Friday, January 28, 2011

Embarrassment of Riches

Oxford is a pretty ridiculous place. I knew cerebrally when I got here that it was a prestigious university, had a big library, and had educated a bunch of famous people over the years, but beyond those abstract ideas never really gave the sheer amount of phyiscal goods--from manuscripts to paintings to papyrus scrolls to cuneiform tablets--that the university carefully stores and protects much thought. Now that I've had a chance to experience the tiniest fraction of these riches firsthand, I can say with confidence that the storage of academic material going on at Oxford is something that simply boggles the mind.

(My library at Corpus Christi)

Let's start with the Bodleian Library, which, through the contract created by Thomas Bodley at the library's founding, is entitled to a copy of every single book printed in Britain, ever. Every. Single. One. This means that the Bodleian already has a collection ranging in the millions (most of which are kept either in underground stacks the size of football fields on the outskirts of Oxford or in an abandoned salt mine about 80 miles north of the university) and gets several thousand new titles each and every month. It's incredible to stand in one of the Bodleian's impressive reading rooms and realize that the swarms of books lining the shelves represent a fractional percent of what the library actually holds.

(Part of a whole stack on ancient Mesopotamia, with more waiting in storage - sooo amazing)

So that's pretty impressive, and it's pretty obvious that such a library could easily fulfill the needs of a university even as academic Oxford perfectly well on its own. But here's the thing: I've been at Oxford for nearly 4 weeks now, and have already read several dozen books on my subject, and yet I've not yet once even stepped foot within the Bodleian for academic purposes, and have not called a single book up from that vast salt mine reserve. Because, even more incredibly, the Bodleian is but one library of many on campus; each and every of the university's thirty-something colleges has a library of their own that would probably, in many cases, make your average American liberal arts college swoon, and there are dozens of speciality libraries from the Sackler (my library, specializing in ancient history) to the Social Science to the Law. The sheer numbers of volumes are staggering. And then throw in the fact that a great number of these books are incredibly old and rare, and it suddenly becomes clear that the Oxford library system is like nothing I could have even conceived of before getting here.

(The Sackler may not be the most beautiful on the inside, but its collections are pretty incredible)

(Three volume grammar of Akkadian... not something carried in your average library!)

(Entire shelves worth of middle eastern art books - marry me)

On Wednesday, for example, we went for a tour of St John's College for my Art in Oxford class. After touring the lovely chapel (which, I realized in a wave of nostalgia, was one of the very few places I'd visited with Lynda on my only other visit to Oxford in 2006) we went into the library to look at some manuscripts. Even coming into the experience knowing what I was about to see, I was still blown away. We were allowed to look in on 13th century vellum manuscripts laden with gold leaf and picturing the most fantastic renderings of lions and other beasts I'd ever seen. Then, our librarian pulled out a small leather volume for us to examine; as we were passing it around, he mentioned casually that the book dated from 1463, a mere 13 years after the invention of the printing press. I was holding in my hands one of the oldest printed books on this planet!! Unreal.

(Chillin with some old books - though in this case, 'only' mid-19th century)

From there, we got to see a first edition anatomy book from the 15th century, a first illustrated edition of Paradise Lost (which technically is the 4th edition, but sshhhh... apparently the real 1st edition is very small and boring looking), and a hand-colored printed almanac from the turn of the 17th century. And all the while looking at these few examples, we were standing in the old wing of the library surrounded by literally thousands more equally rare and precious volumes. It was absolutely incredible.

(My carol at Corpus with a morning's worth of books to digest)

In my own library at Corpus Christi, I get to study in early 17th Century study carols (still with their original oak desks) while being watched over by venerable volumes on law, history, and (my favorite so far) The Life and Times of Machiavelli. Excellent. It's very quiet and studious feeling in a way that no place in Stanford has ever felt for me (even the extremely uptight Bender Room, which I both love and hate for it's extreme devotion to noiselessness), and I can't help but feel like a Scholar with a capital 'S' when I'm sitting in one of those carols, looking down on Corpus Christi quad out of my mullioned window and listening to the muffled sounds of organ music coming from the chapel next door.

(The Life and Times of Machiavelli... such a good study companion!)

Now, with my next tutorial coming up on Monday, we'll see if I can write like a Scholar as well as I can feel like one...

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