If you don’t like history, feel free to scroll on past because this post is about to get archival.
Now, we all know that Oxford is old, like really, really old. But exactly how old was lost on me, a naive nineteen year old who has a hard time picturing anything earlier than about 1980.
But this past week, I was lucky enough to happen upon an experience that put Oxford’s true age into perspective.
For the final week of term, the librarian at Trinity college opened up Trinity’s Old and Danson libraries for students to view. You’re probably thinking what I was. What? Trinity has multiple libraries despite being one of Oxford’s smallest colleges? Okay, maybe you’re not thinking exactly that, but you get the point.
The library available to students, where I have spend a considerable amount of time sneaking in illicit granola bars, is known as the War Memorial Library and was built in the 1920s as a tribute to Trinity students who lost their lives during World War I.
Little did I know that, tucked away near the chapel in Durham quad, is the epic, original library that predates the college itself. Trinity was established in 1555, but the old library was built between 1417 and 1421. Today, the library is used almost exclusively by the fellows of Trinity college and visitors who contact the librarian to gain access to Trinity’s one of a kind materials.
Set out in glass cases were unique pieces of Trinity’s original collection. There were books still damaged from when they were chained to the shelves during the time of Henry VIII, worth about half a millions pounds each. There was a book of animals, both extant and mythological, and an early book of anatomy. The library houses first editions copies of pieces by Hobbes and Locke, and even Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. The librarian referred to the Damson library as a “gentleman’s library” meaning that there are many hand-colored books and nearly 450 volumes of erotica, all of which is currently being cataloged.
While the Old library maintains much of its original splendor, from the book shelves to the stained glass saints, the Damson library is built in the old President’s quarters, and was redone in 2011. Nearly six and a half tonnes of American Oak was brought in to build the shelves alone.
The whole time I was walking around Trinity, there was a treasure trove of history and culture hiding above my head. I realized that Oxford has been teaching and learning since before there was much to teach or learn. Standing face to face with a book bearing the crest of Henry VIII puts into perspective how young and new everything in America is, how even our oldest history is juvenile by Oxford’s standards. This is the kind of experience that I was hoping to have at Oxford because it is an experience that can only truly be had at Oxford.
This trip has made me feel like I’ve infiltrated an elite society. I walk around weidling my Bod Card like a VIP pass trying to get into the hidden libraries, galleries, and reading rooms. June 23 will be a sad day, as my Bod card expires and I will be returned to the state of a gawking tourist. But until then… the library awaits and I have work to do.