Skip to main content
Image
'Art de bien morir' and its woodcut illustrating the sin of impatience.

9.00 – Today I’m working in the Weston library, although my internship has mostly been remote. Getting into the office requires quite a few security checks, as I’m sure you can imagine when one of the books in the collection is worth 46 million pounds!

9.10 – My job for the morning is to catalogue and categorize the new donation from Ian McEwan, which consists of a copy of his novels in every language they’ve been published in. Some countries of origin I can easily work out from the colophon (the printer’s details at the start of the book) but those in different scripts require a little more work. I start by labelling all of the books, which whilst sounding simple, actually requires quite a lot of thought as the orientation of the text on the spine of books varies according to countries, and in some languages books are read right to left, so we have to label accordingly.

Image
A complete miniature library (none of the books is bigger than your index finger).

10.30 – Tea break! We head down to the café and myself and the other rare book librarians discuss tricky queries and how best to help certain readers with their requests. The office receives on average about 20 requests a day, and each request can take up to an hour to answer, so it's all hands on deck.

11.00 – I’m now scanning the McEwan collection into the cataloguing system at the library and attributing a barcode to each record. I’m also checking the record we have for the book, and making sure all items present within the book (such as notes from publishers or handwritten annotations) are saved on the system.

12.00 – My favourite task of the day: book tetris! Each book at the Bodleian is individually measured and fitted with a protective box, and it's my job to match the book to the box. Whilst boxing the new collections, I have to be careful handling the bindings, and I make sure to note down any books which are in need of conservation, and to cover them in protective slips if the item is particularly sensitive.

1.00 – Lunch break.

2.00 – I’m back in the office to work on my project. Each Intern gets a ‘treasure’ to research, and mine is Art de bien morir a 15th-century Spanish tract on how to die properly according to the Catholic faith, including specific prayers for certain sins the dying man may have committed. The book contains some beautiful woodcuts whose detail is surprising given that this style of illustration requires the artists to carve out the sections they do not want to be a part of the picture, so that only the raised remaining sections of the material are exposed to the ink and form the picture.

Today, I’m looking into the last section of the book, which isn’t present in any of the recorded digital copies that the Bodleian or the Vatican has. Our edition could possibly be the only one in the world that still has this section surviving, and this would make its value, both monetarily and academically, increase significantly. To work out whether or not it is the only copy, I’ll spend a few hours contacting other libraries that have copies to see if their edition includes this section.

3.30 – I head down to the stacks (where all the rare books are stored) to help re-shelve books used for queries in the morning. We have to wear rather fetching ‘bump caps’ when in the stacks, as the ceilings are very low to help preserve the controlled temperature environment. On my travels I come across a complete miniature library. These were often brought on the King’s travels to keep him entertained, and the small size was supposed to make it easier to transport. The tiny Don Quijote, which is a tad smaller than my thumb, is particularly interesting, and its ornate golden bindings are beautiful. The stacks are a veritable treasure trove with everything from medieval manuscripts to wasp nests (don’t worry, it's a piece of art, not a pest problem!).

Image
A tiny 'Don Quijote', no bigger than my thumb

4.00 – The Bodleian library staff are very approachable, and as a result today I’ve been given the opportunity to speak to one of the conservation team. She tells me about the trials and tribulations of preserving rare books and working with older materials. I ask her what the hardest thing to preserve was, and she tells me about one of the Bodleian’s newest acquisitions, a book made entirely of cheese! If the cheese goes mouldy, the library will have to deal with the ethics of replacing the cheese with new slices, and whether this would defeat the object of having used a perishable material to create the book. Currently the cheese book is sat in a custom-made fridge down in the stacks whilst the library converses with its creator.

4.30 – I always save the easiest tasks until last, so for the last half hour of the day I spend some time stamping the books (to deter theft) or gluing bookplates into boxes (to acknowledge the provenance of the books). Like me the other librarians are very chatty people, and so the time is always filled with someone talking excitedly about new projects or the exhibition down in Blackwell hall.

5.00 – Home time!

I hope you’ve enjoyed a day in my life as a Rare Books librarian. This month has been fascinating and invaluable, and I look forward to re-joining the team in September as a volunteer librarian!