Let me start with a confession: I hated the old New Bodleian. I had occasionally been to the Oriental Reading Room and never felt so uncomfortable in a library. Everything seemed wrong about the place. I hated it so much, that when I heard there were plans to make it the new home of special collections at the Bodleian Library, I almost cried, and suspected the Bodleian had a secret plan to keep its collections as inaccessible as possible. The Duke Humfrey’s Library, where Special Collections was housed, was my library. It was where, when I first visited, I asked to see the microfilm of a manuscript I was interested in (because that’s what I had learned to do in the Netherlands), only to be answered: “why the microfilm? We have the manuscript!” It was where you could still experience that moment that direct sunlight hit the pages of your manuscript and lit up the ink with a purple glow, if it was a manuscript produced in Oxford (something Malcolm Parkes had told me, and I had half forgotten, until a couple of weeks later it happened in front of my eyes; it has to do with the iron content of the water around here, apparently).
Special Collections Reading Room in the basement of the Radcliffe Science Library
Fast forward a decade and a quarter, and this week, the new Weston Library opened its doors to readers (the general public will get access to the central hall of the building and adjacent exhibition spaces, a café, and a gift shop in March 2015).
Of course, it is not Duke Humfrey’s Library; the Weston does not ooze history in the way Selden End, even dearer to me now John Selden has become a central focus of my studies, or the 17th-century reading desks in the central corridor (of Harry Potter fame) do. I am very pleased that they will keep the old place open as a reading room, because there are few places where I rather spend a couple of hours with a good book (my bay of choice is the one under the portrait of Henry VIII). But the Duke Humfrey was not fit for purpose anymore – I was told that staff needed to physically carry the manuscripts over stairs to the room, because it has no lift access. Whether this is true or not, it does illustrate that for the sake of the books, a new location had to be found. Direct sunlight really is not very good for seven-hundred year old manuscripts.
But, thankfully, the Weston Library is also not the New Bodleian. It is, instead, a beautiful new building in a rejuvenated oldish shell. In restoring the 1930s building, designers have done away with all the dankness while preserving, and even highlighting, many of the attractive design features. They have created new corridors, glass walls and windows allowing for views through the building, and for light to seep through into its interior. They have created wonderful reading rooms – I have seen pictures from the top floor one with wonderful views over the roofs of central Oxford, and have myself enjoyed that view from the roof terrace – which are already bustling with readers, but seem to have ample space to cope with many, many more. The desk spaces are widely enough spaced not to need to occupy the adjacent desk, even when working with a laptop and books on either side. Electrical sockets are tucked away in covered recessions in the table with enough space to also take your cable, preventing clutter. The newly designed chairs are good – sturdy enough not to fall asleep, but comfortable enough not to notice them, and with a nice forward tilt for when your reading makes you sit on the edge of your seat.
The staff has been fabulous throughout the long drawn out move from Duke Humfrey’s to the basement of the Radcliffe Science Library (where the Special Collections Reading Room was housed for the last four years), to its new destination. Do not think they are forbidding; yes, they care about their collections, and will fight tooth and nail to defend them when necessary. You may have promised them not to kindle fire, but that doesn’t stop everyone from trying. But they also want people to get to know these collections, they want readers to read, researchers to research. For my particular project this past year, I have had to call up hundreds of books, many of which I only had to consult for one minute to determine whether they were relevant for my research. I have not heard a single comment about my ridiculous turnover, and have on the contrary received much, much help locating copies I absolutely needed to see but which regularly turned out to be irrelevant and returned to the stacks the same minute I received them.
As for the name of the new special collections reading room: I know there can be a legitimate concern about its sequence, but as I have deliberately chosen the counter-chronological title of this blog, I can only applaud the Bodleian’s choice for “Rare Books & Manuscripts Reading Room”. Regardless of our focus on the sources, even the medievalists among us who prefer a manuscript over a printed book any day, encounter the past through layers of modern editions and studies, by authors who encountered the past through layers of early modern studies and editions, whose editors encountered the past through layers of incunabula (yes, John Selden read Chaucer in print before he did in manuscript!); the shape in which the producers of these early printed books left us the manuscript heritage is as pertinent to our readings from the manuscripts as the manuscripts themselves. This is illustrated only too well by the remarkable open shelves library of facsimiles, catalogs, and studies in book history (the shelves of Festschriften being my personal favourite) which moved along with the special collections from its original location in Selden End.
Of course, not everything is perfect: I, for one, will not be sitting near the outside wall in the Rare Books & Manuscripts Reading Room anymore, because that’s where the air conditioners are located, and they are very, very cold. Also, the minute I put my books on the table, the fire alarm went off. I suspect that as the building is still under construction, that will happen with some regularity over the coming months. But after that, the University of Oxford will have a new library to proud of, and a beautiful space to show it off to visitors, too.
Work in progress
With the choice to move special collections out of Duke Humfrey’s, the Bodleian Library disrupted a hitherto unbroken tradition of the study of its collection at that location since it first opened in 1602. With the opening of the Weston Library, however, the Bodleian is opening its doors to the world in a way it hasn’t done previously, and that wider access no doubt will make more visible the wonderful treasures of its collection – and thus also lead to much, much more research.
View into the central hall
Try it for yourself! The admissions policy is perhaps not as low threshold as that of the British Library, but for anyone with a justified wish to consult the books, it should not be insurmountable. If you need a letter of recommendation, befriend a historian in your area via twitter, and buy us coffee once or twice. I think I know only two historians who are not caffeine addicts, and they can be plied with cupcakes instead.
You can read David Rundle’s first impressions here.