Seminar Retrospective - Monday, 15 May - A Day of Introductions

Hello all, In preparation for posting more about the Oxford library seminar, I'm reposting my review of the first full day, newly edited and now with pictures!

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Like the first day of any class, the first full day of the seminar was mainly one of introductions. We introduced ourselves, and we also got an introduction to Oxford's history and to the Bodleian Library.

History Introduction

The introduction to Oxford's history was given by Chris Day, Director of Academic Programmes at the Department of Continuing Education in Oxford (the department that oversees this seminar along with the University of North Carolina).

The presentation was interesting, informative, and extremely visual - it was based around a lot of vary good slides of Oxford buildings (and many other pictures as well). I didn't take enough photos to give as good a slideshow, but I can give a brief summary of the presentation.

Merton College: Chapel Tower Despite the fact that many of Oxford’s University buildings are built in a fairly similar style (namely, I think, Gothic or Neo-Gothic), they weren’t all built at once. The university grew over a period of a few hundred years as more and more colleges opened their doors. The town of Oxford has (probably) been around since sometime in the 10th century, and the university (according to my travel guidebooks) was founded in 1167. Both town and university have been growing rather organically ever since, and they're still growing.

Relations between the town and the university (town vs. gown) have not always been pleasant. The 13th and 14th centuries in particular seemed to involve a lot of nastiness, including riots, lynchings, and the running out of town of many university folk (some of whom, again, according to my travel guides, went off to found Cambridge University).

At the moment Oxford University consists of 39 colleges, which largely function as separate, autonomous entities (more independent, I think, than the colleges that make up American universities). The University is still better known for its Arts programs than its Sciences - traditionally, it seems that Oxford turns out the writers and politicians and Cambridge turns out the scientists - but the study of Sciences is becoming the major focus these days. The University at the moment seems to be in the middle of balancing its traditions with continuing evolution as it tries to keep up with the modern world. Which I suppose makes like many universities here in the states.

Library Introduction

The other major introduction we got was to Oxford University Libraries in general and the Bodleian Library in particular. This introduction came in two parts: An introductory classroom style session, in which more statistics than one can easily digest were given to us, and a tour of the Bodleian, in which more stories and history than one can easily digest were given to us.

The introduction was presented variously by Kate Alderson-Smith (Theology Librarian for Oxford University Library Services), Gail Merrett (Head of Staff Development for Oxford University Library Services), and Bill Clennell (a retired member of the Bodleian staff who might very well know more of the library's history than anyone else). These folks (particularly Kate and Gail) were also the primary organizers of the seminar, and its success is largely due to their hard work.

I have some of the statistics at hand (and after two weeks of hearing variations of them repeated in several other presentations, I finally managed to wrap my brain around them), so here are some numbers:

  • There are over 100 libraries in the University, when all the individual college and departmental libraries are added to the libraries that serve the university as a whole.
  • The University’s collection contains about 11 million items (which apparently shakes out to about 155 miles of materials).
  • There are currently about 45,000 users of the library system.
  • About 3 miles of material gets added to the the university library system every year.

In short, they have a lot of books, a lot of users, and a rapidly expanding collection.

The Bodleian Library has been around since 1602, and acts as the main library for the University as a whole. It’s not the first university library Oxford has had, the first was started in 1320, but it never quite got off the ground. A second library was started when Humfrey, Duke of Gloucester donated a number of manuscripts to the university in the 1440s. “Duke Humfrey’s Library” was built above the (then) Divinity School and opened in 1488. However, this collection was dispersed less than 100 years later.

Bodleian Library: Divinity School The Divinity School and the Duke Humfrey’s library building still exist, however. The Divinity School is no longer a divinity school, it's simply another part of the Bodleian building now. It was the location of a very nice reception for the seminar at the end of Monday’s activities (and for those of you who might care, if you get out a copy of the first Harry Potter film, you can see it - it also acted as the set for the infirmary). Duke Humfrey's Library no longer houses the collection that it was originally was meant to, but it's still used as a reading room (and is the one that has the most “old-fashioned library” feel to it - beautiful space).

The Bodleian itself was the brainchild of Thomas Bodley, who, among other things, came up with the clever idea of stocking the library by having the printers in England each send the library a copy of every book they published. Amazingly, he actually managed to get the printers to go along with this, and thus was the first legal deposit library (and the basis of copyright, well, at least one basis of copyright) formed. The Bodleian is still a legal deposit library, which is a big part of the reason for its exponentially expanding collection, although if I understood one of the presentations correctly, it is now a selective one (it doesn’t have to take everything, it gets to pick and choose, but it still chooses quite a lot of stuff).

There’s one other interesting aspect to the Bodleian. It isn’t a lending library. It’s more like one of the world's largest Special Collections libraries. As with most Special Collections, if you want to use the collection, you have to use it on-site. And they are very, very serious about this point. When you are issued with your Bodleian Reader’s card, you are asked to read aloud (and adhere to) the following declaration:

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; not 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.

which tends to put one in a rather… reflective… frame of mind when handling library materials. (For the record, I was extremely careful with every book I made use of, and I don’t think I caused any damage to any of them.) These restrictions make sense too, when you realize that they tend to only have one copy of each edition (though if a book has gone through multiple editions, they do have multiple copies), and that copy has to last, theoretically, forever.

All this seriousness can lead one to imagine that the Bodleian is a forbidding library to make use of (and being housed in an imposing Neo-Gothic building and possessed of much decidedly old-fashioned interior design does not do much to ally this). However, it’s not, really, though it does have its quirks. Much of the collection resides in closed stacks, so you can’t just go picking things straight off the shelves, but the people who work there are some of the friendliest and most helpful folks I’ve met in the library world.

I actually found reading there a more pleasant experience than in my own university library. You can bring your laptop with you to work, and they even provide you with power sockets (one of my peeves about the UA library is that you have to go hunting for an outlet for your computer) and (I think, I never tested this) network jacks for internet access. It is quiet (a feature that is rapidly disappearing from the modern American academic library, somewhat to my dismay). The catalog is a bit… tricky (more on this later), but once you get the hang of things it’s an easy library to use, and a nice space to study in.

More can be said about how the Bodleian fits into the University Library System as a whole, but since that was the topic of one of the presentations for Tuesday, I'll leave that for the next post.

Time and Place

I spent most of yesterday wandering around Greenwich, which is a lovely town (or I suppose these days, suburb) famous for the Cutty Sark clipper ship (which is impressive, but somehow less so since they don't actually have any of the sails flying - it seems somehow less ship-like that way) and for the Prime Meridian. It is the site of the National Maritime Museum, home to all things nautical, and the site of the Royal Observatory, home of the aforementioned Meridian. It is also home to Greenwich Park, which is one of the loveliest urban parks I've ever wandered through, and a very nice pub. None of those things is the reason why I went to Greenwich.

Instead I went to Greenwich to pay my respects to an 18th century carpenter and clock-maker from Linclonshire, John Harrison and to his life's work. Those of you who have read Dava Sobel's book, "Longitude" or who saw the NOVA program on PBS based on the book (or the A&E mini-series, for that matter), know Harrison's story. For those of you who don't, go read the book. Sobel tells the tale far better than I possibly could. Go on, it's short, less than 200 pages - fast reading. Really. Go read it. It's good. (Don't worry, I'll stop being a librarian now.)

The Extremely Condensed Version of Harrison's story is that he created the first truly accurate clocks, which could be used by ships at sea to determine their longitude (saving them from becoming lost at sea, never to be seen again, or wrecked on some unforeseen coast). In the 18th century, figuring out a practical method of determining longitude at sea was a scientific challenge akin to trying to put a man on the moon. Governments offered a great deal of money for a practical solution to this problem. No one expected the solution to come from an entirely self-taught clock-maker from a village in northern England, but Harrison surprised a lot of people with his genius. The downside to the story is that, because no one expected a clock to be accurate enough to solve the problem (most had put their faith in a solution from astronomers), even after spending a large portion of his life creating a clock accurate enough to be useful, Harrison still wound up spending most of the rest of his life fighting for official recognition.

My own interest in Harrison's story began about a decade ago, when I saw the NOVA program and was intrigued, though for one reason or another I didn't get 'round to reading the book until about 2 years ago (though I'd had the sense to tape the NOVA program and it remains a favorite - the A&E mini-series is good too). Ever since I saw the NOVA program, I promised myself that when I finally made it to England, I'd go to the Royal Observatory and pay my respects to Harrison and his marvelous sea clocks. 10 years later, I finally made it.

It was worth the wait.

The 4 Harrison sea clocks are quite simply the most beautiful machines I have ever seen. Three of them still run, and sit in their cases in the Royal Observatory, gently ticking off the seconds and the minutes and the hours. They are mesmerizing to watch - their movements are not fast - they tick at a measured pace that makes them seem as if they could go on doing the same forever (which with proper care, they well might). From H-1, with its wooden wheels to H-3's nearly Rube Goldbergian complexity of brass gears these clocks are works of art, as well as scientific instruments.

Harrison's final masterpiece, H-4, sits quiet (it would run if wound, it's still mechanically sound, however it is kept still to save it from wearing out - it is possibly the most valuable clock ever made, from a scientific perspective) in well-deserved rest in a place of pride at the Observatory.

I consider myself privileged to have seen all these clocks.

I spent quite some time wondering through that room, crowded though it was on a holiday Monday, enchanted by these scientific relics. Then in a rather contemplative frame of mind, took myself off to the Trafalger Tavern and quietly raised a pint in toast to John Harrison, and all the other unknown tinkerers who have over the centuries toiled away in obscurity to give us the technology that has allowed us to explore the Earth from the depths of the ocean to the top of the world, to set foot on the Moon, and send probes beyond the the reaches of the solar system.

The people who do the exploring, who set foot on unknown shores and raise the flag, are the ones who get the recognition, but the folks behind the scenes are just as deserving, and they usually get lost in the shuffle. (I'm ashamed to say that even I don't know the names of the folks who designed the Saturn V rocket that put Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldren on the Moon, nor the names of the folks who designed the Voyager spacecraft, sailing still beyond the solar system.) Harrison got lucky. He is remembered, and his work is given a place of honor in Greenwich. Most of the engineers who work on such projects are not so lucky. Not that fame is everything, but we'd do well to remember these folks more often than we do.

I then boarded a boat for the trip back up the Thames to Westminster pier, considering it a day well spent. If I am very lucky, I will have a chance to go back.