Ode to my study carrel

assl Nothing is quite as exciting as having a new library to explore, and I’ve been granted access to some good ones of late – Chawton House Library, a women’s studies centre set in a house which once belonged to Jane Austen’s richer brother; the high shelves and Victorian stepladders of York Minster Library; dozens of beautiful old Carnegie Libraries from Clitheroe to Cathays; even the high Medieval surroundings of the Bodleian Library in Oxford, thanks to a Postgraduate Studentship and the fact my supervisor emailed ahead. Yet despite all their glorious architecture, surroundings, and selection, none of them have usurped that place in my heart reserved for the drab concrete outlines of Cardiff University’s Arts and Social Sciences Library, where I now have a small office to myself.

When I first applied for a study carrel I suspected that it was a word entirely invented by librarians – indeed, who better to do so? – but I made recourse to the OED and discovered that it is precisely the appropriate word for what it is – a small desk for private study within a library. Cardiff University’s Arts and Social Sciences Library boasts a row of eight on their second floor, which are given to MA and PhD students on 3-month rotas. Bute library may have the spiral staircases and the Science library the Victorian neo-classical flourishes – at least, before they stuck an entire unnecessary floor right through the middle of it – but none of them have anything so useful as the study carrels. At first glance, they maybe rather poky and predominantly brown, with a view of the Lidl car park, but such an opinion is IMG_0562 sole preserve of the philistine who has not grasped the delight of having one’s own private space in the midst of a library. Safe behind my yale lock, I can actually stack my books in there without fear of some overzealous librarian returning them to shelf, leave my laptop or phone on the desk without fear that anyone might nick it and best of all, I can sit on the floor, or put my feet up on the desk, or roll into the footwell and doze off without anyone looking at me strangely. The view may not be the most sublime in existence, but mediated by the swaying birches and their million new leaves, it’s rather pleasant. Even then, it doesn’t take a lot of craning before I achieve a sightline across the thousand chimney tops of Cathays stretching out towards the Rhymney Ridgeway.

Cardiff University gave me access to my first university library, and after months spent scouring the secondhand bookshops of Winchester to build a poetry collection, I can still remember the thrill of discovering that they had collections by almost any author I could think of. I’d arrive, tap ‘Thomas Gray’ or ‘Gerald Manley Hopkins’ into the search engine, memorise the local reference and dash upstairs, chanting ‘PR4803.H44.A16.F80’ under my breath and hoping I’d get there before the rush. I often got my digits muddled up, but surprisingly enough, there’s yet to be a run on the literature shelves. The closest thing to it is when the first year essay titles are announced, and the shelves of Beowulf and Chaucer criticism empty as if by magic.

IMG_0565 For there’s still magic among these dusty shelves, even in a warm day in May. Since my first days at Cardiff, I’ve studied in places as diverse as the British Library and the Bodleian at Oxford. Even York University library had more power sockets, comfier seats, continuous 24 hour access and a better DVD collection. I still keep up my self-initiated tradition of jogging up the stairs, however, and there’s still nothing I like better than when a likely tome catches my eye mid-stride, and I have to take it out and flick through it until the original book I was searching for is quite forgotten. Having my own little piece of it – however temporarily – is like having my own box at the theatre. Sheer class.

Book rhymes

When I was cataloguing marginalia and provenance information in the Cardiff University Rare Books Collections, I discovered many interesting things – not least how dirty three century old books could be. Inside a tiny duodecimo copy of The Whole Duties of a Communicant, I found a beautiful hand-drawn map of Bath that someone had tucked away for safe-keeping. There was a wonderful, lavishly illustrated 17th century book on The Buccaniers of America that I would have given my whole months wages to walk off with, and plenty of the marginal annotations I’d been told to catalogue – some learned, some argumentative, some very funny.

One of my favourite discoveries were the book rhymes. They were the precursors of bookplates, lines of catchy doggerel that interested readers would scribble inside their front covers along with a few personal details, to mark the book as theirs and remind recalcitrant borrowers to return it promptly. The first one I came across was:

If thou art borrowed by a friend,
Right welcome shall he be
To read, to study, not to lend,
But to return to me.
Not that imparted knowledge doth
Diminish learning’s store,
But books, I find, when once they’re lent,
Return to me no more.

A nice enough piece of doggerel, but my favourite book rhyme is somewhat shorter, snappier, and more punchy:

If this book you steal away
What will you say
On judgement day?

Which summons the pleasant thought that when Christ descends from Heaven on the Last Day, to judge the quick and the dead, he will be particularly harsh on the subject of stolen books. Let the unrighteous tremble!

As to a book rhyme for the title page of my own volumes, I gave the matter five minutes of thought while I was in the shower the other night, and came up with the following attempt:

Steal this book away from me;
You are my enemy.
Drop it idly in the bath
And taste my wrath.
Tear or dog-ear any page
And feel my rage.
Break the spine, or spoil the story
And know my fury.
Return it safely to the shelf;
And stay in perfect health.

A little over-protective, perhaps – but no more than any of my treasures deserve.

Chawton House Library

Chawton House panorama

It is always nice to turn up at a country house as something other than a paying visitor. The best part of collecting my Gold Duke of Edinburgh’s Award, for example, was turning up at St James’ Palace with an invitation. Compared to that, the two minutes of bob and nod with the Earl of Wessex was something of a disappointment – we didn’t even get Prince Philip. Yesterday, I was not a daytripper but a visiting scholar, and at nine o’clock I was making the 45 minute drive in the pouring rain to Chawton, just outside of Alton – home not only to Jane Austen’s House, but to Chawton House Library, one of my new favourite places to study.

Owned by Jane’s brother Edward Austen in the Georgian era, Chawton House was bought by a charitable foundation in the eighties and, as well as being a fine country house in its own right, now functions as a Centre for Woman’s Literature 1600-1850. This means that, with a few days forward notice, even sciolists like myself can turn up and have access to the main library collections. As the public is only allowed in for brief tours at 2:30pm on Tuesdays and Thursdays, I effectively have a fine old country house to myself. The prospect never fails to raise my spirits.

Yesterday, for example, I came in from the rain to find a lovely smell of woodsmoke seeping back into the ancient boards, from the Edwardian Christmas event held a few days beforehand. The (insanely lucky) visiting fellows who dwell in cottages around the back of the house had all wound their projects down and gone home, and aside from me, the librarian and the receptionist, there was hardly anyone around. In the faint December light, it seemed the ideal place for Gothic fantasies, but I had an essay to write and was too busy to dream for long.

The library is on the first floor, blessed with good light and fine, weighty desks to study from, though to someone used to padded deskchairs the wooden frames take some getting used to. The only sound is the whirr as the air conditioner keeps the room cooled to British Library specifications. At my elbow five massive leatherbound quarto volumes of Catharine Macaulay’s History of England sat, second editions from 1766 that I would never get a chance to handle in a university library. I browsed through them, enjoying Macaulay’s republican rhetoric and the wonderful texture of the old book, with its long s’s and strange spellings, and Capitalisation of abstract Nouns. But this was no time to idle, for I had an essay to write, and was swiftly constructing my plan and pulling in quotations from a dozen different sources, scattered through the library – pausing only to divert myself briefly with some of the Juvenelia of Jane Austen.

The library closes for an hour at lunchtime, and I took the opportunity to wander through the old house, whose floorboards roll and buck beneath you like rough ground, looking up at the pictures of famous women they’d assembled, and blundering into rooms I’d never seen before. I finished curled up in a bay window behind a curtain, reading a publishers catalogue and trying to pretend I was Jane Eyre. Then, back to the library again, until by 4pm I had a one page plan and three pages of usable quotations, and saw myself out with some sadness. I would have liked to remain, and read through Austen’s juvenelia until my stomach began to rumble uncontrollably. I would like to have stayed the night in one of the bedrooms, or the cottages of the visiting fellows. But alas! I had to return to my parents modern house, with its televisions and kitchens and conveniences, and leave grand old Chawton House behind.