No Visitors in the Library

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January 28th 2006
Published: February 1st 2006
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That's what was printed on the sign. I lost track of which sign as I saw it everywhere I turned. My heart sank each time with the first time being the worst. I was at Christ Church College. This is the most famous or at least the most famous sounding college at Oxford University. Oxford, so said something I read, is the oldest English-language university in the world - some 800 years old.

I came around a corner with great anticipation. I had spent enough time in the cathedral at Christ Church that the January chill was mostly gone. I was ready to spend an hour browsing the shelves, looking through the card catalog (electronic or paper), trying to find some of my favorite volumes, and looking for that something that I didn't expect. That unexpected expectation is usually my highlight of college libraries.

But there it was. That sign that told me I was a tourist and this library was for students and staff. This is a working university that would be overwhelmed quickly by tourists. Fame had rendered the university useless to all but a special few.

I met the same fate at college after college. By the time I reached the Bodleian Library - claimed to be the oldest library in the English world and holder of the largest collection in all the world - I wasn't disappointed any longer. "No Visitors" was expected and greeted with only a sigh. At least I was able to sit in the gift shop, rest my feet, and warm up a little.

The sky was clear and filled with a bright January sun. The temperatures, however, remained in the 30s F. The key was that it was a January sun that stayed low in the sky even at noon. Oxford's narrow streets and relatively tall buildings kept me in the cold shade and wind all day.

My feet ached and longed for a sitting spell at a library, yet it never came. My slip-on Rockport shoes are great for airline travel because they are easy to take off and put back on. Walking on concrete, paving bricks, and cobblestones in those thin, light soles is not good for the feet.

I learned of that failing in the first ten minutes of walking to the Banbury train station near my hotel. My slip-on Rockport shoes slipped on the patches of ice, and my feet felt every little dimple and pebble on the road. I knew then that frequent stops and sitting would be necessary to walk most of the day as I had planned. I naively thought that the libraries in Oxford would afford me that opportunity.

So I strolled into the courtyard of the Bodleian Library. The gift shop was at the entrance and had a few small items of interest. I bought a $2 bookmark for my wife. I doubt she will use it as it is a thick leather strap, and she often reads thin paperbacks from the Reston Public Library. I sat on a bench near the gift shop, examining the map I bought at the Oxford train station, and planning where to go next.

I resigned myself to walking the streets of Oxford. The architecture and history are impressive - especially to a person from a mud-based geology like Louisiana. It seems that all the buildings are at least 500 years old. Maybe that's an exaggeration, but then I saw a stone pillar with a sign stating that a couple of kings were born nearby in the 12th century.

Early in the day I had seen a Chinese buffet restaurant. Their sign in the window proclaimed, "Eat all you want" (the British equivalent of "All you can eat"). I had been strolling four hours in the cold and felt I had burned enough calories to afford a large lunch. The lunch was good as I warmed myself on "Chinese not British" tea as the waitress assured me.

Along the way to the Chinese tea, I stopped at several shops. In almost each shop I found a pretty young woman behind the counter. Oxford is a college town and, like most college towns, comprises several groups of people. The first group is the students. They come in from around the UK and the world for several years of college. These special few are allowed to use the libraries. The second group includes the people who were born here - the locals. Because of Oxford's fame, a third group is the tourists. These tourists create jobs for restaurants, coffee shops, pubs, and shops. The tourism jobs make short-term life easy for the locals who quickly find jobs waiting tables and sitting behind the counters in the shops. I think the pretty young ladies fall into those easy-to-find tourism jobs. This is a blessing - jobs and money - but also a curse. Education - good for long-term employment and other benefits - is too costly and difficult compared to smiling at tourists and students with money in their pockets.

My favorite store was the Oxford University Press bookstore. I think I have tried to publish books with them, but only in vain. I recognized many of their titles on the shelves. Thankfully, they had a table with four chairs. I sat a few minutes to rest my feet and gain some dexterity in my chilled fingers.

There were two teenagers at the Chinese buffet. The young man was wearing what looked like a Rose Bowl shirt. I later learned that it was a jersey from the Arsenal football club. Why did it have a rose embroidered on it? The rose symbol was just like the symbol from the Rose Bowl football game in Pasadena, California. The young woman was dressed like most American girls of her age. The British girls also wear low-cut jeans and short-over-long layers of shirts.

After lunch I ventured for a final one-hour walk. I noted on my map a Borders bookstore. If I couldn't go in a library, at least I could go in a large bookstore.

There were two forms of entertainment on the way to Borders. First was a three-piece rock-a-billy band. Three men in their 30s playing guitar, stand-up bass, and a small drum set. They set up on a corner in front of a centuries-old war memorial monument playing songs and asking for money to be tossed into their open guitar case. My son Adam would have liked to see that.

The second entertainment was a group of protesters. They were upset about the Oxford University animal lab performing experiments on animals. It was interesting to note that the tourists found the protest entertaining for a glance, but only a momentary distraction to seeing the city. The local people, however, were quite upset about the protestors. I heard one person mutter, "Get a job, get a life," while the protesters went by. There seemed to be more local police than protestors. Three or four of the police were on horseback - an impressive sight given the surroundings.

Borders bookstore was both comforting and disgusting. I found myself looking at the spiral notebooks and writing pens. Why was I doing that? Bookstores in America sold the same items. Why was I looking at them in Oxford, England? This Borders was the same as the Borders in Tyson's Corner, Virginia and San Jose, California and all the other Borders in all the other places in the world. I left in disgust. Why had I gone to a chain store 5,000 miles from home?

While mentioning chain stores - I did see two Starbucks. One was in the Borders while the other was on the street next to the local coffee shops and teashops. Can't get away from Starbucks.

Borders was my last stop. At least I had been in one place that had a lot of books on the shelves. It wasn't a college library, it was a poor substitute for one, but there were books on shelves.

The train ride back to Banbury was quick - only 15 minutes. That was half the time of the ride to Oxford early in the morning. I glanced out at the English countryside and the large farms. I don't know who owns these large pieces of land. Something told me that the people who worked the farms were not the people who owned them.

Perhaps a few special people owned the land. Those working it were like the visitors in Oxford. They could see the libraries, peak inside the doors, peer into the windows, but not enter, sit, and read the books.

Maybe this "special few" concept explains the British system. This is a special place, and I mean that sincerely. I loved Oxford University, Oxford, and the English countryside. I treasure an excellent university in a small town in a rural area. Nevertheless, is this "special few" concept the curse of Britain? The special few benefit from the special place. Everyone else can only look longingly because as all the signs said,

"No Visitors in the Library"


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