Astrid Van den Bossche


DPhil Programme in Management Studies






Started in 2013

By Astrid Van den Bossche

The Bookish Winter Wonderland

Did you know the Bodleian Libraries stock at least 10 copies of Cat in the Hat?

My research requires me to read many children’s books. As I realized this, I began to despair at the thought of hassling my parent-friends to give me access to their crayoned collections. I shouldn’t have worried. Across the university, the Bodleian libraries, and the colleges, there’s no shortage of high prose such as Room on the Broom or Where the Wild Things Are. Somewhere in the bowels of a Cheshire salt mine, there’s an entire children’s library waiting to be dog-eared. In multiples. What are you doing this Christmas?

The wonders of Oxford’s libraries are numerous, and sometimes it’s worth imagining what doctoral life would be like without them—if only to give oneself a tiny panic attack. Staff, especially here at the Sainsbury library, are absolutely brilliant: ready to respond to every query from the obscure to the ludicrous, I’ve never felt more uplifted than by a librarian who just ‘gets’ what you’re after, both literally and figuratively. I think I’d rather give up the Internet.

But of course, libraries are also places, and whilst we’re very lucky to have our own desks at Saïd Business School, the book stacks become many a student’s second home. So every day, there’s a new choice to be made: where to be, or not to be, productive? At the Business School, you delight in the companionship of colleagues and a true sense of belonging; whilst at the Bodleian libraries, you bask in the experience of the wider university and relative anonymity. College libraries often boast 24-hour access, a breeding ground for the deepest friendships. Coffee shops give a respite from the silence and hint at a life beyond the doctoral bubble. Because Oxford half shuts down on weekends, those who plough on sometimes resort to an awkward combination of all four, with a fairly probable culmination at the pub.

So let’s say it’s a Bodleian day. On this frosty morning, I head to the toasty Taylorian, which never fails to impress, and hope for the red Anglepoise desk that overlooks the St. Giles rooftops. In the distance, sometimes barely distinguishable in the December mist, two statuesque figures extend their arms in welcome. It finally dawns on me that they sit atop the Clarendon building, one of Oxford’s most iconic; the city’s monuments often go unnoticed in the stateliness of its architecture.

Something similar happens with Sainsbury’s view of the rolling hills beyond Frideswide square: a reminder that the city really is quite rural. Or with the Gladstone Link, which is an underground passage that connects the main Bodleian to the Radcliffe Camera. Somewhat of a crossover between an elfish book-borrow and a Space Odyssey shaft, you’ll notice a few glass-covered vents in the ceiling that give to one of Oxford’s most frequented streets. Except where you are, underneath the trampling of tourist feet, it’s dead quiet.

There’s the hidden nook of the Pitt Rivers Balfour, and the glassy spaces of the Vere Harmsworth. There’s the Union with the elderly perusing its dailies, and the Sackler that reminds me of a carousel. There’s the Harry Potteresque Duke Humfrey’s, and the swanky new Weston. Best of all, most radiant of all, there’s the Radcliffe Camera itself—and that one desk that floods in dusty sunlight at 9AM. Charles Finch, in The September Society, describes this peculiar Oxon library magic as ineffability itself:

“There was something incommunicably grand about it, something difficult to understand unless you had spent your evenings there or walked past it on the way to celebrate the boat race, a magic that came from ignoring it a thousand times a day and then noticing its overwhelming beauty when you came out of a tiny alley and it caught you unexpectedly. A library—it didn’t sound like much, but it was what made Oxford itself. The greatest library in the world.”

Well, when you stumble home from your third Christmas dinner this month (the delights of end-of-term!), you might find yourself struck with its bookish glory.

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