Bodleian, Schmodleian! Christ Church Library in Oxford

On the day our group went to Oxford the Bodleian Library was closed for an arcane British ritual (well, graduation day) but Christ Church provided everything a library lover could want. It’s one of six copyright libraries that are entitled to a copy of every book published in the United Kingdom, though it isn’t obliged to take everything.

Boyish looking Steven, the head librarian, took us on an enthusiastic tour, exuding the kind of effortless mastery the British do better than anyone. Each of the colleges have their own library. All subjects are covered in the generalist collection of Christ Church, which provides essential textbooks but not the more specialized ones, which must be obtained from more specialized collections on campus. Christ Church prides itself on a 45-minute turnaround for item requests.

Steven emphasized the library’s cozy relationship with students, in opposition to the stereotype of a stuffy and forbidding British library. Oxford terms are very intense 8 weeks, which can mean lots of papers to write. One of 10 students drop out (or “degrade”) despite strong efforts by the school to keep students in. As an example of student service, the library swiftly acquires books from Amazon Prime or the famous Blackwell’s Bookshop, so there’s a very quick turnaround.

The Oxford colleges — there are dozens of them and run independently — are relatively small and compact — the library in fact makes up one of the four walls of the Christ Church quad. Students here have tried to get the library open 8am-1am, a sneak attack toward the goal of 24-hours a day. Steve explained the library just wasn’t designed to withstand that kind of constant occupation.

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The library tries to get rid of books sometimes, but it can be tough, if someone donated them, or an Oxford persona wrote them. Also squeezed out by the need for showers for students, of all things. Not ideal, he noted dryly, with humidity and the chances for leaks posing risks.  

Steven is only the third librarian in 60 years, so clearly they tend to stay. He’s only been there a year but has the wisdom and knowledge of someone twice his age.

In what’s becoming a theme for these old collections, he noted that a lot remained uncatalogued of the older stuff, including texts on the history of the library itself. It was a challenge to get potential donors excited about ledgers recording the purchase of books in Latin!

The college charter did not include a library requirement, which was unusual, but one was eventually set up. Richard Allestree left his collection for use by Regius Professors of Divinity when he died in 1681, and we went up into a forbidden turret to examine the ancient collection, the imported tiles on the floor date to Saxon times. Theology is well-represented but there are other works as well. Steven showed us a medieval “pop-up” book of medicine for surgery. He emphasized that even these rare books comprise a “working library” not a museum and it is all accessible to students and researchers.

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The history of the current library began in Cambridge. Oxford’s dean saw Christopher Wren’s Cambridge library and wanted one of his own. Sixty years later, it opened. Among the many fascinating items are first editions of Newton and Boyle, among other items of scientific scholarship. When the library received a motherlode of old prints and drawings via one large donation in the 18th century, they made a picture gallery just for them, which formed one of the first public galleries in England.

While we gaped over a beautiful Book of Hours, Steven explained the difference between an illuminated manuscript (gold leaf) and an illustrated one (colors). One of those colors, lapis lazuli, is a special hue of blue from Turkey, more expensive than gold at the time, which explains why Virgin Mary traditionally is portrayed with so much blue in her cloak.

He showed us a Bible draped in velvet chemise, provenance obscure but which is presumed to have a royal connection. This one even had the original silk stitched in to protect the image of God from the harm of facing pages when the book was closed. Had connections to Oxfordian author Lewis Carroll, and our group spied out the view of the garden where he first met the child Alice.

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Steven the Christ Church librarian was very generous with his time and his enthusiasm was contagious, livening up the warm confines (it was the hottest June day in England in a generation) as he pulled fascinating items onto the table for us to gawp at.

I hope to access the amazing Bodleian collection on a separate trip to Oxford next week, but in the meantime Steven and the Christ Church collection ensured the group did not leave Oxford empty-handed.

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