Dr. Gillian Evison read Theology at St. John’s College Oxford, before moving to Wolfson College Oxford to complete a D.Phil in Oriental Studies, which focussed on classical Hinduism. She has been Keeper of the Bodleian Libraries’ Oriental Collections at the University of Oxford since 2018. She has responsibility for the Oriental manuscripts section; three libraries covering Hebrew and Jewish, Chinese and Japanese studies; and leads a team of specialist oriental curators, library site managers and project staff. She is Chair of Oxford University’s Marjory Wardrop Fund Board and Chair of the Trustees for the Friends of Academic Research in Georgia.
PEN: You are Keeper of Oriental Collections at Bodleian Libraries of the University of Oxford, one of the oldest and largest libraries. Apart from an active research center, the libraries are also the “Prado” of manuscripts, with artefacts like Gutenberg Bible or Shakespeare’s first folios in its collections. What are the opportunities that a scholar gets while working within a close reach with such materials? And what are the responsibilities that come along?
GE: The great privilege of working at this historic library is the unlimited access I have to the collections in my care. A scholar visiting the library has to order books to a reading room to see them but I am able to go into the stacks and browse along the shelves where the manuscript and archival treasures from the Oriental collection are kept. With that privilege comes the responsibility of sharing our wonderful collection with others in a way that also preserves it for future generations.
PEN: What means, channels and instruments do you use for making the rare manuscripts and texts accessible for public, yet keeping them preserved?
GE:. At the Bodleian’s Weston Library, where our Special Collections are kept, we have reading rooms for scholars, teaching rooms and public exhibition spaces that are all designed for the safe handling of manuscripts, rare books and archives. Temperature, humidity and light levels are carefully controlled throughout the building and the manuscripts, rare books and archives are kept in individually made acid free boxes to protect them. Reading rooms and seminar rooms are equipped with special foam book rests and long fabric covered weights, known as ‘snakes’ to hold pages safely. We are also fortunate to have a dedicated conservation studio with conservators who not only carry out important conservation work but who will also help scholars study texts that are too fragile to be handled without expert supervision.
PEN: What are the main challenges for archives and research centers in a digital era? How is it changing the way scholars work?
GE: One of the main challenges in the digital era for the Bodleian, which has millions of items collected over four centuries, is the huge number of printed books, manuscripts and archives yet to be digitized. Digitizing books safely takes special equipment and creating the catalogue information, which enables those images to be organized and searched, takes time and expertise. Our digital library is growing and stands at over 900,000 images but this is only a fraction of what the library holds.
Digitization is changing the way in which scholars work. Digital libraries give 24/7, access to manuscripts which scholars formerly had to travel the world to see. Emerging international standards for electronic scholarship have given scholars new tools for digital editions and online teaching and even allow them to make virtual reconstructions of manuscripts whose leaves have become separated and are scattered between library collections around the world. New digital techniques, such as multispectral imaging and Raman spectroscopy, are allowing scholars to reveal hidden texts in palimpsests and to analyze pigments used in illuminations without needing to take physical samples from manuscripts.
During the pandemic digital copies have enabled scholars to keep on reading even while the libraries are closed. One of the University’s current Georgian Fellows had come to Oxford this year to work on the Bodleian’s great 11th century Georgian Menologian from the monastery of the Holy Cross in Jerusalem. Luckily this manuscript is in our digital library
and she has been able to keep on working on the manuscript during the UK lockdown.
PEN: Do you think that pandemic will dramatically change the way academia and its members function? Will it change the process of research and sharing of knowledge between the scientists?
GE: Oxford teaching has traditionally been face to face and, though there has been huge library investment in electronic books and journals recently, research and teaching are still very dependent on printed books in some subjects. The biggest change that lockdown has brought is the switch to online teaching and examining in a matter of weeks. International conferences, workshops and seminars have been postponed or gone ahead online. I think after the pandemic, virtual teaching, meetings and conferences will more normal than they have been in the past, though will they will never completely replace the face to face interaction so valued by scholars.
PEN: What was your first encounter with Georgia, either through texts and manuscripts, or otherwise?
GE: I suppose my first encounter with Georgia was through the Georgian texts and manuscripts in the Bodleian’s Wardrop collection but Georgians themselves had a big part to play. Some of the best friendships are made through conversations held over texts and manuscripts. In return for me helping Georgian scholars gain access to the Wardrop collection, they have generously repaid me by taking the time to tell me the stories of the manuscripts, archives and printed books it contains. My Georgian friends were not content until I had visited Georgia and have been wonderful hosts. They have introduced me to the amazing manuscript and archives collections in Georgia but also to the food, wine, art, music and spectacular scenery of the country. I am hoping that when life returns to normal I will have many more opportunities to return.
PEN: The Wardrop collection of Bodleian Libraries – if it’s possible to talk about it in just a few words, what defines its historical significance?
GE: Marjory and Oliver’s collection, which was given to the Bodleian after Marjory’s tragic early death at the age of just 40, represents a 1000 years of Georgian history. It contains many treasures, such as an 8th century palimpsest leaf with an old Georgian fragment of Jeremiah; an 11th century ecclesiastical calendar written at the Georgian Monastery of the Holy Cross Jerusalem; and two 17th century, UNESCO listed, illuminated manuscripts of Rustaveli’s great epic, the Man in a Panther Skin. The archival collection is rich in documents that tell the story of the birth pangs of Georgia’s short lived independence, the most important of which must be the signed original of the 1907 Georgian Peoples’ petition to the Hague, which represents the first time that people across Georgia, from all social classes, came together to speak up for the rights of Georgian citizens.
PEN: Oliver and Marjory Wardrops had a very special relationship with Georgia. Oliver was he United Kingdom's first Chief Commissioner of Transcaucasia during interesting times - the years of Georgia's First Democratic Republic. In your opinion, what did Georgia represent to them, a cultural discovery, or more of a sanctuary? How local did the Wardrops become?
GE: I think that for Oliver and Marjory Georgia was at first a cultural discovery. Sir Oliver Wardrop discovered and fell in love with Georgia whilst on the obligatory grand tour that was thought to finish off a young gentleman’s education at the time. His letters home suggest he was a rather miserable and lonely traveller until the time he arrived in Georgia, where he seems to have developed an instant rapport with the people he met. At a time when most British people were unaware of Georgia, much less spoke the language, Marjory and her brother Oliver developed a remarkable passion for Georgian literature, history, and culture and strove to share it with the English speaking world through their translations. As they began to develop personal friendships with notable Georgians, their relationship with Georgia became far deeper. The calling cards, letters and photographs in the Wardrop collection read like a Who’s Who of Georgia at the time and both Oliver and Marjory became involved in Georgia’s struggle for independence, though Marjory sadly did not live long enough to see the dawn of the First Democratic Republic.
PEN: Apart from what has already been published, there are important scripts such as Marjory’s own correspondence with Georgian friends, and her journal. What can be concluded based on her writings? How important were Georgia and her local acquaintances for her social life?
GE: Until three years ago the Wardrop collection had many letters written to Marjory Wardrop but very few written by Marjory herself so we were delighted when in 2017 descendants of Sir Oliver generously gave the library letters and photographs that had remained in the family. The letters show her to be a warm and witty correspondent who takes the time to share news with her friends and family when Sir Oliver is clearly too busy to write. Although Marjory only managed to visit Georgia twice, the friendships she developed with Georgians were lifelong and her death in 1909 was an occasion for national mourning.
PEN: By Marjory’s own description, what was the environment and opportunities for women in her Georgian circles in the beginning of the 20th century?
GE: Compared with her brother Oliver, Marjory’s everyday life at home was very restricted. Letters written to her brother consist of her describing a life with a small circle of acquaintances where nothing much happens that is worthy of note. For Marjory, Georgia was a place of opportunity for women in a way that she had not encountered in her limited social circle at home.
In her unpublished journal of her first visit to Georgia, which can be seen in the Bodleian’s digital library, (https://digital.bodleian.ox.ac.uk/inquire/p/9dedd85b-c03b-4637-a40b-f0e77212cb11) she writes of Georgia as being a land where the gentler sex have more energy than their lords and where women can be editors of and contributors to papers; women whose faces can be found looking out at us from the pages of Marjory’s photograph albums in the Wardrop Collection. Of course there were women doing all these things in England but they were not in Marjory’s social circle. Georgia seemed a magical place, where, as she underlined in her copy of Man in and Panther Skin, ‘The lion’s whelps are equal, be they male or female.’
Illustrations and stories of these artifacts are included in Nikoloz Aleksidze's book Georgia: A Cultural History Through the Wardrop Collection. Published by the Bodleian Libraries.