The Library of the Weston World
Roberto Weiss, apart from being an émigré Italian count, a professor at UCL and a leading historian of humanism, was skilful with a pen. Among his papers now held in the Warburg, there are several examples of the Christmas cards he drew for friends. The portfolio also includes a depiction of the then-new building of the Bodleian, erected on the north side of Broad Street, with a caption describing it as Oxford’s Kremlin. When compared with the charm of the ramshackle cluster of shops and pubs that were demolished to make space for the library’s austere facade, the sense of loss might be understandable.
However, over the past months, this ugly duckling has quietly been shedding its young plumage, and now we can glimpse how it will look in its new guise. Today is the beginning of the culmination of the project which sees the unloved New Bod transformed into the Weston Library.
The first spaces to be opened in the building, unveiled today, are the reading rooms. Ahead of going across to Colchester for the start of term, I made a brief detour to glimpse what will be. Not everything is in place – and will not be, I understand, for some months – but already it is clear that this will be a vast improvement on the subterranean ice-chamber in the Radcliffe Science Library where Special Collections have been held for the past couple of years. I will admit that part of me wishes that modern papers and ‘old books’ were kept separately but as, in my work, I often emphasise how we should study incunables and manuscripts side-by-side, I can hardly complain when we have a combined ‘Rare Books & Manuscripts Reading Room’ (though the sequence surely puts things back to front). And the space, which I remember as once being the politics journals room, is a fine expanse, filled with adequate light, set off by its high – and impressive – wooden ceiling. The desks are ample and the round-backed seats perhaps too comfortable. There is also, as I was shown, goodly space for expansion of open stack material: the old reading room was better equipped with catalogues, reference works and periodicals than anywhere else I have worked, and this may now improve yet further. The staff, though, would not want us to judge the place on its first day of opening – this is the start of a period of transition and all of us readers should wait until mid-2016 before passing definitive comment.
I mentioned the old reading room and, of course, Duke Humfrey’s this is not. It is sad to think that it will be a rare occurrence when a manuscript can be studied in the space first designed for them, and it is a worry that we may lose the association of knowledge that was the post-War organisation of the Old Bodleian – manuscripts available on one floor, with classical and theological texts below, and historical and literary works above. The fate of the original haven of learning is not yet announced, as far as I know, and I can only hope it will be better served than by the clutter of drawers and instruments that recently squatted there. But the new space in the Weston Library has the potential to be an even better location for manuscript consultation. Not only that, but there is more to come. Next spring will see the opening of the main foyer of the Library which, from the quick viewing I was allowed today, will be an airy and impressive space to rival the renovated Ashmolean or the entrance hall of the British Library. There are exciting times ahead of us.