Preservation of a leaf

The Bodleian Oath taken by all readers is: “I hereby undertake not to remove from the Library, nor to mark, deface, or injure in any way, any volume, document or other object belonging to it or in its custody; not to bring into the Library, or kindle therein, any fire or flame, and not to smoke in the Library; and I promise to obey all rules of the Library.”

Not long ago Robyn Adams renewed this oath in time to spend the month of June in the Bodleian Library, as the Humfrey Wanley research fellow. She’s investigating early donations to the library, which opened to scholars in 1602. The library’s foundation collections, rich in scientific and philological works, owed much to the friends and extensive network of acquaintances built up by the library’s founder, Thomas Bodley (1545–1613).

In her second week of study, Adams discovered an important clue to how the library’s earliest readers used these books. Turning the pages of one of the first books given to the library, Adams found a leaf of plantain (plantago major) pressed between the pages. A note with the leaf indicates that it was taken from the garden of a Mr Crowe, in Dublin, in 1626. Somehow the leaf made its way to the Bodleian where a reader consulted this book to confirm the identification. It could be argued that a still anonymous 17th-century reader was enhancing, rather than injuring, the volume, because it was found in a book describing medicinal herbs, at the page illustrating plantago major.

Mindful of her own promise, Adams alerted the reading room staff without removing the leaf. At 384 years old, it is closer in age to the book itself than to our day, and will return to its resting place between the pages after being encapsulated in non-reactive plastic by the Conservation section.