Outside the taxis and cycles weave their trails together in a loud inundating stream and Blackwell’s bustles and Asian tourists snap photos, but inside it is silence.
Outside are clacking heels and too-cheery tour guides and wailing horns, but inside is quiet.
In the courtyard there are imposing statues and sharply glinting windows and Latin, but past the waist-high plexi-gate that opens with the touch of my magic ticket are only unobtrusive busts, soft warm light, and English.
Never have I been in a place where silence is considered such a treasured expectation. There are entire rooms where laptop computers are prohibited because the light and furtive tapping of keys might disturb focused readers. Even in the open rooms I cringe if a shoe squeaks too quickly on the linoleum or when a door closes too fast.
No path is a straight line here thanks to summer holiday construction, but even in pristine condition the Bodleian’s narrow staircases twist with a serpentine swiftness and the underground tunnels burrow with dizzying speed.
As an English major, the majority of the books I’m interested in are buried in the Gladstone Link, the subterrean fortress of the humanities. Even underground it has two levels, but the most fascinating trait by far is the sliding bookshelves. There’s too many books for the rows to be normally spaced so they roll on tracks—when you find the row you’re looking for, you rotate the sea-captain’s wheel on the end, the shelf slides open, and the lights flick on. Open Sesame.
But no dice taking them home. All books owned by the Bodleian must stay on the premises. In the open shelves, you take your selection and leave a slip of paper in the triangular shadow documenting what you took and where you are.
My favorite place to read so far is the upper gallery of the Radcliffe Camera, a wrap-around balcony crowning a ground floor currently riddled with yellow tape and cement. Upstairs the silence is murky with the dust of old tomes and the wavy glass of leaded windows streaked with rain.
The curved walls encase Modern History in dark paneling and ivory confection puffs creamily on the high dome of the ceiling. Buttery light from my desk lamp splashes on the smooth veins of character in my wooden desk and softens even the crusty corners of my female mystics, their weeping and bloody visions for now firmly closed.
Extensive as it is, the Bodleian takes in a copy of every single manuscript printed in the United Kingdom and the buildings in Oxford simply can’t contain the breadth. Those books with lower demand—about 80% of the catalogue—are stored in a huge warehouse offsite and are delivered by request. Perhaps incongruously, they’re typically hunted down by forklift.
And of course there’s the motherlode—Duke Humfrey’s library. The hall made famous by Harry Potter’s late night herbology search, the T-shaped room reeks and creaks of the fifteenth century. Here the oldest books in the library—primarily maps, music, theology, and the arts—are chained to the shelves and slid in spine-first. Natural light casts motes and ghosts of the past on the floor and I can practically hear the pages whispering to me.
There are so many voices I want to hear. There are so many stories I want to read. This is a place where the weight of history and mystery and words are meant to astound you, to force you back on your heels, to cast your head up.
But I run my fingers along the hills and valleys of the Dewey Decimal system, and I am home. There is grounding in the turn of each ink-tracked page, in the crack of each pasteboard calling my name. I am among and through them, my words stringing them along the trace of my thoughts and my ideas.
My voice is here too. At least, it better be by Friday at 3pm.