Dr. Natalia Nowakowska is a Tutor & Lecturer in Early Modern History at Somerville College, University of Oxford.

Tuesday, 31 May 2011

The Library-Hospital

Somerville Library Loggia with convalescing officers
Somerville College, all rights reserved.

I’ve been lecturing in the Exam Schools again this term, and keep noticing a series of black-and-white photos displayed in one of the main corridors, which show the great Victorian halls of that building transformed into dormitories, with soldiers propped up in bed, ministered to by nurses in white headgear. They date from the First World War, when the Exam Schools were requisitioned for use as the Southern General Hospital. By chance, an almost identical photograph jumped out at me last week from the current Somerville Magazine. This showed our Somerville library loggia pressed into use as a ward of the same WWI military hospital, full of convalescing officers.

            These Oxford examples of academic buildings used as wartime hospitals brought back uncomfortable memories of my first visits to Warsaw archives some ten years ago. The national archive (AGAD) is housed in a grand Warsaw townhouse, which was used as a hospital during the Second World War. As you walk confidently towards the reading room with your laptop and research notes, a large plaque on the wall records the number of people killed when the Nazi occupying forces stormed the building and massacred its patients and staff.

            This transformation of libraries (or educational venues) into wartime hospitals is something I always find rather creepy, or troubling. There are of course practical reasons why it happens: airy halls make a perfect impromptu medical space. But I think it’s the unforgiving contrast between the calm, contemplative, hermetic air and essentially idealistic purposes of a library, and the noise and earthly grimness of a wartime or war-zone hospital, which makes the WWI Oxford photos and WWII Warsaw plaque so disturbing. The officers and civilians we see peeping out at us are a reminder of what happens when libraries and ideals fail; they are in a sense a reproach to the failure of learning.


  1. I think that to imply that learning is what holds back the floods of bloody war is to (naively) idealise both it and learned people.

    Education/learning certainly does not preclude humans from falling out with each other - human nature is just too strong! Learning certainly helps break down barriers and increase our understanding of those around us and so does make the world a better place, but only in a limited sense.

    Learning can also promote a sense of aloofness, elitism and a mentality that "we-are-better-than-them". Hardly qualities that promote peace on earth and goodwill to all men! We mustn't forget that many of the central protagonists of the wars you cited, and wars in general, would have considered themselves 'learned'.

    Still, thank you for the interesting and reflective article. Please keep writing, even though the comments are a bit thin on the ground! Your pieces are (usually!) worthy of some excellent discussion.

  2. I know its idealistic to juxtapose war and learning in this stark way, but I suppose to do this job one has to be a bit idealistic (maybe even naively so). Perhaps I’ve spent too much time in the company of Renaissance humanists, who believed above all things that education would change their world for the better…

  3. If I might add my two penny worth (although usually a casual reader, I feel provoked to comment) –
    I just don’t buy the idea that humans go to war because it’s part of their ‘nature’ (although, if I might say so, that pessimistic idea is a most Augustinian one (!)- claiming that humanity is bound to end up in violent, bloody mess, because it is the way it is). But such an assumption is, in my opinion, as naive as arguing that someone who has read a lot of books is likely to be less prone to violent urges than someone uneducated. People don’t go to war because they’re feeling a need to let out the urges of human nature: they go to war because they believe in a certain narrative and certain ideas (ideas and narratives, I concede, which might build upon certain human desires or urges). Learning at least challenges the assumptions behind those ideas.
    In this sense, I think ‘learning’ is different to ‘education’, and it’s important to draw a tentative distinction between the two. Education takes place in an environment which is designed to foster specific ideas and perspectives, which could encourage a group of people to believe in similar ideas, and focus their actions in a similar way. So yes, ‘educated men’ do go to war – and they sometimes take their books with them to the front lines!
    I would define ‘learning’ as a more individual experience, the sort which takes place in a library, when you have several books in front of you and have to determine for yourself which texts to believe and which not to trust. That sort of learning – being alone with a text – is an experience which slows people down, and can even make them more hesitant about their previously-held convictions. All in all, it makes them less likely to engage in precipitous action – and I would categorise many wars (Afghanistan and Iraq spring immediately to mind) as precipitous actions.

    I’m not sure, however, where the humanists themselves fit in this – whether they were apologists for violence or genuine idealists – Bruni, I think, was ready to justify Florentine military might when his personal circumstances demanded it. But I don’t really know enough on this subject to comment...

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