When I was studying for a masters in medieval English language and literature at Oxford (2007-2008) I usually called up one manuscript at a time and settled myself at a desk in the Duke Humphrey library in the Bodleian where I studied for hours until the need for coffee drew me out to Blackwell, just across the street. Although I had a laptop at the time, the Duke seemed to me a strange place to use it (although there were computers and micro-film readers already in place). Pencil and paper in hand, I made notes on the text and the appearance of the manuscripts I consulted, and then typed these up when I went home.
For me, the medieval reading room embodies the joy of studying manuscripts in places with deep historical roots. I like to imagine Charles I in the city during his Oxford Parliament of 1644, and the then Bodley librarian refusing to let him borrow a book. I like to think of the way people used to read chained books while standing up; and I love that so many prolific collectors over the centuries have chosen to house their collections in this place. Walking into the Duke still brings on a deep sense comfort and, I confess, a feeling halfway between smug and outraged when I think that women readers have only had complete parity of access to the library in the twentieth century. I can work in the Duke for hours—despite the uncomfortable desks—sustained by the sweet smell of books, the honey-colored seventeenth century volumes lining the dark wooden shelves, the beautiful painted ceiling depicting the seal of Oxford University, panel after panel; the painted portraits lining the walls, the stained glass windows and the aged stonework all unite to make for a pretty inspiring reading experience.
After a few weeks of pencil and paper, I realized I needed to use my laptop for note-taking. I was going too slowly to keep up with the pace of work we were assigned in our second term (Hilary) so I began to use my laptop to make notes about the contents of a volume and to record a physical description of it: its size; the number of pages and quires; the number of hands and the types of hand-writing (known as paleographical observations); the quality of the parchment or paper; the quality, legibility, and colors of ink; any illustrations; ownership inscriptions, annotations or other signs of use. But, after attempting to do without my old medium, I found myself sheepishly asking the librarian if I could borrow pencil and paper. I needed them to note down certain things I could not accurately describe in prose on my laptop, e.g. watermarks (in the case of paper manuscripts or inserts). Pencil and paper are also helpful for solving transcription problems. Sometimes trying to reproduce a difficult-to-read set of scratches can reveal the word the scribe intended (or actually achieved!) but which your eyes find difficult to make out.
In my third term at Oxford I embarked upon a thesis about a seventeenth century spiritual direction, Augustine Baker (1575-1640) and the English Benedictine nuns of Cambrai. I decided to work with some Baker-Cambrai manuscripts housed at Ampleforth Abbey in York. My thesis supervisor wrote me a letter of recommendation and I emailed the monk-archivist asking permission to use the archives. I only had three days to use the archives, so I asked if I could use my camera to take images of the manuscripts. The archivist kindly agreed, and told me that they had a camera station I could use. For the first two days I looked through manuscripts and made notes on my laptop and on paper. On the final day, with the help of archivists, many snakeweights and foam cushions I managed to take enough manuscript photos to keep me occupied for several weeks after the trip. But having experienced an archive where photography was allowed, it was hard to return to the Bodleian and my old methods.
In 2009, Bodley researchers were not permitted to use their own cameras to image library materials. It was only when the library began going through major reading room relocations and upheavals that this changed. Thankfully, the Bodley, unlike the British Library, now allows you to photograph materials that are not in copyright, so long as you fill in a form detailing what you will be imaging and what use you will make of this material. (As per modern copyright law readers can only image up to 5% of copyrighted material using their own camera, Bodley photocopiers, or the new Scan and Deliver service). Other repositories, such as Public Record Offices in the UK, often allow you to photograph as much archival material as you like,so long as you fill in forms and, in some cases, pay a daily fee for the use of your camera (£10 a day as of 2010/11).
Digitization enables you to capture a large volume of material quickly, but it poses many challenges and requires vigilance. Even in settings where I can use a digital camera, I still take pencil and paper in order to work out transcription problems, and I doubt I’ll ever visit an archive without my laptop. Coming up soon: the pleasures and perils of digitization.