One afternoon I make it my mission to explore Oxford’s libraries. This is easily imagined but less easily done because there are no fewer than one hundred libraries in the city. They range from the massive and historical Bodleian–which is legally entitled to a copy of every book published in England–to private libraries in each residential college. Walking through Oxford, it doesn’t look from the outside like books are behind every door. But an empirical test of that prediction would reveal positive results more often than not.
I set out from St. Catherine’s (my home college) on a ice-coated morning and stop first at the Social Science Library, a sleek construction at odds visually with the castle-like decor of the traditional reading rooms. Inside I sit at a long table and happily type away for a few minutes before I notice a little sign right in front of me: “This is a quiet study area. No laptops allowed.” Chagrined, I sneak back outside, hoping that I haven’t already been blacklisted as one of those students who just can’t keep perfectly silent while studying.
Next on my tour is the English Faculty Library, next to the peaceful University Parks and meandering River Cherwell. Inside I discover JRR Tolkien’s application for a special professorship of Anglo-Saxon literature, and some drawings by Philip Pullman with the fictional Jordan College in place of the real one where I live. Did you know that in England, the novel that we know as The Golden Compass is called Northern Lights?
The highlight of my tour is of course The Bodleian. In fact “the Bod” is not just one large building but rather a network of libraries around the city which shares books stored off-site. Rather than borrowing books as I would at home, I instead request that they be sent to a specific reading room and then make notes there. (That is how one afternoon I find myself browsing stories about New York drug gangs in the Rhodes House, but that’s another story.) The most iconic Bodleian buildings look like Hogwarts, with towering spires and a central dome from which one can survey the city’s walls and towers. Walking in, I feel like my tiny homework assignment is taking on historical importance. “I’m going to write an essay!” I feel like shouting. “About theater!” But I don’t. Because Quietness is Rule Number One.
Finally, I feel it is my duty to check out the library of another college, even though such places are technically out-of-bounds to anyone who does not live in that college. My target is small and cozy, with stained glass windows and dark wooden tables that students have covered with scary-looking notes. I act casual and follow someone in easily. Once inside, however, seeming like I belong there is more challenging. I walk back and forth down the isles until it feels redundant, and then try to browse a massive, red tome that is handwritten in Latin. Ancient paint from the cover flakes off and stains my fingers. People are starting to look at me so I make a dash for the exit…which is locked. I rattle the doorknob but it just won’t open. I turn and head back into the depths of the bookshelves. Just act casual, I command myself. Just act casual. Finally, a girl taps me on the shoulder and lets me out with a swipe of her University card and a knowing smile.
Exhausted, I return home to St. Catz to ponder the lessons of the day. They are, in ascending order of importance:
1) Order books from the Bodleian well ahead so that you do not experience the rite of passage known as an “essay crisis.”
2) Know the difference between quiet, and Quiet.
3) There’s a reason they’re called the Closed Stacks, and emergency rations are not provided down there. Make sure you know how to get out.