Dr Julia Walworth, Merton College
Listen to the podcast recording here:
This recording can be listened to in isolation, or you can scroll through the pictures of the objects and locations we’re discussing below.
The interview begins with Julia recounting her career from working after school in a public library in Cleveland, Ohio through to being head of Historic Collections at Senate House at the University of London. Julia then explains her decision to come to the much smaller institution at Merton to get back to working more closely with manuscripts.
A library of some form has existed at Merton since its foundation in 1264, while the present building dates from 1373, and claims to be the oldest continuously functioning academic library in the world. Julia tells us, though, that in the middle of the nineteenth century, it came within six months of being destroyed to make way for new student accommodation.
Image: The library in Mod Quad at Merton. The old library is on the first floor, with one of Merton's modern libraries directly below it.
‘All of us who work on historical things are in dialogue with the past in one way or another.'
Image: Julia standing between the shelves within the Old Library. Photograph by John Cairns.
Julia tells us that the Library's collection grew partly from the collections of the college's fellows, as well as donated by figures from outside of the College. Many of the library's texts are purely academic, but it holds a number of other works including a first-edition of William Caxton's printed edition of Geoffrey Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, perhaps given to the College by an Oxford businessman, William Wright.
The library also contains archives from Merton students, including Frank Brenchley's collection of T.S. Eliot's writings, and the archives of the critic and caricaturist Max Beerbohm.
Above: The beginning of the Canterbury Tales in Caxton's first edition, with a hand-illustrated border.
Right: Sandy Irvine's copper pressure kettle for boiling water at high temperatures.
Julia’s 'Wild Card' object is a copper kettle (right) belonging to Andrew 'Sandy' Irvine, a Merton student who died with George Mallory in his ill-fated attempt to reach the summit of Mount Everest in 1924, donated to the college by his family. Julia chose this item for its evocation of home comforts on difficult and dangerous expeditions.
Julia’s ‘Librarian’s Choice’ is a manuscript of Aristotle's Metaphysics with a commentary by Averroes, in the college collection by at least 1372 - before the library was built. Elaborately illuminated, this was, surprisingly, part of the library's lending collection, rather than being kept chained in the library. Julia chose this for the way it represents the academic life of the College, as well as for all the interesting physical features of the manuscript, with its bold attempts to illustrate the very abstract concepts of the Metaphysics, its marginal annotations, and the evidence of its use by members of the College over the centuries.
Above: Merton College MS 269, with an illumination of the challenging subject of a man contemplating Being. Photograph from the Bodleian Libraries.
Thank you for listening to this episode of the Living Libraries podcast.
Merton College is open to visitors from 2pm to 5pm on weekdays and from 10:30am to 5pm at weekends, while guided tours of the college and its library are available from July to September. Details about visiting the library, including for research visits, can be found on Merton College’s website, at https://www.merton.ox.ac.uk/library-and-archives/visiting-the-library, as can a virtual tour of the building.
The images are displayed with thanks to the Warden and Fellows of Merton College.