I recently returned from a trip to the UK, and between cathedrals and castles and museums, I worried my jaw would freeze from all of the gawping.
And I wondered: do most Americans feel a bit “Hee-Haw” when traveling?
Exacerbating this feeling is that I’m a dyed-in-the-wool American West Coaster. I grew up in the wilds of Northern California (think redwood trees and Bigfoot, not San Francisco and cabernet) and now live in the wilds of Southern Oregon (think Crater Lake and blue collar, not Portland and Blue Moon beer).
My husband and I lived in Philadelphia for five years, and even though I had been to Europe before, I still remember the reverence with which I trod the cobblestone streets, stood at the epicenter of William Penn’s “greene country towne,” and threw a penny on Benjamin Franklin’s grave (sidestepping the three singing Benjamin Franklin impersonators to do so). When my husband and I accidentally stumbled on the building housing the Liberty Bell (much easier to do in the 90s before its new digs were built), we stared at each other in awe. “Do you suppose that’s the LIBERTY BELL bell? Like, the real one?” I whispered.
One year when my parents were visiting, we took them on a tour of Independence Hall. The eager young tour guide (think Kenneth from 30 Rock about ten years younger) marveled at the cumulative history of the place. “This building is over TWO HUNDRED years old! How many of you have been in a building that’s over TWO HUNDRED years old?”
A good three-quarters of the room raised their hands. The tour guide blushed
I remembered this episode while walking through Westminster Abbey, the Tower of London, Christ Church College, the Bodleian, Cardiff Castle, and Trinity College Dublin.
It came back with special force when visiting the Bodleian’s exhibit “Magical Books.” I knew I was going to see a First Folio Macbeth. John Dee’s Holy Table. C.S. Lewis’s map of Narnia. I was prepared for all these, but even so there was an element of unreality to it all. “Is that the FIRST FOLIO MACBETH Macbeth? Like, the real one?” I whispered in my best Beverly Hillbillies drawl.
Then there were the surprises. I had no idea that the exhibition would prominently display one of the Ripley Scrolls. I walked into the smallish room housing these treasures and one of the first things I saw was the splashy toad of the Ripley Scroll prominently splayed out, the reds and greens and golds of the scroll still brilliant after all these centuries.
I believe that most people (or at least the people I want to know) have a special “library place” in their hearts. It’s what causes the smile that breaks when entering a new library; the shiver on catching the familiar whiff of old books; the frisson of anticipation after realizing that stacks and stacks of books can be taken home and savored.
Libraries have been a big part of my life for the last five years. In 2007, my community’s library was closed for lack of funds, leaving 82,000 American citizens without access to any public library whatsoever. Unthinkable, right?
Long story short: a group of very cool folks got together and fundraised and fundraised some more and re-opened the library as a nonprofit. There are hopes that we can pass a library district in the near future so that the library is again sustainably funded, but in the meantime we all work like crazy to keep the doors open (more here: www.josephinelibrary.org).
So last year, when I planned my first solo trip to England—sans husband and kids, free to direct my steps wherever I wanted without worrying about potty breaks, snacks, or pending soccer matches—it was only natural that at the top of my must-visit-or-else-what-the-hell’s-the-point-of-going list was Oxford’s storied and magnificent Bodleian Library.
The Bodleian, built in 1320, was Oxford’s first university library (meaning it wasn’t attached to one specific college). That original library, smallish and uninspiring, expanded when Humfrey, Duke of Gloucester, donated over 200 valuable manuscripts in the 1440s, so the university constructed a new room over the Divinity School. (Harry Potter fans: note that the hospital wing scenes with Madame Pomfrey were filmed in the Divinity School, and all of the Hogwarts library scenes were filmed in Duke Humfrey’s library.)
Duke Humfrey’s library, finished in the 1480s, lasted about 60 years until, under legislation passed under King Edward VI meant “to purge the English church of all traces of Roman Catholicism,” the library was stripped of all books and manuscripts containing “superstitious books and images.” (Why do I include this in my short history of the Bodleian?: it is perversely of some comfort to me to know that my town’s library is not the only victim of shortsighted thinking on the part of autocratic politicians.)
The Bodleian was resuscitated in 1598 by an injection of funds from Sir Thomas Bodley, after whom it was renamed. Bodley established three guidelines that have shaped the Bodleian’s character:
1) He established an agreement with the Stationers’ Company of London that would direct the mission of the Bodleian to this day: a copy of every book registered with the Stationers’ Company was to also be deposited at the Bodleian. This agreement transformed it into a critically important repository of learning in England for the next four centuries.
2) He determined that scholars from all universities should have unfettered access to the holdings of his library, a generous and liberal policy that allowed the Bodleian to transcend the relatively parochial constraints of English scholarship. (While all scholars were welcome, however, they all had to swear the following oath: “I hereby undertake not to remove from the Library, or to mark, deface, or injure in any way, any volume, document, or other object belonging to it or in its custody; nor to bring into the Library or kindle therein any fire or flame, and not to smoke in the Library; and I promise to obey all rules of the Library.” I know this because I couldn’t resist buying the tea towel with the oath printed on it.)
3) He ordained that no books were to leave the building. No borrowing of books or materials, period. This policy is in place to this day for the majority of the collection.
I find this last policy fascinating, because in the early days of my library’s resurrection, we faced a critical decision: invest in the (rather expensive) software that would allow us to circulate books or just house the collection for patrons to view in the library. A very sage and experienced librarian decided the point by declaring that if books and materials didn’t circulate, we would have a reading room, not a proper library. If we agree with that definition (and I do), the the Bodleian, one of the most famous libraries in the world, is technically a reading room.
Even King Charles I, facing a mutinous parliament in London and escaping to the relative security of Oxford in 1642, was denied borrowing privileges at the Bodleian (though in order to appease His Majesty, the librarians had a little stall built inside Duke Humfrey’s Library so the King could taste the fruits of scholarship in privacy). By the doctrine of the divine right of kings, this was the man who was, in Shakespeare’s words, “the figure of God’s majesty/His captain, steward, deputy-elect,” and yet even he was denied check-out privileges.
After my tour of the Bodleian, marveling at the majesty of most influential books and manuscripts in history, I stopped by a pub (as I am wont to do). It occurred to me, as I re-acclimated to the noise and smell and colors of everyday life, that the American library tradition–begun by Benjamin Franklin and brought to fruition by Andrew Carnegie and countless American communities–of enabling every citizen to have free and unfettered access to information is one of the most radical movements in history.
In Oxford, at the Bodleian, I could gaze at magnificent books chained to the shelves, marvel at the scholarship contained in the august buildings, and admire the history of the furniture, the paintings, the architecture. But in little Grants Pass, Oregon, I could walk into my community’s library and check out almost any book in the building.