Guest Blogger: Simon Thomas, Library Student Extraordinaire

Posted: October 12, 2007 in Be My Guest

I have known Simon for, oh, what is it now… Five years? Six? More? Anyway, he and I have been on the same book discussion list for several years now, and through those years I’ve seen him grow from high schooler to Oxford University student to a graduate of Oxford. Now, I’m pleased to say, he is embarking on the wild journey that leads to LIBRARY SCHOOL.

He’s so charming and witty. After reading his guest post I know you’ll agree.

Simon blogs at Stuck in a Book, where he writes about all his bookish adventures, illustrated with his own impressive drawings. Swing by and visit him when you can!

(Thank you, Simon! xo)

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I have never agreed to be on panels for judging architectural excellence. Nor, indeed, have I been asked – but should such an occasion take place, it is unlikely that my immediate action would be to locate a directory of libraries. Though redoubtable sources for reference and learning, libraries are rarely intrinsically beautiful buildings, pleasing aesthetically as well as academically. If, however, I were to create a retrospective award for Architectural Beauty 1489, first-place would have to be handed to the Bodleian Library, Oxford University, England.

Having just finished a degree in English at Magdalen College in Oxford University, and looking for the requisite work-experience before I can begin Library School, I applied for a Graduate Traineeship at the Bodleian. This is basically a year of being a general dogsbody for the people responsible for the dreaming spires’ little collection of books. 8 million of them, that is. On 117 miles of shelving. Quite a lot of which is underground. Oh boy.

Nobody quite understands the Oxford University Library system, least of all the poor librarians. Each college (there are 30+) has a library. Each department (another 30+) has a library. The central Bodleian has a fair few constituent parts too. If there’s one thing Oxford has no short supply of… well, it’s souvenir shops, but if there’s something else they have no short supply of, it’s libraries. I applied with a general departmental application, but ended up with the Golden Ticket – a place as a Bodleian Trainee, moving around all over the place, probably getting to know each individual book by name, nickname and pseudonym.

Week One. I’m in the Stack. That’s what we call the underground section of the library, where shelves and shelves and shelves and shelves of books are stored, just waiting for the readers to request them. This is mostly done by computer now, except for one reading room (the Duke Humphrey’s – as a brief aside, the librarians’ canteen is called Duke Hungry’s. Never let it be said that we don’t have a sense of humour. Or humor, for your side of the Pond). The Duke Humphrey’s still uses a vacuum pipe – slips of paper are put into metal tubes, and shot underground. Wow. As stack staff, we found the books (by no means a simple procedure, since each decade seems to have brought a new shelfmark system), put them in packing cases, and thrust them into an enormous conveyor, which moves under the streets of Oxford. So far, so good. Then I moved to the illustriously named Floor J – still underground, but requiring keys and codes and secret handshakes. This is where the manuscripts and rare books are kept. For readers, these are precious and must be held scrupulously carefully – I, on the other hand, was free to wander around as I pleased, reading what I liked. If you’re the jealous type, look away now. I got to hold and read a letter written by Jane Austen. Actually written by her own hand. And held in my own hands. It’s a defining moment of my life. It almost made the other things I saw seem mundane – and they were letters by Robert Burns (apologising for being drunk, and trying to evade a duel), C.S. Lewis, a handwritten version of Wind in the Willows, Hitler’s marriage certificate… it’s a veritable goldmine down there.

That was week one. Since then I’ve been consigned to the Science area for three months. No disrespect, but after having held Jane Austen’s letter, periodicals entitled The Knee lose their lustre. I’m glad I have two knees, but have never felt the lack of monthly updates. Another is entitled simply Blood. Edited by Bram Stoker, presumably. Still, all a learning curve, and all grist to the mill – when shelving tomes on High Tech Ceramics, I shall be able to think of Jane and, contentedly, sigh.

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