Weston Library workers discover remnants of wartime book service

Red Cross response to POW book request Three unexpected items have been discovered by construction workers during the renovation of the Weston Library (formerly known as the New Bodleian). Buried behind radiators, in rooms used by the Red Cross Educational Books Section during World War II, the finds comprise:

  • Red Cross typewritten response to a request from a British POW for books about engines and electricity, dated 24 September 1941 and addressed to the POW, Camp Stalag VIIIB, Germany
  • Receipt from Blackwell Booksellers for An Introduction to Laboratory Technique purchased by the Red Cross on 3 June 1942 and destined for a POW in Italy
  • Handwritten note containing the address of a POW camp at Fonte d’Amore, Sulmona, Italy.

Blackwell's POW book order The original New Bodleian building was completed in 1940, but its formal opening was delayed; instead, the building was commandeered for wartime purposes. The sizeable structure housed a number of organisations during World War II including the Red Cross Educational Books Section which, as permitted under the Geneva Convention, supplied books to British Prisoners of War.

Requests for books were received in the New Bodleian by the Red Cross Educational Books Section following a wide distribution of 'blue forms' to POW camps. Under the chairmanship of the Master of Balliol College, Oxford, a number of advisers including CS Lewis of Magdalen College were invited to recommend appropriate publications. Books were selected from stock or ordered from Blackwell Booksellers located next door. Every volume had to pass through the Educational Books Section, where each pencil or ink mark was removed before the book was shipped to Germany. No book containing a map was sent until the map was removed. The books then had to pass the German censor.

Besides satisfying individual requests for books and courses, the Red Cross Educational Book Section also made arrangements for prisoners to sit examinations. An Oxford University English literature course was specially created for POWs by CS Lewis, author of the Chronicles of Narnia books.

Address of POW camp in ItalyOther organisations based in the New Bodleian during World War II include the Inter Service Topographical Department (under the auspices of the Admiralty), whose work was of considerable importance to the planning of D-Day; the Royal Observer Corps; and agencies such as the Blood Transfusion Service. The bottom floor was fitted out as a large air-raid shelter for the City of Oxford. 

Designed by Sir Giles Gilbert Scott in the 1930s, Oxford’s historic New Bodleian is undergoing a substantial three-year refurbishment and will officially reopen in March 2015 as the Weston Library, although the building will be accessible to Bodleian Library readers from October 2014. The Weston Library will become the new home of the Bodleian's special collections.

Follow the Weston Library transformation in its final year at www.bodleian.ox.ac.uk/weston.

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