A Guide to Doing C.S. Lewis Research at the Bodleian: From One Who Started Badly

I wrote here of the hectic chaos of arriving at the Bodleian. It was a combination of my unforeseen lack of preparation, and the fact that the Bodleian is under renovation. My hope is to provide a little detail about how to arrange your visit to the special collections at the Bod so you can make the most of your time here.

Before You Come

You have to wait to get your Reader’s Card until you get here, but there are some things that you can do so it all goes smoothly.

  1. Make sure you have filled out Form A and Form B, available here. If you are a British student or an Oxford alum, you don’t have to pay. Otherwise, be prepared for a card fee.
  2. One of the forms requires a signature from someone who can vouch for your project. In my case, that is a PhD supervisor. I was able to do this in person, but you may need to make time for a supervisor, chair, dean, or colleague to sign it through PDF scan, Fax, or mail.
  3. As a student, I was required to show how long I would be a student. We don’t think of this in Canada, but in Britain, a date of expiry is usually on your letter of registration. If you don’t have that, you will need it, or a letter from the Registrar’s office saying you are a student until Apr 30, 2018 (for example).
  4. You must contact the Rare Books and Manuscript Reading Room staff to order your materials (see here, though the link may change). You must order materials 24 hours in advance.
  5. If you can come and visit the Bodleian and the Oxford City Centre before you have to show up for research, I would advise it. Knowing the streets and buildings—and even restaurants and cafes—makes your time a little more fruitful.

Broad street OxfordStaying in Oxford

You need to stay in Oxford for a few days to get the town. A super guide and two days may do it, but if you can take the extra time to do so, it is a good idea.

I stayed with a friend, making Oxford accessible in unpredictable ways. Not only was it inexpensive—hotels are quite costly, though there are hostels and some residence options out of term—but my friend, an Oxford DPhil student, was a superb hostess and guide to the intricate lanes and colleges of Oxford.

Getting Your Reader Card

During the day there are porters throughout the Bodleian helping tourists make the best of the experience. However, you can only get into the different parts of the library when you get a reader’s card, and you won’t get into any Reader’s Room without one. Moreover, you want to go get your card early enough in the day that there are still not porters around. In this season, the Bodleian is open 9-7, but it is 9-5 typically out of term.

The “Admissions” office is in the Clarendon building, but there is no sign. It is the building that is the archway onto Broad Street, so often the first building you may encounter. It is not wheelchair accessible, but you can make appointments ahead of time to meet a staff member.

Get there early. I was there in front of the door at 8:45, and by 9:00 there was a long queue. Some of them would have waiting an hour or so.

Here is what you need:

  • Form A & Form B completed properly.
  • If you are a student, your letter of registration.
  • Your student ID or university staff ID.
  • Supplementary ID (like a license).
  • Any correspondence you have made with the library previous to arriving.

You will have to swear an oath not to bring any tinder into the library. They would prefer you don’t burn it down.

The Rare Books and Manuscript Reading Room

This may change, but it looks like a permanent part of the Weston Library, what many are calling the New Bodleian library. It is across Broad Street (and across the King’s Arm pub). It is in construction, so access will change somewhat frequently.

A few things you need to know:

  • You can’t take backpacks, purses, or any bags into the library. You can rent lockers for £1 and put your laptop and books in a plastic Ziploc bag (you can get the money back at day’s end).
  • You cannot take in coffee, food, or bottled water. There is not yet a water fountain, so you may have to work out water when you get here.
  • You can take in your own books or notebooks, but no pens. You need a pencil, which you must provide (I got a free one!).
  • You can take in a laptop or tablet. There is a plug (you need a British converter) and you can get a guest Wifi code or use Eduroam.
  • You can take non-flash pictures of certain materials. Please enquire, but the rule is basically this: if it is deposited or photocopied, no pictures; if it is an original manuscript owned by the Bodleian, non-flash photos for personal use is allowed.
  • Turn off your cell phones and computer sounds or you will be shamed by serious researchers glancing over stacks of rare books.

The staff here are wonderful. Never be afraid to ask questions about accessibility or protocol. If you have broken a rule or cannot get some materials, they will apologize deeply, even if it is your fault. They also have layers of knowledge, and are eager to help younger scholars.

Accessing Materials

The Bodleian materials are on the move. Some of them have been stored in a Salt Mine in Cheshire; others have been scattered across Oxford. I cannot imagine how they have managed it.

But they have done well. Until renovations are complete in 2016, you should expect a delay in materials. Once it is all in house, you can still expect a one hour delivery.

They are currently doing two deliveries a day, so there is a chance of getting materials in the afternoon that you ordered in the morning. But it is not guaranteed. You really need 24 hours.

Here are some things that are helpful:

  • Have an idea of what you want to research before you get to the Bodleian. They have an online brief listing of C.S. Lewis materials available at the Bod. However, you will need to look up the details here in the library.
  • The Marion E. Wade Center manuscript listing (see here) is also a great resource. Many of the things the Wade owns is photocopied at the Bodleian, and vice versa. So a “B” in the catalogue listing of something at the Wade means it is a picture or photograph of something at the Bodleian. It can really be helpful in preparing to come.
  • When at the Reading Room, you will need help finding the book, C.S.. Lewis Papers: A Selective Catalogue. This is a brilliant resource by Judith Priestman that contains all of the Lewis listings, as well as a list of donors and depositors, and an index so you can find materials. It has been added to by pen and pencil over the years, as the original date is 1989. However, it captures the best of the Lewis papers.
    Note: I have poor quality photographs of the table of contents and some of the key manuscript pages. Feel free to contact me if you would like to see them for your own use.
  • When you find what you want, you will fill out a little green slip. Part of it goes into a ledger, where your request is hand transcribed in line behind some of the greatest minds in the worlds.
  • When your material is available, you can pick it up at the Reading Room desk. You will need to leave your card, and you can arrange to use materials the next day.
  • They have book weights, book cushions, magnifying glasses, etc. Ask if you need them.

Other Archive Tips

I’ve done work at a few archives, and have posted about my great experiences at the Wade. Here are a few things that help:

  • Many times you land at an archive during a great journey, or at the front or back end of a conference. Make sure you are well rested when you arrive for your work.
  • Make sure you’ve sketched out your entire time at the archive. Give yourself twice as much to do as you might expect, but expect that it will take you twice as long to do what you expect—how’s that for a Bagginsian proverb!
  • Try to have digital or hard copies of all that you need ready before you go. It adds extra cost, suitcase space, or time in other parts of the library, but comparing original manuscripts to the published work is essential.
  • You will need a pencil and a notebook. You won’t know why until you start writing.
  • Your feet will swell. Wear shoes you can slip off and on.
  • Take a lunch, and eat it in the sunshine (or rain). You will value every minute, but you will need a break.
  • Work as quickly as you can, going through your priorities. Don’t start transcribing something because it is cool.
  • For C.S. Lewis readers, you can do a little manuscript preparation first by reading Charlie Starr’s, Light.
  • Again, for C.S. Lewis readers, if you get stuck on a strange letter in a word, try making it a “p.” If it is a squat little loopy thing, try turning it into an “s.” You’d be amazed how often that helps.

What about you? Do you have archive tips, or details about the Bodleian that could be helpful? Let me know in the comments.

About Brenton Dickieson

“A Pilgrim in Narnia” is a blog project in reading and talking about the work of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and the worlds they touched. As a "Faith, Fantasy, and Fiction" blog, we cover topics like children’s literature, apologetics and philosophy, myths and mythology, fantasy, theology, cultural critique, art and writing. This blog includes my thoughts as I read through Lewis and Tolkien and reflect on my own life and culture. In this sense, I am a Pilgrim in Narnia--or Middle Earth, or Fairyland. I am often peeking inside of wardrobes, looking for magic bricks in urban alleys, or rooting through yard sale boxes for old rings. If something here captures your imagination, leave a comment, “like” a post, share with your friends, or sign up to receive Narnian Pilgrim posts in your email box. Brenton Dickieson is a father, husband, friend, university lecturer, and freelance writer from Prince Edward Island, Canada. You can follow him on Twitter, @BrentonDana.
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30 Responses to A Guide to Doing C.S. Lewis Research at the Bodleian: From One Who Started Badly

  1. laurielfrodo says:

    Love this “guide to the Bodleian” Brenton! Well-written for other pilgrims going there. Coincidentally, another researcher once asked me: “Why isn’t there a guide for newbie researchers learning the ropes of going to archives?” I asked myself the same question, and that’s what led to this: http://www2.archivists.org/usingarchives. Enjoy, and feel free to share with others! 😉 Best from all at the Wade!


    • Post about archives, and you’ll get an archivist answer! Laura’s link leads to this, “Using Archives: A Guide to Effective Research.”
      I should note that this sort of guide isn’t as necessary for The Marion E. Wade Center, which lays out its guidelines on its site, including its manuscript lists.


  2. jubilare says:

    “Turn off your cell phones and computer sounds or you will be shamed by serious researchers glancing over stacks of rare books.” Lol! I bet.

    “Don’t start transcribing something because it is cool.” But… but… but!


  3. Leslie says:

    This is great, Brenton, and I want to add a little to it. The Priestman catalogue only goes through 1989; it doesn’t list acquisitions after that date. Those were in a card catalogue previously in the Duke Humphries, but now somewhere in the Wood Between the Worlds of the library renovation. It has been digitized (hurray!) but not made available as of the first week of October (hiss). Weston staff told me they didn’t know when it would be made available.

    There are at least two versions of the Priestman catalogue, one with a list of the annotated books of CSL written on the flyleaf, and one without. The one behind the information desk at the Weston was without until this month (now there because because of questions I asked). The bottom line is that perusing the Priestman catalogue will not inform you of all of the CSL resources the Bodleian holds.


    • I appreciate this Leslie. I had enough to do with the pre-1989 acquired material, but you are right about that. I knew there were some post-1989 things. Some are written in with pencil in the Priestman catalogue, and some I knew of because they are echoed in the Wade catalogue.
      What project are you working on?


      • Leslie says:

        I was sorry to miss you when you were in Oxford! I’m working on a book on CSL and the Bible. If you’re interested in the topic, see the new Journal of Inklings Studies.


  4. I am saving this information for future reference. Thank you!


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