The Price of Everything

A schools liaison session with the historic collections in the Library at St John’s College, Oxford – Stewart Tiley

Making contact

I was chatting to our Schools Liaison Officer a few months ago, and she mentioned that she organized parties of sixth formers to come in to introduce them to the Oxford system and encourage them to think of applying here. As part of their day they were usually involved in a hands-on activity, often at one of the excellent museums in which Oxford abounds. As an additional string to her bow, I suggested she might want to make use of the Library as an alternative resource right on the doorstep and that I’d be happy to try and think of an appropriate activity. She agreed and then, a month down the line, got in touch and told me that she needed a forty-five minute session for around ten seventeen year olds, studying a variety of disciplines, the basic remit of which was to stimulate their curiosity and involve them in  intellectual exploration in some way.

From hand-coloured titlepage of Astronomicum Caesareum by Peter Apian (Ingolstatd: 1540)

From hand-coloured titlepage of Astronomicum Caesareum by Peter Apian (Ingolstatd: 1540). Reproduced by permission of the President and Fellows of St John's College, Oxford.

The idea

The idea I came up with was to basically nick the format (as I hazily recalled it from one or two viewings) of the BBC games show Antiques Master hosted by Sandi Toksvig. In my version, this was essentially a series of guessing games focussed on eight objects from our historical collections.

Seventeenth-century Gujurati sailor's map of the Gulf of Khambat (or Cambay)

Seventeenth-century Gujurati sailor's map of the Gulf of Khambat (or Cambay). Copyright C. Phillips. Reproduced by permission of the President and Fellows of St John's College, Oxford.

After dividing the group into four teams, they were given a set of appropriately identified and graded counters, and told to rank the objects in terms of age, by placing the appropriate counters next to the item. The second activity allotted two objects to each team and they were given five minutes to prepare a presentation to the rest of the group describing what they thought the item was, what it was about, what language it was in, where it was made, and whether it was manuscript or printed. The final activity was similar to the first, except that the ranking this time was to be done by monetary value.



An Elephant in a fourteenth-century Bestiary from York.

An Elephant in a fourteenth-century manuscript Bestiary from York. Reproduced by permission of the President and Fellows of St John's College, Oxford.

The session proved successful, and prompted a repeat performance a couple of months later. Teachers said:

It was a wonderful insight for the pupils to see inside the colleges and I know they loved the library activities.

I think its appeal rested on three factors: 

  • It was a very simple concept, and easily explainable in a matter of a minute or two.
  • It immediately engaged the students in interaction with objects, rather than having these explained to them.
  • Our collections here do boast some very intriguing and/or visually appealing items that invite comment.

A further factor might also be the setting – although the actual event took place in a nearby seminar room, they were led through the sixteenth century library, and its front door with multiple, ancient and fairly noisy bolts. This latter certainly made an impact on both occasions.


Although I mention the simplicity of the activity, in order for the session to run smoothly, it did require a fair degree of planning. Museums may have handling collections for hands-on interaction, but old books and manuscripts can be quite fragile, so this session was rather paradoxically designed as an interactive hands-off activity. In order to present the students with interesting, attractive and, in some cases, quite valuable items, a strict no-touching policy had to be enforced. Exploration had to occur using the page opening on display or through the provision of photographed surrogates in the form of handouts. Thought also had to be given to the layout of the room, with enough space to allow the circulation of bodies around the items with minimal trip hazards, and some way of focusing the deposition of ranking counters. To make all of these precautions work ground rules had to be laid out explicitly at the beginning of the session. Scoring and feedback were used to maintain engagement and keep attention focussed on the activities.

Nineteenth-century Ethiopic Gospel with wooden covers

The Ethiopic Gospel out of its tanned hide bag. Reproduced by permission of the President and Fellows of St John's College.

Probably the most difficult point of the planning was which selection of items to use. As I say St John’s is fortunate in the range and nature of its collections, but even so finding a viable mix of visual appeal, variety of languages and scripts, range of ages, and variety of material form and function was a challenge. The items had to have some point of immediate comment (even if it was only the tanned hide bag that a Ge’ez manuscript came in) whilst not revealing all their secrets at a single glance. Those that worked best contained a mixture of wrong-footing and clues, for instance a book printed in an exotic-looking (to 21stcentury English schoolchildren you understand) language in seventeenth-century ‘Cambridge’. This was, of course, actually Cambridge, Massachusetts, and the language that of the local tribes people.

Bible in Massachusetts Indian

First edition of the Bible in Massachusetts Indian. Also the first Bible printed in America. Reproduced by permission of the President and Fellows of St John's College, Oxford.

Final thought

From the library’s point of view it was of course a pleasure to see young people engaging with objects in our care with such enthusiasm. The relatively smooth running of a fairly simply organized, and repeatable session, with minimal costs beyond staff time (some colour photocopying was the material outlay), certainly encouraged us to think about what else we might be able to offer to external groups.

-Stewart Tiley is Librarian at St John’s College, Oxford-

The images on this post show items Stewart used in his session. They are all reproduced by permission of the President and Fellows of St John’s College, Oxford.

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