I am out of touch with the times. To those who know me that much has been clear for many years but it has only struck home with me in recent months. Over a decade ago, when I was teaching at Mansfield, the Librarian would thank me if I reprimanded a reader who was found in the library showing such numb-skulled disrespect to books that they had brought in something to drink. Now, when I step into the Bodleian’s Upper Reading Room (which, in my imagination, remains a timeless haven for protecting learning) and see so many desks adorned with plastic bottles and watch readers swigging water from them, I have to restrain myself from breaking the silence with a call to the custodians who, I still assume, would rush to catch these culprits who have so clearly infringed the spirit if not the letter of the Bodleian oath that they should be summarily escorted from the hallowed premises, divested of their University Card and advised to leave Oxford with all their belongings on the first train.
But, of course, they are not culprits, as the Reading Room staff patiently explained to me when I remonstrated with them a few months back: the rules were changed in 2011. The previous ban on all food and drink was, so to speak, watered down to allow water in the reading rooms. And, as the staff went on, it has proved very popular (popular, I wanted to shout, but saving the Library’s patrimony for future generations is not about seeking fleeting popularity). They provided the ‘lesser evil’ defence: there had been readers who wanted to bring in tea or coffee or cola, and so, confining them only to water was some sort of success. I asked the staff why water was so much better than other drinks; they guessed the reason was that it would not stain, which made me wonder whether it would be acceptable to bring in white but not brown spirits, vodka but not brandy, mother’s ruin but not the water of life.
I am not, however, writing this to be a grumpy Ciceronian, declaiming ‘o tempora, o mores’; my palpitations have subsided. The purpose of these paragraphs is not to condemn but to understand, for I sense there is here a cultural change that deserves to be analysed and understood. When I was an undergraduate twenty – sorry, twenty-five – years ago, very few students would have thought that taking water into the Bodleian could be acceptable. A delight of owning a book was that you could do what you wanted with it: you could have it at your desk and have a cup or glass to hand, something you could not contemplate doing in the college library, let alone in the Bodleian with its national status as a copyright collection.
It was not considered either acceptable or, for that matter, necessary: my impressionistic memory is that water was drunk far less often than it is a couple of decades later. Perhaps I am misremembering or post-dating the development. After all, the internal design of the British Library on Euston Road, opened in 1997, included plentiful water fountains, though, again, my impression is that they began as something of a curiosity and have become more of a welcome feature. I will not speculate on reasons for the apparent life-style change, beyond noting that the dietician’s advice to drink H2O regularly seems even to inform the Bodleian’s new reading room rule, which reads: ‘Remember that water is permitted in the reading room…’. It is an injunction that seems not just to condone but to encourage water-drinking in the library.
But how does this arrangement accord with the Bodleian oath that I remember reading aloud as a Fresher in 1987? What is usually remembered is the phrase about not kindling flame, but that is a specific injunction within a more general prohibition about not defacing or damaging books in any way. And, as William Blades wrote in the nineteenth century, ‘next to fire, we must rank water … as the greatest destroyer of books’. It could be fairly retorted that he had in mind primarily loss of volumes at sea, to which should be added the destructive power of floods: not for nothing is the traditional library built on the first floor, not at ground level. In comparison to the quantity of liquid that causes the calamities of drowning or flooding, it might be said, the water students bring into the Bodleian is a mere puddle. It might be added that with the teats through which most imbibe soft drinks now, the danger of spillage is minimised (you will note that the reading room rule talks only of water without specifying how it is carried, allowing the possibility of it being in a paper cup or a glass or – like the farmer presenting his meagre gift to Artaxerxes – in cupped hands, but other information shows that the Library’s expectation is that the water will be bottled. Whether it could be San Pellegrino held in green glass is not made transparent, if you pardon the pun). The danger of spillage may be minimised, but it is still there; even if a litre and a half would not turn pages to papier-mâché, it could cause the sort of damage Bodley’s oath is intended to guard against happening. Perhaps, though, we have become purblind to this; perhaps we are culturally conditioned to downplay the possibility of water as one of what Blades called the enemies of books. What I have in mind is less the benign nature of water at a time when we perceive it to be increasingly scarce but, rather, the association that our western modern living has created between the destruction of books and burning, something about which I have talked elsewhere. Beside the power, etched in our cultural memories, of fire pales all other destructive forces.
In fairness, it should be pointed out that it is not all the Bodleian’s rooms which are as insouciant about the presence of drink. Go down the few steps from the Upper Reading Room into the Arts End of the old library and the notice at the entrance into Duke Humfrey’s, complete with graceless cartoon graphics, states boldly that ‘no food or drink (including water bottles) are allowed [sic] in this reading room’. Duke Humfrey’s has been lamentably denuded of its status as the prime location for manuscript consultation but it still has a certain aura of the inner sanctum – indeed, the distinction between reading rooms as watering holes, on the one hand, and spaces of scholarship where full abstinence is required, on the other, is surely increasing that divide. It also, of course, assumes a gradation in the books themselves – those that can be consulted in one of the general spaces being considered less valuable or, perhaps, more dispensable than those that are confined to places like Duke Humfrey’s. Whether a legal deposit library should promote such a distinction when all its collection needs protecting for posterity is, of course, a wider debate.
That a process of gradation exists could be seen as an admission of failure: an inability to protect all so the inner bastions become the line of defence. Even there barbarians might lurk: we should not be too dewy-eyed about Duke Humfrey’s as a special haven when Judith Loades can remind us of the time in the 1970s that Margaret Crum happened upon a reader in the room with a Thermos flask of tomato soup. If policing a collection has been a perennial concern, it may shed a different light on the decision to soften the rules about no food and drink in the library. I mentioned that the staff used the ‘lesser evil’ defence. One can imagine that argument being made in starker form: if readers do not feel comfortable in the library, they may either not use it (which would be their loss, not the Bodleian’s) or, worse, abuse it by stealing books from it. The possibility of water-damage to some volumes might then be calculated to be a risk worth taking if it reduced the rate of theft. If, though, that was in the authorities’ thinking, it suggests a deeper malaise: what standards of comfort are these? A reader needs to be able sit painlessly and to read without straining their eyes – but why has the requirement for acceptable seating and adequate lighting been supplemented by an insistence on being able to hydrate oneself?
The answer surely lies in expectations imported from other libraries and from new technology. Students’ experience of other libraries can make the absence of water seem a deprivation: after all, most if not all Oxford college libraries now allow bottles in, often on the basis that as they are open 24 hours they cannot stop it happening. What is more, one can e-mail, one can check Facebook, one can text in a reading room, so why should not one be able to fulfil a bodily need for liquid there? I sometimes regret the ability to be on the internet in the library – I am nostalgic for the times when it was a place where you were beyond communication, a hiding-place from the demands of every-day life – but, of course, I could not work without the resources it provides. My point is that the new connectivity has broken down walls in ways which sets new challenges for libraries like the Bodleian. It is not just barriers to learning that have been removed; the separation of ‘library’ from other, mundane space has been reduced as the outside world seeps into the reading room through the computer screen. Perhaps, indeed, the increasing need to make distinctions between reading rooms is a result of this logic, a need to internalise differences within the library where it previously existed between library and beyond.
Water in the library dilutes the space: it is a symptom of how the stone walls have become porous. I am not suggesting that the fabric of Schools Quad will suffer the fate of Jericho before the trumpets of Joshua. Thomas Bodley chose for his library the motto ‘quarta perennis’ – the fourth will last forever, where the previous three libraries of the University of Oxford, the mythical one of Alfred’s and the more real ones of Bishop Cobham and Humfrey, duke of Gloucester had all perished. Libraries do die, but we need not predict the Bodleian’s demise. Cultural shifts are making the old rules indefensible, but with the loss of those rules something less tangible but more essential also dissipates – the aura or charisma of the space. The challenge is this: how, in the emerging world order, can the library be re-endowed with fresh charisma?
My local library has opened an exhibition celebrating itself. Considering that that library is one of the largest in Britain and surely the most iconic university library in the world, no one could blame the Bodleian for doing that. Some might complain that the event is a tad unoriginal — the title, Treasures of the Bodleian, is also that of a volume from some twenty years ago. But, the answer could come, this has an elegant and interactive website, which includes a section looking forward to the opening of the New New Bodleian (Oxford’s answer to the game of Mornington Crescent, there) with an on-line ballot — albeit merely first-past-the-post — for what should be on display. And there’s even a write-in section for the ballot: ‘The People’s Choice’ it is called, which must be a sort of self-aggrandizing synecdoche, where the cultured bourgeoisie count as all ‘people’.
With my research interests, I was curious to see what the curators had decided was a ‘treasure’ and, in particular, what late medieval manuscripts they had on show. The answer is very few and nothing at all to do with the University Library’s second founder, Humfrey, duke of Gloucester. And that’s even in the section called ‘A Bodleian Treasure’ with items, like Hilliard’s miniature of Thomas Bodley, providing visual vignettes of the library’s history. It is true that because of the early-sixteenth-century decline of the University Library and its eventual closure around 1549 — not all the fault of Richard Cox, despite what the commentary to the exhibition says — none of duke Humfrey’s manuscripts remained in the room now named after him, but some have returned. And if I was to propose a write-in campaign it would probably be for what is now MS. Duke Humfrey d. 1, a fairly small but refined manuscript of Pliny the Younger, with the duke’s ex libris and written in the hand of the Milanese humanist, Pier Candido Decembrio, who was then seeking the distant duke’s patronage. It encapsulates very well a particular element of Humfrey’s collecting and the international network that lay behind it.
And, yet, when thinking what makes for me the Bodleian such a remarkable place — my local haven for scholarship — I realised that much of what is redolent to me is immovable or intangible. They could hardly take down the original donors’ plaque for the south staircase to put on exhibition; and they certainly could not move the view from the Arts End of the original Library across Bodley’s Quad. Even more of a challenge would be to capture and to bottle the sensation when the light rakes across Duke Humfrey’s on an autumn morning; the yellowish tinge to the lighting in the north range of the Upper Reading Room is little imitated; and the echo of the dome of the Upper Camera — admittedly not as sonorous as that in Manchester’s Central Library — could hardly be on display. Then there are the little things which make the Bodleian, for me, what it is: the snakes of beads used to hold down manuscript leaves (held in a box called the snake pit); the curve of the back of the chairs in the old reading rooms; the out-dated clocks, often now most often stopped, that stand guard over the corner of the reading areas. It is these comforts of the quotidian that make the Bodleian a home to scholars — and that is surely something to be treasured.
I must admit it had not occurred to me until my wife mentioned it yesterday that this October sees the 620th anniversary of the birth of Humfrey, duke of Gloucester. In my defence, the six centuries and one score years is not necessarily the most memorable occasion which requires celebrating but this autumn does see the Duke having his own little local renaissance.
First of all, on 10th and 11th September, there is going to be a small conference on Humfrey, at which I am speaking alongside such luminaries at Alessandra Petrina and Derek Pearsall. Then, just under a month later, the Bodleian is having what it has dubbed ‘Duke Humfrey’s Night’ as a fund-raising event. One can sponsor an object or its conservation, though not one of the few Humfrey manuscripts now in the Library’s possession. The event is explicitly advertised as commemorating the anniversary of:
the birth of Humfrey, Duke of Gloucester, whose generous donation in the mid-15th century of a large collection of classical manuscripts transformed the original University Library established by Thomas Cobham, Bishop of Worcester, and led to the construction of the beautiful reading room now known as Duke Humfrey’s Library.
My eye was caught by the description of his ‘donation’ — in fact, at least four donations, with the two most significant being in 1439 and 1444, and with a total of about 300 books being given to the University. The range of manuscripts included biblical commentaries, some scholastic texts, some legal works, a notable assortment of medical texts, some classical works, a few of them rare, and a smattering of new humanist writings. It is interesting to see, in Oxford, his gifts remembered for being a ‘collection of classical manuscripts’ — a partial recollection of the collection that perhaps says more about our generation’s interests than about his eclectic library. Humfrey is most celebrated for his patronage of humanists like Pier Candido Decembrio (though he claimed not to have received his dues from him) and Tito Livio Frulovisi, biographer of Henry V (though Tito Livio soon left the duke’s employ). It was via the Milanese Decembrio that Humfrey gained most of the rare classical works in his collection — refound texts like the Panegyrici latini. This, though, is in danger of overlooking the range of activities going on at his court around the duke, if not always with his close involvement. Then again, I can hardly complain about a concentration of interest in his ‘classical manuscripts’ — my own work, I suppose, is stoking that tradition. I must remember to make amends.
The latest instalment comes once more from the lavatorial nook of an esteemed library: this time, the loos marked ‘Male Readers’ in the Bodleian.
There has been, for what seems many moons, a notice on one of the electric hand-dryers, which reads:
OUT OF ORDER
This has set my mind wondering: where in the library’s collection has regret been misplaced? Is there a space in the section for negative emotions, between chagrin and disappointment, where it should have been? It has not been lost, merely wrongly shelved, so where now might it be? In the allied section of memories, snuggling up to nostalgia? Or in a completely counter-intuitive part of the library, like the poorly-lit room given over to gustatory sensations? The Bodleian, at least, is optimistic that it will be returned to its rightful place: does this mean there is even now a wise member of staff hunting down regret in the recesses of the stacks? We wish them luck in their search, and hope that they will take care handling it, when found: regret can be so fragile, so insubstantially bound.
I have — as far as I know — only made the acquaintance of one book thief. I do not include those students who illicitly ‘borrow’ books from the famously non-lending Bodleian in this count. I remember when I was a doctoral student, a fellow graduate casually mentioning that he had called up a thesis but could not be bothered to read it in the library so smuggled it out wrapped up in his jumper in order to photocopy it in its entirety; he later returned it. I found this all the more shocking because he had removed, albeit temporarily, an unpublished dissertation, the number of copies of which would be in single digits. I was more ambivalent a few years later about the student of mine who came for confession: in September 1997, he had wanted to use the Bodleian at the weekend only to discover it was to close on what he — and I — considered the spurious grounds of respecting the funeral of the former Princess of Wales. He had selected the book he wanted to study, removed it on the Friday and returned it on the Monday. Should he have been praised for his determination to read or condemned for breaking the library’s rules?
Those examples do not compare with actual campaigns of book-stealing. The one thief I have met was an academic who stole from Oxford and London libraries, and then sold them to auctioneers and dealers in the capital, claiming that he had inherited them from a late relative. A wise librarian called John eventually uncovered his deeds. The man was arrested and served time in prison. He is now, I believe, a radio presenter.
There is a detail of this case that came back to me last weekend, when I was reading The Financial Times‘ feature on book-stealing. John, the librarian, told me that the police had recovered some of the books from under the thief’s bed. He had hidden them there because he had to remove signs of their former, or rightful, ownership. He did not tear off the front boards, as some thieves do, or tear out pages with provenance marks. Instead, he spent his evenings painstakingly washing away the book-plates in the front of the volumes. John particularly remarked on this: the thief had done it as ‘a labour of love’, a sign of respect for the books he had purloined.
What brought this back to me was reading of the case of Stanislas Gosse, the young Alsatian who stole hundreds of volumes, including manuscripts, from the Mont Sainte-Odile monastery in Alsace. At his trial in 2003, he explained , or exculpated, his actions: ‘It may appear selfish, but I felt the books had been abandoned. They were covered with dust and pigeon droppings and I felt no one consulted them any more’. Like the thief I knew, he respected what he stole.
The Financial Times parallelled Gosse with a more recent thief, Farhad Hakimzadeh, who (in a line which is surely to become notorious) loved his books so much, he spent his wedding night in their company. But Hakimzadeh did not simply steal volumes and maps: he sliced pages out of them. For sure, he did it clinically, so much so that The Guardian reported at the time ‘to the untrained eye the damage is barely visible’. However, it was damage and it was vandalism. It seems to me that there is a different impulse at work in Hakimzadeh’s actions from Gosse’s.
What Gosse did has been written up as bibliokleptomania. Whether it was in truth an uncontrollable desire as this designation would suggest, we are not competent to judge, though it makes a handy defence in court. Indeed, the description of both his motivation and that of Hakimzadeh is suspect, coming as they do from their trials. But Gosse’s phrasing struck me as remarkably familiar, unintentionally echoing the words of a humanist at work nearly six hundred years earlier.
Readers of these pages will have met my friend, Poggio Bracciolini, before. One of his claims to renown in scholarly circles is his recovery of classical texts that had not circulated in the centuries immediately before his lifetime. In one famous letter, he describes how he and colleagues (no solitary activity, this) visited the monastery of St. Gall and ‘there amid a tremendous quantity of books which it would take too long to describe, we found Quintilian still safe and sound, though filthy with mould and dust. For these books were not in the library, as befitted their worth, but in a sort of foul and gloomy dungeon at the bottom of one of the towers, where not even men convicted of a capital offence would have been stuck away’. Like Gosse, the humanists claimed that the owners had abandoned their books — respecting those volumes meant disrespecting the institutions that housed them.
Poggio and his colleagues would claim, 0f course, that what they were doing was not like Gosse’s actions because they would not admit to it being selfish. On the contrary, they insisted that they were acting in the interests of the republic of letters, not trying to hoard books but to make their texts available to the learned. The audience, it might be said, was select and hardly a wide public but their self-justification was much more bullish than a latterday defendant’s.
It also seems to me that the humanist impulse was at work a century after Poggio, in the early sixteenth century here in Oxford, when the old university library entered a period of decline. As it did, some of the manuscripts went missing from the chained library. Once again, those thefts might have been rationalised by their perpetrators as acts for the public good, saving venerable manuscripts from an institution incapable of caring for them properly. And, in a few cases, those books now survive because they were stolen.
In short, as I said in a lecture a couple of years ago, it is not only bad men who steal books. Nor is it the case that all thefts at all times have been considered heinous. The historians among us need to consider the shifting boundaries between safeguarding and appropriating, stealing and saving. We need to ask: when has the thieving of books been acceptable?