Ex libris

“King Charles I at the Bodleian Library,” by William Gale

I believe that most people (or at least the people I want to know) have a special “library place” in their hearts. It’s what causes the smile that breaks when entering a new library; the shiver on catching the familiar whiff of old books; the frisson of anticipation after realizing that stacks and stacks of books can be taken home and savored.

Libraries have been a big part of my life for the last five years.  In 2007, my community’s library was closed for lack of funds, leaving 82,000 American citizens without access to any public library whatsoever.  Unthinkable, right?

Long story short: a group of very cool folks got together and fundraised and fundraised some more and re-opened the library as a nonprofit.  There are hopes that we can pass a library district in the near future so that the library is again sustainably funded, but in the meantime we all work like crazy to keep the doors open (more here: www.josephinelibrary.org).

So last year, when I planned my first solo trip to England—sans husband and kids, free to direct my steps wherever I wanted without worrying about potty breaks, snacks, or pending soccer matches—it was only natural that at the top of my must-visit-or-else-what-the-hell’s-the-point-of-going list was Oxford’s storied and magnificent Bodleian Library.

The Bodleian, built in 1320, was Oxford’s first university library (meaning it wasn’t attached to one specific college). That original library, smallish and uninspiring, expanded when Humfrey, Duke of Gloucester, donated over 200 valuable manuscripts in the 1440s, so the university constructed a new room over the Divinity School. (Harry Potter fans: note that the hospital wing scenes with Madame Pomfrey were filmed in the Divinity School, and all of the Hogwarts library scenes were filmed in Duke Humfrey’s library.)

Duke Humfrey’s library, finished in the 1480s, lasted about 60 years until, under legislation passed under King Edward VI meant “to purge the English church of all traces of Roman Catholicism,” the library was stripped of all books and manuscripts containing “superstitious books and images.”  (Why do I include this in my short history of the Bodleian?:  it is perversely of some comfort to me to know that my town’s library is not the only victim of shortsighted thinking on the part of autocratic politicians.)

The Bodleian was resuscitated in 1598 by an injection of funds from Sir Thomas Bodley, after whom it was renamed. Bodley established three guidelines that have shaped the Bodleian’s character:

1)      He established an agreement with the Stationers’ Company of London that would direct the mission of the Bodleian to this day: a copy of every book registered with the Stationers’ Company was to also be deposited at the Bodleian. This agreement transformed it into a critically important repository of learning in England for the next four centuries.

2)      He determined that scholars from all universities should have unfettered access to the holdings of his library, a generous and liberal policy that allowed the Bodleian to transcend the relatively parochial constraints of English scholarship. (While all scholars were welcome, however, they all had to swear the following oath: “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.” I know this because I couldn’t resist buying the tea towel with the oath printed on it.)

3)      He ordained that no books were to leave the building. No borrowing of books or materials, period.  This policy is in place to this day for the majority of the collection.

I find this last policy fascinating, because in the early days of my library’s resurrection, we faced a critical decision: invest in the (rather expensive) software that would allow us to circulate books or just house the collection for patrons to view in the library. A very sage and experienced librarian decided the point by declaring that if books and materials didn’t circulate, we would have a reading room, not a proper library. If we agree with that definition (and I do), the the Bodleian, one of the most famous libraries in the world, is technically a reading room.

Even King Charles I, facing a mutinous parliament in London and escaping to the relative security of Oxford in 1642, was denied borrowing privileges at the Bodleian (though in order to appease His Majesty, the librarians had a little stall built inside Duke Humfrey’s Library so the King could taste the fruits of scholarship in privacy). By the doctrine of the divine right of kings, this was the man who was, in Shakespeare’s words, “the figure of God’s majesty/His captain, steward, deputy-elect,” and yet even he was denied check-out privileges.

After my tour of the Bodleian, marveling at the majesty of most influential books and manuscripts in history, I stopped by a pub (as I am wont to do). It occurred to me, as I re-acclimated to the noise and smell and colors of everyday life, that the American library tradition–begun by Benjamin Franklin and brought to fruition by Andrew Carnegie and countless American communities–of enabling every citizen to have free and unfettered access to information is one of the most radical movements in history.

In Oxford, at the Bodleian, I could gaze at magnificent books chained to the shelves, marvel at the scholarship contained in the august buildings, and admire the history of the furniture, the paintings, the architecture.  But in little Grants Pass, Oregon, I could walk into my community’s library and check out almost any book in the building.

In this, I am richer than kings.

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3 Comments

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3 responses to “Ex libris

  1. This post gave me chills, and much to think about. Thank you!

  2. I don’t think I knew the history behind your local library until now – you and your fellow library-savers are superstars!

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