Elitism in Eden: an exploration of reading spaces

‘I have always imagined that Paradise will be a kind of library,’ wrote Jorge Luis Borges in his 1959 “Poema de los Dones” (“Poem of the Gifts.”), alluding to the age old notion that libraries are edenic sanctuaries on earth. This trope of library as paradise presents the library as a safe place, a haven where the mundane is transcended through intellectual or creative endeavour. Certainly, for many bibliophiles a good library is cause for rejoice.

This, however, has not always been the case. The first libraries were nothing more than archives of the earliest form of writing, and were simply repositories of information. It was not until Callimachus composed a system for the Library of Alexandria that the library became an organised reading space. Yet even as an established reading space, libraries were by no means communal, but instead yet another institution where elitism thrived. The Byzantine Empire helped to maintain their social hierarchy by differentiating between four different types of library: imperial, patriarchal, monastic, and private. Certainly, the move towards a ‘paradisiacal’ library in England was not until 1850 when free public libraries became legally permissible. With this in mind, the idealism with which libraries are commonly perceived must be balanced with an understanding of their frequently marginalising status in history.

As an Oxford student, it is, of course, not essential to love libraries. Many naturally prefer to study in the modest comfort of their rooms, or an alternative reading space such as a quaint café or lush parks (weather permitting). For those students who do feel the appeal of a particularly beautiful and well stocked library, Oxford is an excellent place to be. It is home to the Bodleian, Radcliffe Camera and Union libraries, in addition to specific Faculty and College libraries. My personal two favourite reading spaces are the Oxford Union Library and Lincoln College Library.

The Oxford Union Library (for those who haven’t seen it) is Gothic in style, with a sense of mystique that makes it a particularly intriguing space to work. The Union Library is characterised by its Pre-Raphaelite murals, depicting scenes from Arthurian legends and was painted by a team of young artists, including Dante Gabriel Rossetti, William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones. The distinctive murals are enhanced in value by the stories surrounding their genesis, including tales of how the young artists accepted no wages for their labour, instead merely requesting an endless supply of soda water, and the way in which Rossetti and Morris would look out for ‘stunners’ (beautiful young women) to act as their models from the windows of the King’s Arms Pub. Yet despite all of this, there still remains the central issue that its use is for members use only, leaving it up to you to decide whether this is a droll tradition, or an antiquated form of elitism.

I would like to assure sceptics that no college loyalty is required to adore Lincoln Library. It is not merely a location, but a surreal experience, achieving a sense of timelessness from the poet Matthew Arnold’s famous description of the striking spire as one of the iconic ‘dreaming spires’ of Oxford. This library transforms the simple task of reading into an excitingly clandestine ritual as entrance necessitates disappearing into its small, well hidden rustic gate. The upper reading room is an especially compelling space for reading and studying with both private booths and a central wooden desk area (to cater for those feeling sociable and otherwise.) The intricately latticed ceiling of pale blue and pearl white, the Latinate placards of prayer excerpts, the delicately carved wooden bookcases, the various emblems and insignias alongside the on-looking cherubim all serve to generate an ambience of peaceful refinement whilst the large windows ensure a bright airy feel. For those with artistic inclinations, the presence of a copy of Andrea Del Sarto’s gorgeous ‘Caritas’ serves as a source of inspiration…or least provides visual soothing in the midst of academic frustration. The library’s true beauty lies in the way in which it does not alienate its student body but rather acts as a grand backdrop that lends an amusing sense of drama to each and every essay crisis it houses. I love that despite its intimidating classical appearance it has a welcoming atmosphere and is a regular haunt for many of the college’s students.

The love of libraries is a passion to be indulged with a critical eye on the past. Oxford libraries are often places of aesthetic beauty, but most importantly their intrinsic value as reading spaces lies in their devotion to the pursuit of knowledge; a quest in which we are all equals. And maybe that’s as close to paradise as we can hope to get.