Thursday, February 28, 2013

30th Year Reflections/36: Keeper


“The University has had records ever since it acquired a corporate identity in the early 13th century. It seems that the University's archives were first kept in St Frideswide's Priory before being transferred to the Congregation House in St Mary's Church in the 14th century. There they were stored in chests along with the University's cash and other valuables. When the Congregation House was burgled in 1544 the archives, were left scattered about and in utter confusion. Some were lost. They remained in a chaotic state until the early 17th century when the antiquary Brian Twyne put them in order. Twyne carried out most of the research in the Archives necessary for the compilation of the new University Statutes (the 'Laudian Code') which were approved in 1636; he also prepared the University's petition to Charles I for the 'Great Charter' of the same year. He was appointed to the newly created office of Keeper of the Archives in 1634.”History of the Archives, Oxford University

This is a longish quote to open up this week’s post, but I wanted you to get a glimpse of this history from a most distinguished archive. I experienced a small bit of this history during a visit to Oxford in 1991. For me this part of my trip—I had just come from Sweden after attending a conference on Swedish and Swedish-American archives—was something of a “busman’s holiday.” I was in the company of a good friend who completed his doctorate at Oxford and was back to do some research for a book. We stayed for a week, with accommodation in a bed and breakfast in North Oxford. Every day we would walk into the city, toward the Bodleian Library. Once there, we would part company, he to read and research, I to explore the city. Sometime around midday we would join up for lunch at a pub (the first being the “Eagle and Child,” aka “The Bird and Baby” given my love for all things related to Lewis, Tolkien, and the Inklings) and after our meal return to our respective activities until late in the day. It was a most delightful schedule.

I took advantage of my time by first visiting the Oxford Tourism office, where I found a guided walking tour, led by a most remarkable (and diminutive) woman who reminded me a bit of Miss Marple. At each stop along the way she would unfold her traveling chair, sit, and share the splendors (and associated tales) of each locale while we in the group strained to hear every word. Tour complete, and with a sense of the landscape, I visited as many colleges and their associated libraries and archives as possible. In each place I identified myself as a librarian/archivist and was generally met with a most hospitable reception and brief tour. My initial tour with guide included a visit to the Bodleian (with a special stop at Duke Humfrey’s). Along the way I enjoyed as many gardens, quads, sculpture, etc. as I was allowed, with side trips to the Botanic Garden, “Mesopotamia,” Oxford University Press, the “Jericho” section of the city (given my other love of the Inspector Morse stories), and anywhere else I could go within this wondrous place.

At some point during my visit, and with the gift of an Oxford diary from my friend, I discovered the title of “Keeper” for those entrusted with the care of archives. I do not quite remember how it happened, but either during the trip or shortly after my arrival back home to Chicago this title stuck to me as a nickname, given by my colleagues. It is a nickname that I’ve grown very fond of (as you might tell from the “vanity” license plate that is part of the sidebar to this blog). It is also a sobriquet limited in use to those who know me from my Chicago days, perhaps a term of endearment; no one in my present place of employment attaches this title to me or my work—“curator” has taken its place—but it is a constant reminder of what my work entails. We are stewards—keepers—of rich histories, both in terms of our profession and the materials under our care. It is an awesome (in the old sense of the word) responsibility and joy. I have this trip to Oxford to thank for the constant reminder.

PS One book I discovered (and read during the evenings on this trip) is Jan Morris’s Oxford. Highly recommended reading for anyone interested in this city and its university.

1 comment:

Joel Johnson said...

Was that the Oxford trip when that same friend found a rare copy of Foxe's Book of Martyrs at a used book shop?