By Richard Lofthouse

Books or bytes

Most Oxonians cannot make it to Oxford’s annual alumni weekend, or even its counterparts in places like Hong Kong. But we can all ‘attend’ most of the lectures and seminars at no cost, merely by engaging iTunes U on our computers, via the main Oxford University website.

Bring up the main Oxford website link to iTunes U here:

http://www.ox.ac.uk/itunes-u

You link to a galaxy of fabulous material, with one of the dedicated ‘channels’ being the Alumni Weekend, currently hosting 107 lectures going back to 2009.

Events from Oxford’s eighth annual weekend will be posted soon, giving me a window of opportunity to preview Bodley’s newly appointed librarian Richard Ovenden in conversation with Diarmaid MacCulloch, Professor of the History of the Church.

Ovenden gave a very wonderful overview of the Bodleian. Along the way he told stories, one of them concerning a copy of Giovanni Boccaccio’s mid-14th-century Life of Dante. Victor Rothschild donated his copy to the Bodleian in the 1970s, knowing that it was Sir Thomas Bodley’s own copy (1545-1613). However, Bodley’s inscription didn’t match the hand behind various marginalia. Only recently has an Oxford fellow identified the hand as being that of — wait for it — John Milton (1608-1684).

This sort of treasure-laden discussion gets quite heady. OK, I know there’s a bit of name dropping there. But the library was recast as a living repository of the dead who are brought alive once more as their books and lives are reopened. Ovenden stirred in me an almost giddy feeling of student memories redux fusing with an extraordinary range of ideas and images.

We also learned that it is expensive to maintain the digital library. A simple book sitting on the shelf of a stack, minding its own business for hundreds of years and being used a handful of times, is a bargain. I read recently that the carbon footprint of the world’s servers has now exceeded that of the global aviation business. Keeping a whole book ‘live’ at all times costs money and energy.

By next year the Bodleian will have 12 million physical books, and it is a great comfort – Ovenden made the point clearly enough — to know that they are tucked up in bed on bookshelves, and not confined merely to a virtual existence.

Finally, we learned that Barbara Castle and others are now leaving their literary estates to institutions such as the Bodley, consisting of paper and whole computers — often several of these, with no passwords and antiquated, generation-specific technology. This has meant serious detective work, going on eBay to buy floppy disk readers from c. 1994, hacking capabilities, and so forth.

We will soon be talking, if I understood correctly, about an entire cadre of digital archivists and maybe, I can imagine, neatly bound hardback volumes of email correspondence, rescued from a flaky hard drive — or at least microform copies, microform apparently not being dead in the water just yet.

How and what to harvest from the millions upon millions of digital ephemera produced in the career of a single individual? This, said Ovenden, is the real conundrum.

Not room to follow on here with a complete account of my weekend, but I'd like to share the vivid sensation I had while sitting at the Head of the River pub by Folly Bridge, of having walked directly into a John McNeill Whistler painting. One of Salter's pleasure steamers was out on the river full of party goers. Out there in the far distance as twilight merged into darkness, all you could see was a dull warmth of orange glow accented by red safety lights, all twinkling beautifully in the Isis through the humid mistiness that defined the last efforts of the summer. When Sunday morning broke the summer had gone, and been replaced by a seasonally appropriate freshness.

All images by Flixelpix via Flickr.