Last week the real University of Oxford held open days as part of its widening-access initiative. Fantasy Oxford has open days for tourists every day, with the Mad Hatter Tour and the Harry Potter Tour loudly touting for business along Broad Street. No trouble getting in the punters there – you have to force your way along the street with a rolled umbrella and in seven languages.
The schoolchildren who come to the university open days are taken to see the Bodleian Library alongside the ordinary tours. It is hard to know what impression they get of what it is like to study in the great historic research library these days. Tour parties trample through several of the reading rooms asking questions in loud voices, with groups being addressed by guides telling them about Morse, Lewis, Endeavour plus some miscellaneous and not very accurate history.
Outside in the Quad, where the management says it cannot afford to provide supervision, the prospective undergraduates will see hundreds of “summer school” students from all over the world sitting about in chattering crowds against the soft stone and eating forbidden crisps to the benefit of the pigeons. There will be hordes of noisy polyglot parties ignoring the small “Silence please” notices (written only in English). No one stops climbers on the statue of the Earl of Pembroke swinging from his arms, or scrambling up the 15th-century mouldings to try to get a look at the Divinity School through the windows without paying. (The university is having to spend a lot of money repairing the stonework on the Radcliffe Camera this summer.)
Historic rooms are hired out for weddings and events. Hirers may bring in their own caterers, dance floors, amplified music and filming equipment in self-drive vans. This is supposed to happen only outside library opening hours, but the rehearsals often resound through the Bodleian while it is open. The events may continue to the small hours, with broken glass and revellers’ vomit to be cleared up the next day.
Of course, universities must raise money in straitened times. But the balance between the needs of the library and the sometimes tasteless uses to which its beautiful medieval rooms are put to make them pay needs to be rethought. Tourist noise and numbers on university property should be restricted. Open day students might then be able to see the real Oxford, not the commercial activities that are becoming the libraries’ public face.
G. R. Evans