Text by Anna Middleton, Images Angelika Elstner
University College offered a glimpse into college life, welcoming attendees into the undergraduate lending library. Term is still several weeks away, so the library was devoid of stressed students. The building's architect was George Gilbert Scott, who mostly designed churches, and his preference for ecclesiastical work is obvious: with its stained glass and gothic revival vaulting, the library is strikingly church-like. A thoughtful selection of the college's special collections was brought out for attendees, including examples from the Robert Ross Memorial Collection of material relating to Oscar Wilde. One such item, an illustration of the writer holding a sunflower, has since been enshrined as a stained-glass window at the college. Another particular highlight was a copy of Poetry magazine containing T. S. Eliot's first published poem, "The Love Song of Alfred J. Prufrock", with an original annotation by Eliot. He writes "damn!" next to the misprint "spot", where the poem should read "soot"; the annotation was discovered by one of the college's students.
Christ Church's collection was exceptional, and foregrounded the research interest of the institution, prioritizing annotated books with curious marginalia that might furnish further study. Manuscript mathematical notes bound into a rare 1544 edition of Archimedes were shown next to an original autograph letter from Sir Isaac Netron, a Southern Ming calendar, an Icelandic manuscript, and a Caxton fragment, to name just a few items.
All Souls exhibited a similarly impressive collection, focusing on books with historical significance to the college. This included a copy of the first work printed in Oxford (Tyrannus Rufinus, Exposicio Sancti Ieronimi in Simbolum Apostolorum, 1468), their Donor's Register from the early 1600s, and their oldest printed book: Guillaume Durand's Rationale divinorum officiorum (1459?), bought by Bishop James Goldwell, with an inscription stipulating that it should be kept chained and in the chapel. In November 2020 the library changed its name from the Codrington Library to All Souls College Library, a decision that is part of its ongoing work to contextualize the legacy of the plantation owner Christopher Codrington, who endowed the library in its current form.
Merton, arguably the oldest college in Oxford (and there is much arguing), gave an excellent tour. A substantial amount of its architecture is authentically medieval, interspersed with examples of Victorian medieval. The curiously exotic garden was a pleasant surprise, as was the college's beautiful chapel, which retains an impressive number of original features.
The Old Library in Mob Quad was perhaps the highlight of the day. It is the oldest surviving library in Oxford and one of the oldest still-functioning academic libraries in Europe. Much of the library's stained glass is authentically medieval. A few windows are original, and the remainder are composite mosaics using medieval stained glass from elsewhere. A first printing of The Canterbury Tales was one of many items of note exhibited for the congress, alongside two copies of Vincent de Beauvais's World History, and an excellent selection of Max Beerbohm, including his undergraduate essay book, complete with caricatures (one of his tutors derided his artistic tendencies: "the impudent fellow even shows up essays to me with caricatures of myself scrawled in the margin").
Prior to dinner, booksellers were bundled into boats and sent off down the Cherwell, some in the care of professional punters, and others fending surprisingly well for themselves. All made it back to the shore in time for dinner above the boathouse, relatively uninjured, if not completely dry.