|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
library loggia pressed into use as a ward of the same WWI military hospital, full of convalescing officers. Somerville
Oxford examples of academic buildings used as wartime hospitals brought back uncomfortable memories of my first visits to 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. Warsaw
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.