One seminar a week certainly doesn’t sound like very much – until you see the week’s reading list. Last term, the reading for the seminar was one to three books a week. For “The Twelfth-Century Renaissance”, the reading list comes in the shape of a full A4 sheet of paper with about half-a-dozen books of primary texts, another half-dozen secondary books, and perhaps another dozen journal articles and essays, all supposedly discoverable somewhere in the vastness of the Oxford library system.
To be fair, we’re not necessarily expected to read everything. A handful of the texts will be asterisked as crucial, and the rest are there to be read as our whimsy and research interests take us. I’m also learning that ‘reading a book’ in Oxford generally doesn’t mean a leisurely progression from front cover to back cover, but more of a optimistic skimming-and-delving approach that I have yet to quite master.
The key thing is to attack the reading list strategically and early, which inevitably entails a long session with SOLO, the University of Oxford’s somewhat gangly library catalogue system. If you are very fortunate, the books are waiting for you on the shelves of your college library, to be collected at your leisure. If not (and unless your college has a really superlative library, they’re usually not), that generally means either the History Faculty Library in the Radcliffe Camera (from which you can check out the books) or the Bodleian Library (from which you most certainly cannot).
So a typical search will reveal inaccessible copies of your sought-after book in seemingly every college library but your own, a single copy in the Rad Cam that one of your zealous classmates has apparently already nabbed, a copy that should be in the Bodleian Lower Reading Room but is mysteriously missing, and one lone copy in the depths of the Lower Gladstone Link.
The Gladstone Link, a fairly new addition to the Oxford libraries, is an underground tunnel which links the Radcliffe Camera to the Old Bodleian and utterly lacks the charm of both. The Upper Gladstone Link, with its fluorescent lights, quaint cast iron shelves, and grille flooring, stores the overflow of the History Faculty Library, while the Lower Gladstone Link beneath stores frequent-use humanities materials from the Bodleian on rolling shelves perfect for squashing unwary readers and is reference only. Once you have located where book M098.E0021345 should be, sandwiched between Mormons in the Nineteenth Century and Recent Changes in Japanese Politics, any suspicious gap probably means one of your classmates has carried it off to a more comfortable location in the library, leaving you with the option of roaming around looking for a suspiciously familiar face, staking out a position by the shelf waiting for its return, or resignedly moving on to the next book on your reading list to start the process all over again . . .