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

Tuesday, 16 August 2011

The Fifth Cellar


Paris Opera House, by Scarlet Green


I’ve come back to Oxford from North America to find the Bodleian Library strangely changed. While I was away, the Bodleian finally replaced the old Telnet catalogue which I’d used since 1995 with a more 21st century interface, which has made the fruits of the digital revolution more accessible. But in particular, a space called the Gladstone Link has been created. As an undergraduate, one heard rumours of a subterranean tunnel which ran under cobbled Radcliffe Square, linking the Bodleian's different buildings, and of five layers of underground book stacks, peopled only by silent librarians pushing books on little creaking trolleys, like pit ponies.

Some of this quasi-legendary, unseen world has now been opened up to readers. In the Radcliffe Camera, a stairwell lit with strange blue-white lights opens up at your feet, and you can follow it down into the stacks, into low-ceilinged levels with early twentieth-century wheeled book stacks, and climb up a wrought iron Edwardian staircase, follow a very narrow corridor which invokes the older stations of the London Underground, and emerge in the main Bodleian, as if by magic. The Gladstone Link has not only transformed my sense of the Bodleian Library as a great, labyrinthine connected network of reading rooms, tunnels and deep underground spaces, but has also put me in mind of the Phantom of the Opera. I recently reread Gaston Leroux’s 1911 gothic thriller, with its descriptions of people bravely descending down through the five layers of cellars underneath the massive neo-baroque edifice of Charles Garnier’s Opèra de Paris. So the revamp of the Bodleian, as well as making life more efficient and exciting for researchers, has also added a touch of the literary Gothic to the Oxford landscape.

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