It is very sad to write for a second time in less than six months about the premature death of a member of the Oxford community. I was working in the Bodleian’s Upper Reading Room (URR) this week, when I saw a notice announcing that one of the URR’s long-standing staff, Vera Ryhajlo, had died after a short battle with cancer.
I’ve been reading history books in the genteel surroundings of the URR – with its high ceilings, seventeenth-century friezes, walls lined with history journals – since I was an undergraduate, in the mid 1990s. As long as I can remember, Vera was there behind the Reserve Counter, jolly, larger than life, and always totally helpful and professional. If I had a complex photocopying order, involving dozens of forms and hundreds of pages of a nineteenth-century book, Vera would go patiently through the paperwork with me for half an hour, to ensure that the order was correct. Her laughter would carry through the reading room.
Historical research – as I’m being reminded this term, on sabbatical leave – is often a pretty lonely business, even in an apparently well peopled place like the URR. It’s just you, a stack of books and a clock, for months on end. For over 15 years, I’ve gone up the Reserve Counter, watched Vera hand over my books, and maybe come to her with a query if something went wrong with the electronic catalogue OLIS. It wasn’t until this week that I realised that, although my interactions with her were entirely about history books and often wordless, I find it hard to imagine the URR, my main research base throughout my career, without Vera. It reminded me, perhaps too late, that librarians humanise libraries (or dehumanise them in parts of the former Eastern bloc, but that’s another matter). I’ve sometimes written about communities here, but I had not realised until now that the URR is a community too – a community of people sitting silently at their desks, who by dint of the fact of being in a library don’t talk to each other, but a community nonetheless. It was a community which was made visible today, at Vera’s funeral at Saint Aloysius church in Oxford: academics, librarians, readers side by side in the pews. If you Google Vera’s name, you can see how many eminent historians and academics have fulsomely thanked her, and her colleagues David and Helen, in the prefaces to their books. In a community where books, and not speech, are the main method of interaction and communication, I hope that is an apt tribute.