I arrive early to the Bodleian library in Oxford, very nervous and quite intimidated. The attached quadrant has named each of its doorways in Latin: Schola Grammaticae et Historiae and Schola Naturalis Philosophiae. I have to go to the Clarendon Building—think the press—but it is not named. I find my way to admissions and stand in queue (British for “line”) in front of four scholars dressed far more professionally than I am. I finally gain entrance to the registrar. The conversation goes like this:
Registrar: Good morning. Welcome to the Bodleian!
Me (trying not to throw up, which is always unimpressive): Good morning. I’m here to register for a reader’s card.
Registrar: Lovely. I’m sure then that you have reserved a place in the Reading Room?
Registrar: And you have ordered your material a few days ahead of time?
Registrar: Otherwise I’m not sure I can help you. We are moving buildings this week and I have not heard if the Reading Room is even open.
I convince her to give me the reader’s card, which at least my son will think is interesting. I have all the paperwork properly in hand, though I put “Brenton” for surname and “Dickieson” for given name like a dufus (Canadian for “idiot”). I swear an oath not to write in books, or burn the library down, or smoke in the library—C.S. Lewis complained about this rule. Then she directs me to the New Bodleian Library, a medieval building being updated to house the rare books and manuscripts.
I have held my breath now for twenty minutes, so I breathe in the early Oxford air.
With great fear I walk up the dusty ramp to the New Bodleian. If the sheer confusion of my arrival, and scholars in robes darting between ancient buildings with spires to the sky were not enough, I open the glass doors and am met by twenty people in suits and hardhats, clearly celebrating. A kind porter sees my pale face and directs me to a locker room where I leave my bag—after getting change, believe it or not, from Blackwell’s historic bookstore!—check my bag, put my laptop and journal in a large Ziploc bag, and move forward. I am given a welcome packet, three different people check my ID, and one porter finally directs me to the lift (British for “elevator”). We are chatting away, and then I speak awkwardly, as I often do:
Me: You’re not really the master of the library or something?
Porter: Oh no, just a volunteer pulled out of retirement.
Me: Oh, good.
Porter: But I did work at the Radcliffe Camera all my life.
Me: Oh, just that 18th century neoclassical tower in the Bodleian that houses one of the greatest science libraries in the world?
Porter: Yes, that’s the one.
I enter the lift, and all the buttons say “staff only.” I stare at the buttons then look at the strangers in the elevator. “Just press whatever you like,” a man with a rolling chair said. “They aren’t supposed to say that.”
Finally I enter the Reading Room, where I explain to a young librarian who looks as nervous as I do that I have engaged in a very embarrassing academic breech of etiquette but I am traveling from Canada and would like to view C.S. Lewis materials please. She smiles wanly at me and suggests I speak to a gentleman in the Rare Books and Manuscripts Reading Room.
I take a breath and walk into the Rare Books and Manuscripts Reading Room. I explain that I have engaged in a very embarrassing academic breech of etiquette but I am traveling from Canada and would like to view C.S. Lewis materials please. He suggests I speak to the C.S. Lewis expert, whose name I have forgotten but who I recognized.
This expert comes in and we shake hands and I explain that I have engaged in a very embarrassing academic breech of etiquette but I am traveling from Canada and would like to view C.S. Lewis materials please. He smiles, and explains what I already knew, but it’s a cool, potentially devastating, story.
The Old Bodleian is very full, so they have been working on the New Bodleian for some time. It has just opened this morning and I am one of the very first patrons! Yay! Instead of closing the library for several months, they simply closed for a week—this past week, a deadly week if I had timed things differently. All of the buildings in Oxford were full, so they were storing old books and original manuscripts in a Salt Mine in Cheshire! You fill out a little green card, and a bus delivers materials in the mid afternoon or the next morning.
Me: Are the books still in the Salt Mines of Cheshire?
Expert: No, that’s quite expensive.
Me: I believe you. I’ve never rented a Salt Mine in Cheshire.
Expert: Right, of course sir. Can I show you the C.S. Lewis catalogue?
Me: Well, yes, that would be nice.
Expert: If you could order your first ten materials in the next 15-20 minutes we can get them for you this afternoon. If all goes well.
So for the next fifteen minutes I furiously scratch out requests on green slips of paper, which are then written in an ancient log, which are then sent for and brought by a van. I make my most important selections, enough for two days full of work—or two months, really—and then sit back in my seat.
A breath. Another breath.
Now I’m leaning back in my chair. I must wait, so I decide to open my welcome packet. It says “Weston Library” on the front—the real name of the New Bodleian, I presume—and contains an apology for the dust on my laptop and dress shoes and a description of the project. It also explains that I should request materials 24 hours in advance; i.e., that I have perpetrated an embarrassing breach of academic etiquette.
It also contains a little white box, and inside is a plastic Bodleian Libraries card, blue on one side and white on the other. I cannot figure out if it is a real library card or a swipe card for reading materials or the key to the toilet (British for “bathroom”). I ask the very helpful gentleman at the desk, who also has no idea.
I sit down again, content to a mysterious souvenir, when a bleach blond crew cut pair set themselves down, and one pops it open. It is a USB drive. I walk over to them and ask them how it works. They show me, and after a chuckle, I mentioned the thirty porters in suits and hard helmets at the front door. The female bleach blond said, “This is the most intimidating library I’ve ever been in.”