City of Books – ha!

Monday December 6th 2010
St Giles at Dusk by Francis Hamel.
For more of his Oxford views click here.

Sometimes, on a winter evening when the yellow lights in the buildings that line St. Giles cast a glow on the frozen street, I like to to imagine that I can see through the walls of stone. And behind the skeletons of the plane trees, in the high-ceilinged rooms, I  know there are rows and rows of books.

Oxford is lined with books. There are millions and millions of them here. Every college has its own library – many of them extensive, many very beautiful. I think of Christ Church and All Souls in particular. There are 38 colleges.

Books are the city’s life blood and the heart of Oxford is the Bodleian, the great library founded by Thomas Bodley in the reign of Elizabeth I, which has continuously grown since 1598. Today this library houses 11 million items. It’s the second biggest library in Britain and one of the largest in the world.

Medieval Arab astrologer
in a manuscript from the Bod.

For the astrologer, there’s a particularly fine collection of books and manuscripts.  Much of Renaissance court astrologer John Dee’s famous book collection ended up here; and together with the collection of Elias Ashmole, founder of our Ashmolean Museum that makes a remarkable bunch of very old astrology tomes. Since then more work has been gathered from India, China and the Arab world as well as Europe.

Public libraries
You do have to be affiliated with the university or a scholar of some kind to use this library though. In fact, most of these millions of books in Oxford are in private hands – unavailable to the general public. So it’s kind of ironic in this city of scholars that the local council is planning to close all but two of the city’s public libraries.

And what does astrology have to contribute to this?

Well, knowledge is the domain of Jupiter, but librarianship is under the meticulous and orderly earth sign, Virgo. So it’s satisfying to note that when the Public Libraries Act was passed in 1850, Jupiter was transiting Virgo.

Right now, of course, Jupiter is passing through the fish’s tail, Virgo’s opposite sign; I hope we are not seeing the dissolution of our public library system, which would work with the Piscean symbolism. These cuts will be taking place all over the country, I expect. Obviously, this transit happens every 12 years, so it can’t be that crucial a turning point – except that I notice some notable symmetries with the year 1850.

1850 was the last time Neptune was in Pisces as it will be next year. Uranus was in Aries as it will be next year and was this summer. Outer planet returns sometimes act like New Moons — you revisit the same place but with a different emphasis or a new start, which means also an ending. Events that took place in 1850 may have a resonance with today, indeed the decade of the 1850s may resonate – however indistinctly with the 2010s.

I shall be investigating the 1850s in later posts.

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  1. Lachesis says:

    You really got me thinking, and having had a quick look at the year 1850 alone (albeit on an American website) I was struck by the number of inventions and innovations listed. No surprise, I suppose, given that it marked the second phase of the Industrial Revolution. I wonder how it felt for the people at the time?

    I’m rather horrified at the closure of you’re local libraries and hope that the good people of Oxford are showing their disgust in a suitably effective manner. You paint a haunting image of the ‘closed and hidden’ libraries of the city, available only to the scholarly elite. Does Oxford itself have an astrological trait that explains this?

    Finally, thanks for my December horoscope! I shall bear what you say in mind.

  2. Christina says:

    I’m glad you like the new monthly horoscope.

    As for 1850, after I’d written this little piece, I remembered that 1850 was an incredible year for literature – David Copperfield, The Scarlet Letter – and the following year – Cranford, Moby Dick. In Europe, Ibsen wrote his first play and Turgenev’s drama, A Month in the Country was produced. So we’re talking realism here.

    I guess people were taking a long hard look at the industrial revolution and making art out of its human consequences.