The Bodleian’s recent reader experience survey will, I’m sure, rightly return the praise that Oxford’s library staff deserves. But beyond your uninspiring and vandalised textbooks, your college’s library will also hold far more interesting – and far older – books and manuscripts, locked away behind that door you’ve never entered. As President of the Oxford University Society of Bibliophiles, my purpose is to unlock those doors and give students access to view and handle books that you will, almost certainly, never get a chance to see again.
Oxford must be a contender, if not the record holder, for the densest concentration of rare books and manuscripts in the world. These works are treasures in the heritage of mankind. Moreover, they are also crucial components both of the history of your college and of the University. For the most part, the books your college forebears used half a millennium ago are still sitting there.
And yet, most students will go through their undergraduate studies without ever entering their college’s old library. Often restricted to fellows and researchers, these libraries can feel like, and often are, no-go areas for undergraduates. There are valid reasons for this – rare books and manuscripts have to be viewed with extreme care, and generally under supervision. They can’t just be taken off the shelves and flicked through. But if they are not looked at, they are dead. The Bodleian reader survey will give credit to the superb service that the libraries provide for day-to-day work. But whilst the doors to Oxford’s inheritance remain closed, that heritage is wasted. Better access to the historic collections of their colleges can be gained by undergraduates.
Firstly, encourage the librarians to open your college’s old library for visits from time to time (if they do not do so already.) They will generally be happy to display some of the key items and give talks on the history of the collection.
Secondly, know what there is. In general the key parts of the collections will be on the college website and on SOLO; where they could be relevant to your course or your interests, ask to use them.
Colleges themselves should also encourage students (with grants, if need be) to conduct their undergraduate theses on the College’s collections.
Finally, students themselves should do more to work with, and help, their old libraries. Every college old library is underfunded to varying extents, and will have countless books and manuscripts that need restoration. Rebinding a book can cost hundreds of pounds, fully repairing it thousands. But once done, it will be in a readable condition for centuries. Every JCR has charitable functions where they raise money.
Reallocating some of that money to aid rare book restoration and to help preserve your college’s heritage is a noble cause, and one that will, almost certainly, be rewarded through a greater willingness by the college librarians to make these collections available.
The libraries belong to the past, and to the present, and to the future. Students can work to make available, and to preserve, this inheritance.