12 October 2016

Behind the scenes at the Bodleian Library: The making of Bodleianalia

By nonfictioness


In the next few weeks one of the joys of the new students starting at Oxford University will be picking up their Bodleian library card, allowing them access to Britain’s oldest university library and the treasures within.

I had the pleasure of receiving my very own Bodleian library card last year (despite being quite some years off a fresh-faced fresher!) when I began my research for my book about the library, Bodleianalia. As a complete library geek it was an absolute thrill to get a behind-the-scenes look at this library and to talk to some of the many amazing people who work there who so kindly shared their expertise and some juicy morsels about this fascinating institution.

Library Tour

One of the first things I did when compiling Bodleianalia was to go on the “official tour” of


The Divinity School

the library. A very knowledgeable guide showed me around the oldest parts of the library – the beautiful Divinity School with its lofty ceilings – home to a chair fashioned from the timbers of Sir Francis Drake’s ship The Golden Hind; Duke Humfrey’s Library (which was used as Hogwart’s library in the Harry Potter films) where the guide revealed that in 1550 the library was gutted and the books burnt so only about five of the original books from that time survive in the library today; and Arts and Selden End – with many wonderful old books still housed behind the original grilles. This ancient part of the library is absolutely beautiful and has remained relatively unchanged for hundreds of years, providing a real glimpse into the library of the past.

Marvels of the Weston Library

As a counterpoint to the historical heart of the library is the brand new Weston Library, which after remodelling reopened in 2015. It is a light, modern, airy space with a fantastic gallery of treasures including J. R. R. Tolkien’s original hand-drawn illustrations for The Hobbit, a Gutenberg Bible, and my personal favourite – the “autobiography” of Toby the Sapient Pig.


The Weston Library

I had the pleasure of getting a tour of the conservation department, where they monitor and mend delicate items from the collection. Virginia Llado-Buisan, Head of Conservation and Collection Care and her team very kindly talked me through the fascinating process of fasciculing – a system developed at the Bodleian to protect and preserve single-sheet items in the collection so that they can be safely consulted. I discovered that on average 21,056 single-sheet items were pasted each year into a fascicule!

Also at the Weston Library I had the privilege of picking the brains of Head of Rare Books, Sarah Wheale. Sarah very patiently answered all my many questions on cataloguing, classification and the vagaries of shelfmarks so that I might unveil their mysteries to readers of Bodleianalia. To further my understanding Sarah gave me access to some wonderful books and records about the history of cataloguing at the Bodleian, including an account of an amazing system of colour-coding the books by subject which, proving too complicated, was abandoned in the mid nineteenth century. Traces of the coloured stickers remain on some items in the collection today, though unfortunately their colours have become so faded they are indistinguishable.

Facts, Figures and Curious Tales


Shelf of rare books at the Weston Library

One of the greatest sources of information for Bodleianalia was the amazingly helpful Dr Frankie Wilson, Head of Assessment. Frankie collects and collates all the statistics on the library and was a mine of information. I threw many awkward questions at her (how many desks in the Radcliffe Camera? Which is the longest book in the collection? Which is the largest library? What are the top five languages of books in the collection? How many miles of shelving are there in the Book Storage Facility? What was the most expensive acquisition in the library? Which is the smallest book in the library? And so on ad infinitum…) which she very kindly answered, often adding some extra nugget of information which led me on to yet more questions.Bod_jacket

And so, with my head full of fabulous facts about the Bodleian Library and a bag full of books, I returned back to my little study in Cambridge and wrote it all into Bodleianalia. I hope that I managed to translate my wonder and fascination with this amazing library with its long history and numerous treasures so that readers will enjoy a real glimpse behind the scenes of the Bodleian.

Bodleianalia: Curious Facts about Britain’s Oldest University Library is published in October 2016. Order your copy here.