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Study in Oxford: Historic Library Catalog Systems

Dr. Jim Keating

Dr. Jim Keating

Following is a post from GTF alumnus, Dr. James Keating, (Ed.D., 2002).  Dr. Keating has been to Oxford to study many times and in the following piece Dr. Keating explores one of the more intriguing ways that books were filed and cataloged many years ago in European libraries.

To study and experience Oxford is unforgettable.  It isn’t just that you have wonderful tutorials and get to meet new friends from around the world.  You also get to live in an academic environment that will inspire you; and the international studies experience will expose you to ideas and traditions that you will enjoy sharing with friends and colleagues for years and years to come.  There is so much to see and do in Oxford and in England.  For example, something I find fascinating is the way libraries have evolved over the years.

In an earlier blog post I noted that European libraries are both historic and iconic.  That is true in Oxford, London, Dublin, and on the continent as well. In that blog I noted that one of the filing systems in ancient libraries was to put large and heavy books on bottom shelves and small lighter ones on top.  Naturally this made sense because, when standing on a flimsy ladder, it was much safer to have lighter volumes high above the floor.  It is easy to imagine how dangerous it might have been to put the ponderously heavy books on top!

That was one cataloging system, but there were other ways to file and catalog library books as well.  Knowing about this might help all of us better understand the way scholars studied in Europe centuries in the past.  At first, “library” books were extremely rare and no one was allowed to “check out” the materials.  These volumes were often produced by monks who carefully copied existing texts on vellum surfaces.  The books were valuable and rare.  So…libraries actually chained them to desks so that over-zealous scholars or other miscreants could not remove them from the planks of wood to which they were attached.  It is said that the most valuable texts, such as those related to theology, were attached to desks with silver chains, while more worldly volumes were affixed with iron links.  This chained-to-the-desk system worked quite well for catalog purposes because it wasn’t necessary to find the book on a shelf; rather a patron only had to find the desk to which it was affixed.


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Another method used to protect library books was to lock them in cabinets so they could only be accessed when the librarian opened the relevant cases.  A person using the text was not allowed to leave the library until the book was returned to the librarian and replaced on the shelf. This system of closed cabinets created a problem.  Those early cases were closed wooden cabinets in which there was no air circulation.  Molds and tiny insects thrived in those conditions and slowly degraded vellum and paper surfaces.  Thus, by about 1600 libraries began to enclose these books in sturdy ventilated cabinets made of wood covered in “hardware wire,” a substance that resembled modern chicken wire.

Some of these cabinets are still in use.   If you go to Oxford and tour the Bodleian Library you will see some of them.  Of course, today the historic vellum documents are in climate controlled lockers and they can only be accessed by librarians wearing protective clothing and gloves.  Ordinary patrons can look at the texts but typically cannot touch them.  Only very highly vetted scholars can actually handle them…and even then, only under supervision.

There was another disadvantage to the system.  Even though the “borrower” couldn’t remove the book from the library, he actually had physical control of it while reading and could inflict damage by marking or otherwise defacing it. On other occasions, after smoking became common (to the chagrin of King James I), users burned pages with their tobacco and others who used candles sometimes accidentally set fires in libraries, with disastrous results.

(Incidentally, this led to the pledge at Oxford’s Bodleian library that all readers must sign to this very day.  It states:   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; not 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.)

Librarians had still another way to keep control of books in their libraries and to prevent scholars from running off with them or somehow damaging them.  This is perhaps the most restrictive of all access-control methods and will be described and illustrated more fully in the next blog posting.



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