Behind the Scenes at the Weston Library

On Wednesday, January 29, 2020 the Ertegun scholars took a very special and unforgettable trip to the Weston Library. We were welcomed by Rosemary Rey, the Executive Assistant to Bodley’s Librarian, and Bodley’s renowned Librarian himself, Richard Ovenden. Our first visit was to the normally off-limits rooftop of this beautiful 1930s building designed by Sir Giles Gilbert Scott. From the roof we got a glimpse of Oxford’s “dreaming spires” – as Victorian poet Matthew Arnold once described them – in perfect twilight, under a razor-thin crescent moon.

As we walked towards our first moment behind the scenes, we learnt about the 2011 renovations that the building underwent and the grand ‘ziggurat of books’ that had to come down due to safety risks, being replaced by ‘air and light’ in the centre of the building. We were welcomed into the conservation lab where we met the talented team that looks after the most delicate of items one can imagine. The conservators are organized in three main teams: Preventive conservation, book conservation and paper conservation. Alex Walker, the Acting Head of Preventive Conservation, told us about a new arrival to the library’s special collection – a small wooden cabinet full of very personal items and a ‘god box’ that held dry remains of a lizard besides other marvels – all of which once belonged to renowned travel writer, traveller and journalist Bruce Chatwin, whose 85 moleskin notebooks full of interesting travel notes are kept in the Bodleian Library. It is thanks to Bruce that we now have those marvellous notebooks under our hands. Alex told us all about the procedures that new acquisitions have to go through and the amount of thought and creativity that has to be put into these procedures.

Next, Assistant Book Conservator Alice Evans, took us through the steps of conserving books; we even learnt about the adhesive (wheat starch + water!) used to repair books using Japanese paper. Book Conservator Andrew Honey then turned us around to his table to look at a book he was repairing the binding of – a book which had been hurriedly and ‘economically’ covered with black velvet by the staff of Henry the 8th! The book is fascinating in as much as it gives all sorts of information from its owners to where it had been stacked, from which bugs had had a go at it to the quality and origin of the velvet it was covered with. It is truly fascinating what stories books can tell you. Our final host in the lab was Marinita Stiglitz, Head of Paper Conservation, who had previously worked on the Selden Map of China. She had in her hands another fascinating work of art – a Persian manuscript, with a beautifully hand-painted background on each page – gilded scenes of natural life, lions and rivers so subtly painted that one can hardly see them. Marinita introduced us to the difficulties of decision making on such unique items, finding the correct natural ingredient to create colours and finding the best way of storing, displaying and handling these delicate masterpieces.

Having listened to what these marvellous papers and books had to say to us, we went on to visit Chris Fletcher, Keeper of Special Collections, to get a glimpse of the most recent acquisitions among which we saw My Mighty Journey: A Waterfall’s Story, written by John Coy and illustrated by Gaylord Schanilec – a fully hand-made, hand-painted and hand-engraved work of art; we learnt about the seal that carried the image of a kneeling African man in supplication with the phrase ‘Am I not a man and a brother?’ above him – this was the seal of the Society for the Abolition of Slavery in England in the 1780s, later used as the emblem of the American Abolitionist movement. It had become a political and a fashion statement aiming to popularise opposition to slavery; we then read a beautiful poem written in lithograph about how humans should treat dogs, from the mouth of Rolo, on behalf of his fellow dogs with a loving image of a dog above it. The final surprise was 20 Slices by Ben Denzer, a small sized book composed of 20 slices of yellow American burger cheese, still in their plastic wrapping.

Our exciting visit ended with drinks and the opportunity to chat to our very hospitable and informative hosts in the airy hall of the Weston Library.

Serra Somersan