Oxford- Pitt Rivers Museum and Christ Church College Library

Wednesday June 21

Our Oxford day trip started out with a bang for me. We had bus tickets, and about 7 minutes into our 1.5 hour trip I started to feel ill. Let’s skip the gross parts and say that I don’t do well in cars or busses. Upon arrival we had a short walk to the Pitt-Rivers Museum. To get to the Pitt Rivers, you have to walk through the Oxford University Museum Natural History which has some cool animal displays!

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Check out the cute sea otter I got to touch! It was surprisingly soft, if you stroke the opposite direction you would with a cat or a dog. The Pitt Rivers museum is kind of a mish mash of different things. It was visually overwhelming, and there wasn’t much in the way of placards to explain each piece. The items were grouped by function or type, rather than the typical museum set-up where items are grouped by region which I found intriguing and sensible. The cases were stuffed full, and some of the cases had drawers below them which were also stuffed full of things in plastic bags. This museum could really use a good curation, and some archivists because it looks like all their holdings are on their three-level museum floor. It was a bit precarious in my opinion, but still worth the visit.

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After the museum a few of us had a nice lunch at the Eagle and Child, the pub where C.S. Lewis and Tolkien used to meet every Sunday to discuss their writings with some friends. We sat in the same room where they used to meet. I’m not a fan of either author, but it was still a nice little part of literary history.

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After lunch we meandered over to the Christ Church College Library. Oxford and Cambridge share the same system of colleges as part of the overall whole of the university. I liken it to when I went to college and each department had it’s own set of resources just for their students (we had a fancy library with children’s books!). We met Steven, who is the newest college librarian and has been at Christ Church less than a year. He was very enthusiastic and young, and was so fun! He reminded me quite a bit of my former supervisor, young and eager to change the old system to something new and refreshing. He told showed us the Allestree Library, where 4,000 volumes are stored in a little cupboard room away from the main library. The bookcases are original, and the shelves actually pull out to make retrieval easier. All of our little librarian minds were blown.

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I was really surprised that all these old texts were just kept in this room, with little to no use, but when Steven showed us the main library it was pretty clear that these aren’t the special books! The cool part about the Allestree library is the tiles on the floor, which Steven said were the oldest things in the room, and were the original tiles from medieval times. Very cool. In the way of preservation, the library has added in temperature and humidity controls for the room. It smelled like old books and I loved it!

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After Allestree we went back to the main library. Because the first floor is reserved for quiet study we went upstairs, and oh was it glorious! The library was founded on lots of donations of early printed books and manuscripts and they line the walls in the upper level of the library. It reminded me of Beauty and the Beast and it was so dreamy. The stools that were scattered around the room were original 17th c. Chippendales pieces, and were the most comfortable wooden stools I have ever had the pleasure to sit on. The library has it’s own digitization studio in the attic space, and Steven estimates that at least 60 items have been digitized so far. It’s difficult to tell because some items are made up of multiple parts and some are just one pagers. Manuscript are difficult that way.

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Steven then showed us some of the treasures that the library has. The oldest item is from about 1150 and is a Greek illuminated manuscript of the gospels. Some other highlights include a prayer book belonging to Queen Elizabeth I, as well as first editions of Newton and the Origin of Species. One of the coolest things we saw all day was the copy of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland that was a manuscript inscribed to the actual Alice. Lewis Carroll used to be the college librarian at Christ Church, and he would watch little Alice outside of his office window, now Steven’s office. He was kind enough to let us look in his office and out that notorious window to the gardens. The black door to “wonderland” is hidden by the trees.

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Because the university life at Oxford is so high pressure the library staff at Christ Church tries to go above and beyond to make sure students have the materials they need. When someone needs a book, library staff will go purchase and catalog that same day, and Steven said the quickest turn around from request to book in hand was about 45 minutes. Talk about impressive, when people request items for purchase at my library it can take 6 months! Different systems for different purposes I guess.

We also got to see the stairs where some scenes from the Harry Potter films were shot.

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And Ellen and I touched a bear

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And then I took the train home because a bus was not happening again. Even with getting lost and a train delay, I was still back before the people on the bus that got stuck in rush hour London traffic.

 

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