Friday, February 20, 2009

Books, Wine, and …

This week, for the first time, I actually needed to go find a particularly arcane book in the library. With so much information on line, needing a real book is becoming a rather rare occurrence. Nonetheless , it does happen from time to time. Going into the Oxford library was quite an experience. Being away from the university setting for over a decade, I admit I was a bit blown away by the sheer size of the collection.

It has been a long time since I actually haunted the stacks of a real library. In grad school, the Cabot Science library (a rather ugly building) was a place I spent countless hours studying. My favorite desk was situated next to a stack of NASA documents from 1960. When I got frustrated with my work, I would go to the shelves and entertain myself with the records of all the failed attempts to build a better rocket. (It is amazing that they actually made it to the moon only a few years later).

Originally the Oxford science collection lived in the rather stunning Radcliffe Camera (built sometime in the 1700s) but it moved to the new Radcliffe Science library a few blocks away over a hundred years ago now. Wings have since been added to accommodate the ever increasing collection - and apparently they have continued to dig deeper underground to make more room. Currently, you enter the library on the fourth, albeit ground, floor. Since Oxford is extremely touchy about its skyline (with good reason, considering the beautiful architecture around here) digging deep below ground seems a good way to make more space. (See footnote *)

In addition to the main library, each of the constituent colleges of Oxford also has its own library. And it seems that each college has also decided that the best place for books is underground. Like the halls of Moria, the entire university seems to be permeated with ancient underground tunnels. But perhaps more important than the books, another precious resource is kept in underground tunnels - the wine.

Oxford takes wine very seriously. Each college has its own wine Steward who is entrusted to stash away piles of the best stuff for future generations of fellows. Some of the ancient (and filthy rich) colleges have done an exceptional job of this. (The best port I have ever tasted was when I had the fortune to visit All Souls College a few month ago). Somerville, unfortunately, is merely passable in this respect.

So deep below ground the colleges store the books and the wine. And what else lurks down there? As far as I know there are no Goblins, no Elves, no Trolls. No, I fear there are things far more frightenting – graduate students and the occasional college fellow haunting the stacks.

* Footnote: The physics department is thinking about building a new building next to the Clarendon lab with several levels of basements filled with labs. Unfortunately, it turns out that if you dig a hole too deep next to an existing building, you risk having the existing building fall into the hole.

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