multiple hats and juggle jobs such as invigilating researchers, cataloguing, shelving, dissertation-binding, reading list creation, purchasing acquisitions, rare books enquiries, and lots more. Working in a small team is great! There is always something to do, and you gain a well-rounded, and sometimes unexpected experience.
Lizzie: We have a Librarian-in-Charge & Conservator, Senior Assistant Librarian, Assistant Librarian for Digital Resources, and a Graduate Trainee (me!), as well as this, we have the following staff who are part-time: Assistant Librarian for Rare Books, a Clerk to the Archives, and the Serials Librarian (who does cataloguing).
Heather: So, at Teddy Hall, it’s me as the Graduate Trainee, James the Librarian, and Emma who is the Assistant Librarian, and our Archivist, Rob, who is in two days a week. He’s also the Archivist at Oriel and I know that it’s quite common for archivists to be shared across colleges. We also have a Library Fellow on the Library Committee.
Jemima: Yes, I think our Fellow Librarian is involved in important decision-making but I barely see him from day to day. I don’t have very much contact with him at all. It sounds like a similar setup.
Lizzie: I see my Fellow Librarian every day. They do the top-level college stuff and there’s a lot of committees so they sit on those as well.
What’s distinctive about the collection in your Library?
Ben (Pembroke): As much as it is a collection reflecting Pembroke’s history as an institution (Pembroke was founded in 1624), we do have some more rogue objects, often things connected with alumni or past staff, such as Tolkien’s letters (we have an amazing letter where Tolkien writes to a friend that he is starting a book called The Hobbit which he hopes will be a success), Samuel Johnson’s desk, Samuel Johnson’s teapot, a fountain pen used by Lyndon B. Johnson, oh and a WWII Japanese sword!
Jemima (New): We have a very good manuscripts and early printed books special collection – I think that comes with the age and wealth of the college. In fact, about 30-40% of my time is spent invigilating readers who come to use our Special Collections for research.
Heather (St Edmund Hall): Something distinctive about our lending collection is that we have lots of student requests and new acquisitions – we’re working hard to try to diversify what we have. At the moment, I am starting to decolonise our history collection.
What kind of interactions do you have with Library readers?
Heather: Readers ask pretty much anything and everything – I spend about half my time on the issue desk. Our library is in a 12th-century church, so we also have people coming to see the building.
Ben: Fairly, a lot! Questions can be anything from “how do I find this book?” all the way to, “Would it be possible to see ‘x’ manuscript?”. During COVID peaks, when students are self-isolating, I deliver books around college to them. My workspace isn’t usually at an issue desk, but at the start of the year I gave lots of induction talks, so now the readers know who I am. This means they are confident to pop into my office, or stop me around college to ask me questions.
Jemima: We don’t have a specific issue desk (everyone is based in the office), so I don’t interact with readers as much as you two do. But that doesn’t mean they don’t come to the office with questions, mostly if they’re having problems with the self-issue machines or they want to borrow a book but don’t have their Bod (library) card.
How does working in a college compare with your expectations?
Jemima: I hadn’t anticipated how much social media, exhibitions and ‘internal outreach’ work I’d get to do. It’s really nice that so much of my role is about sharing the collection with people in college.
Ben: At Pembroke, the Library and Archives work together a lot of the time, which makes the job all the more fun. I can be climbing ladders in order to hang pictures in the hall one minute, then in the next I can be in the depths of the stacks, then helping out with object talks for students or working with furniture and pictures conservators the next, all the way to reader services enquires. However, I think that’s the product of my library team being so small.
Jemima: Yeah, I think it’s worth saying that I think college library jobs are really varied in terms of what you do and the influence you’re able to have.
Do you get involved with other parts of the College?
Heather: Actually, that’s another thing I was surprised by: you’re part of the College team as well as the Library team. I’ve worked with the Communications team to set up a Library Instagram, and worked with the Housekeeping department on the sustainability project.
Jemima: Although as Graduate Trainee I don’t interact with other departments that often, as a Library and Archives department we collaborate with JCR and MCR committees (similar to a college-based Student Unions) to organise tours, and with the college Warden (i.e. Principal or President) on things like exhibitions.
That concludes our discussion about college library life! We managed to get through the whole thing without mentioning the free college lunches. Oh, no, wait…
As a College Library trainee my days can vary a lot. During term time our Library is always busy, with students coming in and out all day (literally – we are open 24/7) to study, to find and borrow books, and to make use of our other Library services – such as our wide selection of borrowable board games!
As I’m writing this it is fourth week – almost half way through term! This is a pretty typical term time day, though with more chocolate than is normal…
9am – Sorting, Shelving, Socials
I start by scanning my own and the shared Library email inboxes for anything which needs urgent attention. I’m part of a team of three here at Teddy Hall (me – Heather, Emma – Assistant Librarian, and James – Librarian); we all share responsibility for monitoring the Library inbox and responding to queries which come in there. I then process the returns which come in overnight. In the middle of term there are rarely huge piles of books: I’d guess around 20 each morning.
Next I turn to our Click and Collect requests. The Library started offering this during 2020 to support students who were in isolation but needed to access books from the Library. Students submit a request either via email or SOLO (the University’s book-finding-website – literally, Search Oxford Libraries Online), and we find the book and deliver it either to their pigeon hole or directly to their room. Then it’s time for some shelving! I actually find shelving books a nice way to start the day: there is something very grounding about sorting everything into its rightful place. Shelving also gives me a chance to have a walk around the Library and do some general tidying – I’ll also check there is paper in the printer, free period products in the bathroom, pens in the pen pot, and staples in the stapler.
My final morning task is to check the Library social media accounts: Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook. I’ll check whether we have any planned content to go out today, or which I need to prepare for later in the week.
10am – Blind Date with a Book
On Monday this week (7 Feb 2022) we launched Blind Date with a Book – Teddy Hall students, staff and Fellows request a book, telling us a little bit about what they like to read, and we set them up with something we think they’ll love. To celebrate Valentine’s Day and LGBTQIA+ History Month, we are selecting books with themes of gender, sexuality, and romance. Blind Date is always extremely popular, and on Monday alone we had 15 requests! This morning Emma, James and I shared ideas for what to give people who had requested books from poetry, to fantasy fiction, to a humorous and fun-to-read non-fiction. This is a really fun part of the day, and I inevitably end up with a list of books I want to read!
We wrap the books, affix a Valentine’s chocolate to the cover, and pop them in pigeon holes to await their dates…
11am – Desk Duty
I enjoy sitting at the Issue Desk, as I can help students with any queries they may have. Sometimes this can feel a bit like detective work! For example, today a student came to the desk with two items on her reading list which she and her classmates were struggling to find. The only information provided was an author name, a date, and a mysterious acronym… After some SOLO-searching, some googling and some guess work I found both articles – one of which we had in a physical book in the library. If you’re interested, the acronyms were the names of the journals in which the articles were published! Students are always really grateful for any help you can give, and so even when I feel stumped, I remember that any progress I can make in searching something out is time saved for them, and that is a good thing.
12.30pm – Lunch
You may have heard it before, but it’s worth reading again: college library jobs mean a free college lunch. These are consistently yummy, and because we all eat together, lunch in college is a really great way to chat to the rest of the Library team and also to other college staff. Today this chat covered the important topics of planetariums, dodgy ideas for fusion food, and Cadbury World.
1.30pm – Books, Books, Books
By lunchtime we’ve usually had some new books delivered, which I’ll collect from Porter’s Lodge and process. As these are often student requests, I will then almost immediately take the books back to the Lodge to put them in student pigeon holes!
2pm – Book Shopping (yes, seriously)
One of the best parts of my job is going to Blackwell’s for books. We are so lucky to have Blackwell’s as a resource and it is just a short walk from Teddy Hall, so when we can, we buy our books directly from there. This also means we can turn any requests around as quickly as possible! Today, as well as picking up a student request I am keeping my eyes open for anything which might be a great Blind Date book! I do find a personal favourite lock down read of mine: Mackenzi Lee’s The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue. As it’s a LGBTQIA+ love story, a Teddy Hall Blind Date requester should be expecting this in their pigeon hole soon!
3pm – Ticking off Tasks
This afternoon I’m sat up in my office, working on some ongoing tasks. This week I’ve got three balls which I am juggling. First, I’m preparing a book display and blog post celebrating International Day of Women and Girls in Science by showcasing the work of our own college Fellows.
Second, I am working through a donation of books we received over Christmas vacation – over 2,500 of them! When they arrived, we spread the books out over the thankfully-student-free desks and then organised them roughly into subjects, before putting what we could onto available shelves. The rest were boxed up and are currently living at the very top of the Teddy Hall Library tower…! We have started making lists of the books in the donation, and will decide what we want to keep and what we will offer to other libraries. If it’s a quiet day during term I might spend some time on this, but mostly this will get picked up properly again at Easter.
Third, I am planning my own Trainee project. As part of the Traineeship, we all work on an individual project which we then present about at the end of the year. My project is all about making the Library more sustainable… I’m really looking forward to working on this – so watch this space!
5pm – “Home” Time
One of the best things about living in Oxford is just how much there is to do in the city – and I love to take full advantage of that! From catching up with the other Trainees for a drink, to attending a seminar about medieval culture (I did a Masters in Medieval English Literature!), to meeting friends for dinner, or playing in orchestra (optional seminars and orchestra?! Yes – I am a bit of a nerd), Oxford is a great place to be. And there is loads to do which won’t break the bank! Today, though, it’s straight home for a hot chocolate and to continue reading Ali Smith’s wonderful book ‘Spring’.
With the holidays fast approaching, decorations have started to appear in the Libraries and a festive spirit is in the air. For some of our Graduate Library Trainees, it has been the perfect opportunity to reflect on the year so far, and talk about some of the highlights of their role.
Heather Barr, St Edmund Hall
We brought Christmas to St Edmund Hall’s Old Library this year with a display of books and archive materials with fun festive facts and college celebrations throughout the years. Our display includes beautiful wintery paintings, including one of Teddy Hall’s Front Quad in Snow (1966), given to Principal Kelly by the artist, Alexandra Troubetzkoy (see right). Our Old Library is home to the first scientific publication to interrogate the shape of snowflakes (see left): Johannes Kepler’s C. Maiest. mathematici strena seu De niue sexangula (1611) (SEH Shelfmark 4° G 18(6)).
Keplerconjectures that they must be formed as such to optimise their tessellation, like a honeycomb. Or, perhaps there is some quality in the water that causes them to freeze in their signature hexagonal shape? Most importantly, he identifies a link between the shape of snowflakes and other crystalline formations in rocks.
And, of course, it wouldn’t be Christmas without some cards! We showcased Christmas cards from the Archives, collected and saved by Principal Emden during the Second World War (see right). These cards were sent from all over the world,including from H.M.S. Satellite, a naval ship in the middle of the ocean. Some have rather topical designs, such as a bull charging Hitler, or the three wise men being guided by a shining Intelligence Corps crest! Today, these cards serve a positive reminder that even in the midst of worldwide suffering and disaster, small messages of hope and love can go a long way.
Izzie Salter, Sackler Library
As term draws to a close, the Sackler Library has become quieter and quieter. Between issuing books on the main desk, my colleague and I have donned it with decorations. Crafted out of library paraphernalia – who knew archival tying tape could be so versatile – I hope this has brought some cheer to our more loyal readers, staying here until closure. To those based locally to the Sackler, do walk past the Ashmolean one evening. It looks beautiful this time of year.
My first term as a trainee has been wonderfully varied. I have been so fortunate to work on some amazing projects at the library, as well as spending time learning alongside my fellow trainees. A few highlights of this term include presenting Japanese photography books (which I have researched regularly over the past 3 months) at the History of Art Show and Tell, working with the trainees to produce Black History reading recommendations, and learning about conservation and special collections at the Weston Library. I can’t wait to see what the new year brings, after a restful Christmas break.
[NB the Sackler Library has now been renamed to the Art, Archaeology and Ancient World Library]
Jemima Bennett, New College Library
New College Library Christmas started particularly early, even by Oxford standards, as by mid-November we had begun to put together a Christmas exhibition, and our Twitter advent calendar, choosing items and writing captions. I have also spent several very enjoyable afternoons wrapping books for our Surprise Christmas Loan scheme, as well as decorating our Christmas tree, and helping create an iconic book sculpture (pictured here). This term has been a blast – a wide-ranging and really relevant set of training sessions, an excellent trainee cohort, and being able to work with such beautiful manuscripts are definitely some highlights.
Lucy Davies, Social Science Library
At the SSL, we got into the Christmas mood by celebratingChristmas Jumper Day.Wearing our best festive jumpers (and masks!), we raised £142 for Save the Children. A highlight of this term has been the training sessions every week and gaining an insight into all the different jobs within the Bodleian Libraries. I especially loved the trip to the Conservation Studio at the Weston Library! I also really enjoy seeing the variety of books that arrive from the BSF every day and talking to readers about their research.
Georgie Moore, St John’s College Library
If you are following any Libraries, Museums, or Archives on Twitter, you’ll probably have noticed the annual December deluge of Christmassy content.
Outside of term time, I’m responsible for scheduling one Tweet a week, so I have been prowling our catalogue for festive material. Drafting a Tweet was part of the application process for this Trainee position, but even still I didn’t realise quite how much thought goes into maintaining a consistent tone and diversity of content.
Here are three of the tweet ideas that didn’t make the cut in December (and why not):
1. A Christmas Carol is a festive favourite for many, but Charles Dickens also contributed other seasonal stories to volumes like Mugby Junction: the extra Christmas number of All the year round (Vet.Engl.76). The small font and lack of illustrations aren’t very eye-catching for a Twitter photograph, but these advertisements provide a wintery window into Victorian buying habits: juvenile gift books, patented pickles and miniature billiards. (see left)
2. ‘The Exaltation of Christmas Pye’ – this might be cheating, but the only reason I haven’t shared this is because I didn’t find it! There are some highly quotable moments in this 17th-century mock-sermon (HB4/3.a.5.8(23)) such as when the author elevates the invention of
Christmas plum pies to the same level as ‘Guns and Printing’.
3. The Psalter (MS 82) includes some beautiful medieval illustrations. I’d wanted to caption this ‘When the waiter brings the final bill to the table after the work Christmas do’ but given the cancellation of so many Christmas parties this festive season, that felt like rubbing salt in the wound. (see left)
Josie Fairley Keast, Bodleian Law Library
Although I enjoy handling books as much as the next librarian, a surprising highlight for mehas been working with various forms of online resource provision.(This is perhaps less surprising to anyone who has had to listen to me talk about scanning recently).Fromtracking down resources for reading lists and LibGuides to navigating copyright restrictionsandexploring the UK Web Archive,I’ve really enjoyed my traineeship so far, and I’mlooking forward to getting more involved with certain areas in the new year.During a recentweekend shift, I was entrusted with decorating the LawBod Christmas tree – picturedis our resident angel,which I’m told was handmade by a previous trainee.
Sophie Lay, English Faculty Library
J. R. R. Tolkien and Nevill Coghill have donned now their gay apparel – the former in a classic Santa hat and the latter in a crown of golden holly tinsel – and the festive season has fully hit the English Faculty Library. As Graduate Trainee, it’s my job to decorate the library with the aforementioned festive headgear, as well as paper chains, miniature Christmas trees, and seasonal rubber ducks to join our regular desk companion, Bill Shakespeare.
The end of term has also left a little more time for reflection on the past few months. I’d be delighted to share with you just one of the parts of my job that I’ve enjoyed the most since starting here at Bodleian Libraries. Not to be incredibly corny, but interactions with readers really do add a delightful element to your average desk-shift. From friendly and familiar faces to unexpected compliments to charming lost-and-found items (including returning a child’s hand-written note which read ‘momy I luv yoo’), there is so much joy to be had in interacting with readers.
I’ll leave you off with a final festive treat. I’ve done some digging through the rare book room and have uncovered a little treasure. While it’s not the genuine article, we do have a delightful facsimile of Dicken’s original manuscript for A Christmas Carol, in his own handwriting and with his own edits – including his signature looping and cross-hatching. Just holding it makes me feel more festive!
Emily Main, History Faculty Library
The end of term was definitely noticeable in the library as students started heading home for their holidays. However, the arrival of Warner Brothers and the closure of the Upper Camera for filming has made for an interesting end before the Christmas closure. As well as being dazzled by extremely bright lights when sitting at reception and dodging crowds of fans, we’ve had to implement a book fetching service for books in the Upper Camera and trundle our BSF book crates on a circuitous route through the Old Bod and Gladstone Link! I have loved getting to know the trainees and the team here and enjoyed the variety of my role. A highlight of the role for me has been answering enquiries of readers that require me to dive into a search and investigate their question, for example, in helping them to locate primary resources.
Ben Elliott, Pembroke College Library
Christmas is here, and it is time to reflect. This term has flown by, but it’s been a good one. Pembroke’s library consists of the librarian, me and the archivist and because it is a small team it has meant my traineeship has been distinctly unique and varied. For instance, I have delivered a library induction to visiting fellows from Pembroke’s ‘The Changing Character of War Centre’ which involved talking to a room of senior military officers and a UN advisor… definitely not daunting at all! As well, I have met some truly fascinating and brilliantly eccentric individuals along the way, some even coming as far as from Utah.
It’s been particularly fun getting acquainted with Pembroke’s special collections, rare books and art collection and sharing them with students through object sessions and talks… especially when a talk discusses a naturalist’s book in our collection which attempts to convince readers that the platypus is, in fact, a real animal despite it looking odd!
Working with the college art has been brilliant. Inspecting the conditions of the college oil paintings with a freelance art conservator and the college archivist was a highlight. Staring at a painting of a 19th-century fellow whilst listening to ghost stories of said fellow is a moment I never expected in this job, but an enjoyable surprise, nonetheless.
Juliet Brown, Old Bodleian Library
As the year draws to a close, it is nice to see everyone getting excited about the holiday season. The decorations have gone up in the Bod, and it wouldn’t be Christmas without the Old School Quadrangle Christmas tree in pride of place.
As everyone gets ready to head home for the holidays, it is also a nice time to reflect on my first few months at the Old Bod, and the experiences that have shaped my role as the trainee in this incredible building. I have been very lucky to work within an incredibly supportive team, who put up with my constant questions and have made me feel at home in my new role. As the Old Bod trainee, I have been very fortunate in having an extremely varied working schedule. From duties in reader services (answering enquiries, issuing and returning books, leading tours, shelving, assisting with book deliveries, completing book scans), through to the more technical aspects of the role (helping with interlibrary loans, book processing, preparing books for repair, relabelling), my role has allowed me to complete an extremely diverse range of tasks. In addition, my manager has been keen for me to take on my own responsibilities, which have included designing new posters for the Lower Gladstone Link, creating instructional sheets for the evening team and rehoming a cupboard of abandoned books.
A highlight of the traineeship is the opportunity to take part in sessions designed to expand our knowledge about the various areas that make up librarianship. We have learnt about the technical skills needed for cataloguing, the complex world of Open Access, the importance of social media skills, and discovered the digital tools available to students and researchers at the University. In addition, the traineeship has allowed us to visit the Weston (for an insight into the role of the conservation team and special collections) and even spent an afternoon at the BSF.
I can’t wait to see what the New Year brings, both in terms of training and with my role, after a very restful break at home with my family, dog and lots of good food.
Prompted by Black History Month, we trainees have come together to share contributions from Black voices across our libraries and different disciplines. We invite you to look through our selection, consider them through the coming months, and continue celebrating Black history within your reading throughout the year.
Lizzie Dawson, All Souls College Library
Amo, Anton Wilhelm, & Abraham, W. E., Inaugural philosophical dissertation on The “[apatheia]” of the human mind, Accra: Department of Philosophy, University of Ghana. (Psych.18)
While researching All Souls Library’s collection, I found this translation presented by All Souls’ first African-born Prize Fellow, William Abraham (born 1934).
At first sight, this unbound dissertation is easy to overlook, tucked away on the shelves in the book stacks, but it too is an example of a first.
This document is a translation into English by Abraham of a dissertation by Anton Wilhelm Amo (c. 1700-c. 1750) – born in what is now Ghana, enslaved, and then gifted to the Duke of Braunschweig-Wolfenbüttel – he became the first African person to earn a PhD in philosophy at a European university.
On the 16th of April, 1734, at the University of Wittenberg, Amo defended his dissertation, De Humanae Mentis Apatheia (On the impassivity of the human mind), in which he investigates the logical inconsistencies in René Descartes’ (1596-1650) res cogitans (mind) and res extensa (body) distinction and interaction. One of the 18th century’s most notable Black philosophers, Amo went on to teach philosophy at the Universities of Halle and Jena. You can read the original version of the dissertation with an English translation here.
An influential champion for the cause of abolition, Amo ultimately became embattled by racism and opposition to his beliefs. In 1747, he sailed back to present-day Ghana, where he remained for the rest of his life.
Lorde, Audre, Sister Outsider, London: Penguin, 2019. (DE / POL / 261 / LOR)
Audre Lorde (1934-1992) self-defined as a “black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet”. She was also a School Librarian in New York during the 1960s. As a feminist and activist for the rights of Black and LGBTQ people, Lorde directly challenged white feminists and Black male intellectuals who neglected the experiences of Black and lesbian women.
Although the term ‘intersectionality’ was not coined until the late 1980s, Lorde’s work repeatedly stressed the danger of neglecting differences between women. Sister Outsider (1984) features essays and speeches including her landmark “The Master’s Tools Will Not Dismantle the Master’s House.” In this essay, Lorde argues that although women have been taught to use these differences to separate themselves from other women, or else ignore them, it is only by acknowledging these differences that women’s oppression can be understood and overcome.
Lorde also comments that women are expected to educate men, and Black women are expected to educate white feminists. Reading and listening to the voices of Black women helps people of all races and genders understand how Black women’s experiences are impacted by race, gender, sexuality, class, and age, but relies upon the emotional labour of often marginalised writers. As Lorde writes, poetry is the most accessible and economical form of literature because it can be written ‘between shifts, in the hospital pantry, on the subway and on scraps of surplus paper’. Her perspective challenged me to reconsider poetry, a form I had often associated with elite white male writers, a legacy perhaps of the kind of poets still studied most widely in schools.
Sister Outsider is part of our Diversity & Equality Collection, which showcases writing by and about people in underrepresented and marginalized groups. This collaborative project began last year, with members from across the College making book recommendations. The Collection includes various disciplines, from History and Politics, to Classics, Music, Languages and more. My predecessor as Graduate Trainee was involved with the beginning of the Collection, helping reclassify items in the existing Library catalogue and acquire new material. Now, when I process our latest acquisitions, I am involved in helping the Collection grow.
Babalola, Bolu. Love in Colour: Mythical Tales From Around the World, Retold. London: Headline, 2021. (S33 BAB:Lov (A))
“It’s important to be able to see Black people and people of colour in love – and in these hopeful contexts that aren’t mired with darkness and strife […] reality is that we’re just living our lives and we’re falling in love as Black people”
(Bolu Babalola, ‘Interview: Bolu Babalola on Love, Diversity, Redefining Romance’ (2020)
Joining the Black History Month 2021 campaign ‘Proud to Be’, Teddy Hall Library worked closely with student BAME Officer Jeevi Bali (2019, Jurisprudence) to showcase Black authors this October. Bolu Babalola’s debut book Love in Colour was one of the books bought new for a display specifically celebrating Black British authors.
In Bolu’s own words, Love in Colour is a“step towards decolonizing tropes of love”. Through brand-new tales and retellings of love stories from history, folklore and mythology, Bolu explores love as at once intrinsically universal, and complexly personal. We move with Bolu and her characters across time, continents and genres; as she brings together West African folklore, her own bad date experiences, Greek mythology, and her parents’ romance. Perhaps most moving in the collection is Bolu’s attention questions of sight. Who is seen, who wants to be seen, who is allowed to see, are questions which circle all love stories, and they are questions which Bolu beautifully considers and handles throughout her collection. For Bolu, Love in Colour is at its core about romance. To potential readers, she says: “If you like romance, you’ll like this book; it’s as simple as that”.
Himid, Lubaina, Lisa Panting, and Malin Ståhl. Lubaina Himid: Workshop Manual. London: Koenig Books, 2018 (N6797.H5635 A4 LUB 2018)
‘Using her theatre background Himid construct ambiguous scenes, at times populated and other times not. We are not quite sure if what we are presented with is a safe place or a place of danger, if the protagonists are under threat or are in control of the situation. The vibrant colours and beautiful patterns, clothes and landscapes attract the viewer into situations that are not yet fixed. Himid’s protagonists are mostly black, and well dressed in clothes that point us to different moments and contexts; inviting us to consider our position and role in histories and what we subsequently do with them.’
(‘Introduction’, Lisa Panting and Malin Ståhl, p 52)
Lubaina Himid is a Zanzibarian-born British painter, based in Preston. She has spent the course of her career exploring untold stories and Black history through reams of colour and carefully-composed figures. Indeed, her singular work championing Black creativity, institutionally obscured throughout history, lead to Himid winning the Turner Prize 2017. She was the first Black female artist to win the prize, and continues to celebrate other Black artists through her work in curation and activism.
Lubaina Himid: Workshop Manual is a collection of Himid’s work and writings, encompassing over four decades of canvas painting, cut-out figures, and installation art. Although varied, her works tie together in a kaleidoscope of colour and vibrancy. Readers can see British crockery overpainted with maps, faces, and west African patterns; selected pages of The Guardian show how images and words connect in the press to harm perceptions of Black identity; painted planks of wood which celebrate the importance of one’s own past, which she reflected on when travelling in South Korea. Each are incredibly meaningful and evocative. Unfailingly, her works prompts viewers to consider hidden narratives of Black history within British culture and beyond. This is the crux of Himid’s work, creating an internal response within others and reminding them of the true world they live in.
The Manual includes ‘The Lost Election Posters’, a series of paintings mimicking typical political campaigns. Himid intends – and successfully, too – to evoke questions of who is represented across powerful institutions. In her own words, the later part of the series ‘are essentially portraits of potential power’ (see photographed). These comprise some of my personal favourites in the book, and I would recommend anyone in the Sackler taking time to appreciate it.
‘I make this work, and have always made it, for other black women. These conversations are and have always been important. I want to show that our lives are complex yet ordinary, filled with the same weight of what has been done to us but at the same time normal and boring too’ (‘A Conversation between Lubaina Himid, Lisa Panting and Malin Ståhl, Hollybush Gardens’, p 293-299)
You can read more about Lubaina Himid here: https://lubainahimid.uk/
[NB the Sackler Library has now been renamed to the Art, Archaeology and Ancient World Library]
Jemima Bennett, New College Library
Marechera, Dambudzo. The House of Hunger. Harlow: Heinemann,2009. (LIT/MAR)
‘My whole life has been an attempt to make myself the skeleton in my own cupboard. I have been an outsider in my own biography, in my country’s history, in the world’s terrifying possibilities.’
Novelist, short story writer, and poet, Dambudzo Marechera (1952-1987) was born in Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe. A student at New College, Oxford, from 1974, he was eventually sent down after a turbulent two years and repeated clashes with staff and students. Shortly afterwards, in 1978, his first book, The House of Hunger, was published, winning the 1979 Guardian Fiction Prize. Two more of Marechera’s books were published in his lifetime,Black Sunlight(1980), Mindblast(1984), with three others, including a collection of poetry, published posthumously.
The House of Hunger, a collection of short stories, consists of nine interlinked stories concerning Marechera’s childhood and youth in a Rhodesian slum, with the rest of the stories focusing on his time in Oxford. Marechera leaves his readers in no doubt of the sense of otherness and alienation which he felt while he was in Oxford: the story, ‘Black Skin What Mask’, begins with the statement ‘my skin sticks out a mile in all the crowds here’. His writing has been described as abrasive and he himself called his experience of writing in English, rather than his first language Shona, as a matter of ‘discarding grammar, throwing syntax out, subverting images from within, beating the drum and cymbals of rhythm, developing torture chambers of irony and sarcasm, gas ovens of limitless black resonance.’
‘“I got my things and left” is the coolest opening line in African fiction. Marechera is nothing like any African writer before him’ (Helon Habila)
All quotations taken from The House of Hunger (see reference).
Boakye, Jeffrey. Black, Listed: Black British Culture Explored. London: Dialogue Books, 2019. (HT1581.BOA 2019)
“Call me Black and you’ll remind me that, racially, I’m everything I’m not, which makes me everything I am. Call me Black and I won’t even flinch because I’m so used to calling myself Black that it’s become the invisible lens. A perspective that has hardened into an objective truth. Call me Black and I’ll welcome the definition, despite the fact that it denigrates just as much as it defines. Call me Black and I’ll flinch. Call me Black and I won’t even flinch.”
Black, Listed by Jeffrey Boakye is an exploration of Black British culture through the descriptors used by and for Black people in the UK. Boakye examines how words and labels can reinforce stereotypes or alternatively create a sense of community. He explores 21st Century Black British identity through an analysis of pop culture and autobiographical anecdotes. The book begins with Boakye recalling how he’s “been Black since about 1988”, the first time that he was made aware of the “otherness” of his skin colour by his classmates in primary school. The theme of Black identity in the UK being perceived as an otherness runs deep throughout the book, as Boakye explores how the Black British community has been represented, oppressed, celebrated and discriminated against.
Touching on everything from the Grime scene to global Black history and the experiences of the Windrush generation, Boakye provides an accessible and entertaining yet raw and insightful view of what it means to be Black in Britain today. I would recommend it to anyone looking to question what purpose labels serve, and in what ways they can be helpful and in what ways they isolate.
Marson, U. & Donnell, A., 2011. Selected poems, Leeds: Peepal Tree Press. (PR9265.9.M37 A6 MAR 2011)
Una Marson was born in 1905 in Saint Elizabeth, Jamaica. By the time she first left Jamaica, she had published two poetry collections, founded the feminist periodical Cosmopolitan, and wrote her first play and had it staged. She bought her first ticket to London in 1932, but moved back and forth between Jamaica and London multiple times throughout her life. Outside of poetry, her career was busy and varied, with highlights including:
Author and Director of the first Black production on the West End with her play At What Price.
Editor of and Contributor to The Keys, the journal of the League of Coloured Peoples (of which she was a prominent member)
Head of the West Indies Service for the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC)
Founder of the BBC’s ‘Caribbean Voices’.
Speaker at the conference of the British Commonwealth League
Speaker at the conference of the International Alliance for Women’s Suffrage and Equal Citizenship
Secretary to Haile Selassie (Emperor of Ethiopia) during his exile to London
In the words of Alison Donnell, editor of this collection, Marson is not often enough noted as the “women poet whose works pioneered the articulation of gender and racial oppression, brought Jamaican vernacular voices alongside a Wordsworthian passion for nature, and ventured to give subjectivity to powerless and marginalised subjects.” (p.11) This collection pulls together a broad selection of her work (published and unpublished) to try to present a complete picture of Marson’s poetics – as contrasting as it is enlightening.
In total, Marson published four poetry collections. Her work as a poet is as varied as her life, with a wide range of influences from European forms and models of her earlier work to the use of blues forms and dialect in her later work. Thematically speaking, her poetry often focused on Black representation, gender politics, religion, immigration, nature, love, Jamaica, and war. Despite the heavy topics, she often dwells on beauty, hope, and the uplifting. See this extract, for example, from the deceptively titled ‘Black Burden’ (pp.146-147):
Black girl – what a burden –
But your shoulders
Black girl – what a burden –
But your courage is strong –
Black girl your burden
Will fall from your shoulders
Una Marson: Selected Poems is now available to loan from the English Faculty Library, newly acquired this month.
Marson, U. & Donnell, A., 2011. Selected poems, Leeds: Peepal Tree Press.
Snaith, A. (2014) “Una Marson: ‘Little Brown Girl’ in a ‘White, White City,’” in Modernist Voyages: Colonial Women Writers in London, 1890–1945. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 152–174. https://doi.org/10.1017/CBO9781139018852
The first full week of October this year is National Libraries Week 2021. It is also Oxford University’s “0th week” – the week before the start of term in which we welcome students (new and returning!) to Oxford and begin to prepare for the new academic year. With this in mind, I have been reflecting on my own time in libraries at Oxford – as an Undergraduate at Lady Margaret Hall (2015-2018, English), a Graduate at St Hilda’s College (2020-2021, Medieval English Literature), and as a Graduate Trainee Library Assistant at St Edmund Hall.
Books books books…
Like most people, the first thing I think when someone says “library” is “books!”, and like most English students, the second thing I think is “ooh let me see”. I highly doubt that anyone will be surprised to learn that I have always loved books – reading them, talking about them, buying them… even just being around them. Of course, Oxford as a city and University is a book-lover’s dream come true. With more than 100 libraries containing over 12 million printed items (and much more besides), the opportunities to read and research are incredible. Yet the sheer volume of what is available can be a little overwhelming. Two pieces of advice, however, really helped me.
First: always factor in book-finding time! This was probably the most important thing anyone said to me as an undergraduate. Especially in the first term, you find yourself juggling a whole new set of commitments, and adjusting to the restraints on your time. “Get that book” deserves its own portion of time in your day, and factoring in that time will mean less running from shelf to shelf in a panic! Second: if in doubt, ask. Often we don’t want to ask a question because it seems silly, or it’s something we think we should know the answer to. Luckily, librarians are there to answer precisely those questions! Coming fresh to librarianship from being a student, I’m really looking forward to supporting all library users however they need it.
Spaces and places
Libraries are not just home to books, of course, but to a wide range of resources and facilities – from e-journals to medieval manuscripts, from colour printers to overlays to aid reading. They are also important spaces for humans. I certainly would not have enjoyed my degrees had I not felt so at-home in my college and faculty libraries. I would also highly recommend making a pub-crawl-style bucket list of libraries to which you have access! They all have something different to offer. A surprise favourite of mine has always been the Social Sciences Library – modern, comfortable, and conveniently close to the Missing Bean coffee shop!
Now, I’m very lucky to come to work everyday in the beautiful setting of Teddy Hall’s Library: the deconsecrated church of St Peter-in-the-East. The core of the existing church – the nave, chancel, and crypt – was built between 1130 and 1160, and the building grew substantially in the next 400 years. In fact, the Lady Chapel is believed to have been donated by St Edmund of Abingdon (the Hall’s namesake) in c.1220, during his time as a lecturer at the University. It was in 1970 that St Peter-in-the-East opened as Teddy Hall’s library. It is a truly wonderful space, complete with stained glass windows and desks tucked away up in the church’s tower.
While I was an Undergraduate, I volunteered as an Ambassador for the English Faculty. This was my first introduction to a side of libraries in which I have become increasingly interested, and which I look forward to exploring more during my time as a trainee: outreach and access. Libraries are hubs of intellectual activity, and important places – as I have said – for resources and people alike. I hope I can use this year to learn more about how we can make Oxford’s libraries as welcoming and outward-facing as possible, so that they are spaces in which everyone feels they have a place.