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Alumni Post: Library Cages

library cages

Example of Library Cages at St Patrick’s in Dublin, Ireland.

Blog Post by GTF Alumnus, Dr. Jim Keating

In previous blogs we looked at some of the interesting features of European library science as it developed over the centuries.  For example, cataloging systems included a date of acquisition procedures where books were placed on shelves from oldest to newest.  There was an interesting system where the heaviest books were at the bottom and the lightest and smallest at the top of very tall stacks.  Library security sometimes involved chaining books to shelves or tables so they could not be misplaced by patrons or removed from the building.  And in other cases books were locked into cabinets protected with a kind of heavy chicken wire.  There were also rules requiring patrons to sign honor-pledges and even a system requiring readers sign out of the building.  Librarians refused to allow readers to leave the library until books were returned to the librarian and properly re-shelved.  Indeed, even today in Oxford, readers have to swipe a card to enter the library and swipe again to leave.  Both ingress and egress are restricted!  It seems things change slowly in Oxford, if they ever change at all!

Obviously renaissance librarians had to be creative to keep ahead of sneaky scholars so institutions came up with yet another way to control inventory.  Rather than locking up the books, the libraries locked up the readers!  That’s right, readers selected their books and then were escorted to cages in which they were locked for the duration of the time they had access to relevant texts.

This was a remarkably effective system for protecting books from scholars who might try to sneak away with library materials hidden beneath ample academic gowns.  Librarians apparently liked this security procedure a lot.  And it was not really unpalatable for the scholars either.  That is because readers were in a private space that was quiet, they had access to a desk and writing material, and the cages were placed so that natural light usually eliminated the need for candles.  When finished with their research, patrons would notify the librarian and the borrower was freed from the cage.   After his belongings were searched, he was free to leave the building with no further trouble.

Stories abound that sometimes patrons were forgotten over dinner hours and in a few occasions over night!  So, there was always the danger that a careless librarian might close the library leaving a reader stranded and alone in the dark for hours.  Apparently, this was simply an occupational hazard for scholars in the 15th to 17th centuries.  And there is not, as far as I know, any record of a researcher perishing in a library cage!  But…who knows for sure?

Anyway, stories of this kind are what make study in Oxford so much fun.  Oxford and European academic history goes back as much as a thousand years so there are legends and myths to accompany known facts…all of which makes studying in Oxford just so much more fun.

If you have an opportunity to study in Oxford…take it.  It will be an unforgettable experience you will love and cherish forever.