in omnibus requiem quaesivi, et nusquam inveni nisi in angulo cum libro… (Everywhere I have searched for peace and nowhere found it, except in a corner with a book)
The first library at Oxford University was a room above the Old Congregation House in 1320. So if you haven’t returned your books yet, expect a very hefty fine. If we skip forward to the 15th century, a chap called Humfrey, Duke of Gloucester pumps in a bit of cash as well as his personal collection of 281 manuscripts, meaning larger premises are required. Humfrey was the younger brother of King Henry V, so he had a bit of clout. But although plans to erect a new library above the Divinity School had been banded about since 1424, work only really began in 1478. If you’re getting excited about seeing these incredible manuscripts, don’t. From the 1550s onwards, various kings and queens destroyed any texts that didn’t conform to their own religious viewpoint.
It’s at this point that our hero enters the scene, Sir Thomas Bodley (1545 – 1613). Bodley had done the obligatory tour of Europe, gulping down as much culture as his elastic guts could contain, as well as diplomatic missions for Queen Elizabeth I between 1585 – 96. Bodley wasn’t short of cash either having married a wealthy widow, and so he pumped all of his energy and cash into creating what is now known as the Bodleian Library. This would see 2,500 books added from his personal collection as well as from donors. There’s no point making influential contacts if you don’t use them.
This was to be a proper library, and so a librarian, Thomas James (1572/3–1629), was appointed. The doors opened on 8 November 1602. This was swiftly followed by the first printed catalogue in 1605. But the real stroke of genius came in 1610 when Bodley entered an agreement with the Stationers’ Company of London which ensured a copy of every book published in England would find itself into the collection. This still exists, with the library receiving an average of 2,500 texts a week.
When Bodley died in 1613, his death was suitably commemorated when work began on the building of the Schools Quadrangle the day after his funeral. This was a project he had pushed for, wishing to replace ‘those ruinous little rooms’ with something more fitting for scholars and book lovers. His will would see additional money left for what would become a public museum and picture gallery, the first in England. The last addition to this incredible library came between 1634-7 when an extension (Seldon’s End) was completed. This would enable the storage of valuable manuscripts and scrolls, making the university an absolute must for any scholar worth their salt.
But what marks this library out from all others isn’t the grandiosity of the buildings, nor that it would be the setting for the Harry Potter films, but the observation of a tradition that dictates nobody is allowed to loan books out of the library! Even King Charles I was rebuffed in 1645. Given that heating wasn’t installed until 1845, and proper lighting didn’t arrive until 1929, you had to be a pretty serious reader to visit.
I recently went on a tour of the library (£6 – make sure you book in advance) and it was a mesmerising experience. The ancient texts are chained to shelves, and are right weighty boggers. They’re catalogued according to when they were received and are shelved back to front so that the spines face the wall. This isn’t some fashionable whim, but a necessity to help preserve them. Therefore they are numbered, meaning you always have to ask a librarian where a book is – a useful tactic to ensure a librarian keeps their job.
Oxford oozes history, none more so than in the main entrance to the library tour. The ceiling contains the initials of scholars who had passed their masters, back in the day. This would entail a three hour debate at a pulpit in front of the public, while being constantly interrupted and interrogated by your lecturer. And just to spice things up a bit, you were expected to switch between Greek and Latin. Given that you couldn’t take books out of the library you would be expected to memorise religious texts, along with the rest of your cohort. But as there was only one copy of each, and these were chained up and only accessible during opening times, you had to be pretty patient and pretty good at remembering stuff.
Readers of this blog will know that I was put on this earth as a Notts propagandist and so here’s your six degrees of separation to Oxford: Geoffrey Trease (11 August 1909 – 27 January 1998), author of 113 books.
Trease excelled at Nottingham High School under the careful guidance of his English master Garry Hogg, a kind man who gave him access to his personal library and who encouraged Trease to plump for an Oxford scholarship over Cambridge due to the literary emphasis of Classics at Oxford. Trease did as advised but found Oxford an unpleasant experience, dropping out after his first year in 1929. In his autobiography Trease writes:
“I could not go on. I was bored to death with this musty scholarship, this wearisome gibberish concocted by the pedants. One year of Oxford at its driest, unrelieved by one flash of inspiration, humour or understanding from any don concerned with me, had suffocated the enthusiasm with which I had gone up from school. I told myself that if I went on like this for another three years I should hate the Classics for the rest of my life”
Despite the disappointment that things hadn’t worked out, Hogg was on hand to offer alternative support to his favoured ex pupil. He had an aunt who ran a settlement in the East End of London who could put him up for a while. Trease took up the offer and found himself at Kingsley Hall, which “for an aspiring writer, anxious to study human nature, was a living laboratory”. Here he met Muriel Lester, an extraordinary woman who was the antithesis of his dull academic peers. Writing in his notebook at the time he recorded “she never spoke ill of anyone. Her praise was ready and frequent, her blame rare but terrible…she was amazingly human, loving songs and good company”.
Trease took up a series of jobs that ranged from cleaner to youth worker. The experience offered a grounding in humanity that was absent from Oxford and no doubt went some way into shaping the drive for equality that would see him revolutionise children’s stories by giving meaningful roles to both male and female characters. He transformed children’s historical fiction by avoiding the jingoism of the era, such as sidling with the superiority of the victors, and instead emphasised the universal needs of people. To turn your back on Oxford took a fair bit of courage and is one of the reasons we celebrated Trease’s life in issue 11 of Dawn of the Unread.
Source: Bodleian Library Souvenir Guide by Geoffrey Tyack
- Books and Bowstrings (dawnoftheunread.com)
- Geoffrey Trease at Nottingham High School (dawnoftheunread.com)
- Alan Gibbons on Trease (dawnoftheunread.com)
- Bodleian Libraries blogs (blogs.bodleian.ox.ac.uk)
- Archives and manuscripts at Bodleian (blogs.bodleian.ox.ac.uk)
- Beautiful Libraries: National Library of Riga
- Beautiful libraries: Kirkwall (Orkney) – the oldest library in Scotland
- Beautiful libraries: Vancouver Public Library
- Beautiful libraries: The Sir Duncan Rice Library, Aberdeen University
Dawn of the Unread is a graphic novel celebrating Nottingham’s literary history. It was created to support libraries and bookshops. It began life online and won the Teaching Excellence Award at the Guardian Education Awards in 2015 and has since been published by Spokesman Books (2017). All profits go towards UNESCO Nottingham City of Literature.