Oxford’s literary depths

Feb. 8, 2012, 1:00 a.m.

“I hereby undertake not to remove from the Library, or to mark, deface or injure in any way, any volume, document or other object belonging to it or in its custody; nor 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.”


This is the oath that all new readers must formally read aloud and sign before being permitted access to the Bodleian Library, the main library of Oxford University. Established in 1602, the Bodleian, which is housed in several buildings scattered all across campus, is one of the oldest libraries in Europe and a fundamental part of my studies at Oxford.


I spend most of my time in the Radcliffe Camera, a classy old circular library that houses books mainly in English literature, history and theology. Like most of the buildings here, the building’s gorgeous Palladian architectural design emanates an ancient and scholarly aura of European sophistication. Even after four weeks, I’m still learning my way around Radcliffe Camera.


Three or four days of the week I trek over to the Radcliffe Camera to read and take notes. After the security guard at the front desk gives my library card a quick check, I descend the spiraling staircase and pass through the doors. My eyes feast upon the books, nestled in bookshelves so high that readers can only reach the top shelves by climbing ladders provided by the library. I take in the sweet smell of old books before scurrying down to the tables, crossing my fingers for an available seat.


Book learning is vital to the typical undergraduate teaching model of the “tutorial,” so it’s not surprising to see the library reach its maximum reader occupancy. If you don’t arrive early enough on some afternoons, it’s impossible to find a place to sit.


Oxford's literary depths
(Courtesy of Jenny Thai)

The impressive collection of books here at Radcliffe Camera is only an infinitesimal fraction of the total books the Bodleian Library holds. The Bodleian receives a free copy of every book and periodical published in the United Kingdom, amounting to over 100,000 new books a year. Most of these books are stored in large underground tunnels. Miles and miles of shelved books are tucked away from the light of day, only accessible by a file request.


Even storage of books on the open shelves maximizes every possible bit of space. In addition to the ten-foot-high bookshelves, stairs connect the Radcliffe to the Gladstone Link, Oxford’s version of Green Library’s south stacks–only better lit and less creepy.


To access a shelf, you merely turn the wheel of the shelf you want to access. I always double-check to make sure no one’s in the aisle before I start cranking on the wheel. Only at Oxford is the greatest hazard two rolling bookshelves!

Jenny Thai

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