Dr Julia Walworth
Dr Julia Walworth has been Merton’s Fellow Librarian since 2001. She is also responsible for historic chattels and pictures, and this year, the recruitment of Junior Research Fellows. She is the convenor of the History of the Book research group at the College, where Fellows, students, and visitors gather to discuss aspects of written communication and explore the material and intellectual nature of the book in many cultures and periods.
Dr Walworth has worked in libraries since her first part-time job in high school, in Cleveland, Ohio. At university, Julia continued to work in libraries to fund her studies, including in the music library at her undergraduate college, Swarthmore. During her doctoral studies at Yale, Julia worked in the medical history library, where the head librarian encouraged her to take a closer look at the books she was handling, as long as she managed to complete her daily tasks. This gave Julia the chance to browse at her leisure and nurture her love of manuscripts and early printed books. This experience is something she has tried to keep in mind as she has become more senior in libraries – always working to ensure that her team has some fun and enjoyment when working with books, just as she still does. Random exploring in the Upper Library is one of her favourite ways to re-charge after a busy day.
Julia’s PhD was in the interface of Art History and Medieval German Literature, with a specific focus on manuscript illumination and its relation to the text. Her first job in the UK was at The Warburg Institute (University of London), a world centre for the study of cultural history and the role of images in culture. Dr Walworth then went on to the University of London Senate House Library, and ended up as the Head of Historic Collections. By that time, Julia realised that if she stayed in large libraries at management level, she would not get to spend as much time with the books and manuscripts she so enjoyed. When the position of Fellow Librarian at Merton College was advertised, she jumped at the chance. This role really struck a chord with her, because in an Oxford college environment she would get the best of both worlds: the opportunity to focus on working with historic collections in historic buildings and to play a part in a lively academic community. The job enables her to introduce gifted students to historic collections, make new technologies serve intellectual ends, and, through the college guide system she organised, to bring the college and its history to a wider, non-Oxford audience.
Dr Walworth’s research specialities are still in the history of manuscript and early printed books in Western Europe, especially the functions of images, decoration, paratextual elements, and layout, though her interests now extend beyond the medieval period. She has worked with vernacular literary texts, university books, canon law books, and the history of libraries and of book collecting. Julia has taught on the University of London History of the Book MA course and contributes occasional teaching to the annual London Rare Books School at the Institute of English Studies.
She recently published Merton College Library, the first ever history of the College library. The book is a remarkable achievement, covering more than 700 years, exploring the collections and buildings, and introducing the reader to some of the scholars and staff whose lives and contributions have shaped the library and its many treasures. She has published studies in the fields of manuscript and book history, notably her book, Parallel Narratives (London, 2007). This monograph examines the roles of narrative illustration in several 13th-century German literary manuscripts.
For nearly two decades Julia has played a vital role in the College, keeping Europe’s oldest continuously functioning academic library up to date with the demands of the 21st century. Always generous with her time, she has ensured that the library meets the needs of everyone, from first-year undergraduates to leading scholars who use its historic collections. She currently tweets a manuscript a day, drawing a still wider community into the Merton orbit.
Thinking of the first day you walked through the Merton Lodge arch as Fellow Librarian, what was your first impression?
My first experience of Merton was when I came up for my job interview. All the candidates stayed at the college the night before the interviews. I was very nervous but was immediately put at ease by the warm welcome of the porter Derek Dobson, then Deputy Head Porter. He warned me not to use the shower in the guest room without cracking open the bathroom door, "Because the steam sets off the fire alarms, and you don’t want that happening when you’re in the shower!" Perhaps I owe my present job in part to Derek’s practical advice. What I later learned was that this kind of thoughtfulness is entirely typical of Merton’s porters.
Do you have a particular memory that stands out from your time at Merton?
The Merton 750th Anniversary Ball was a beautiful experience which I will never forget. I feel very fortunate to have been at Merton to take part in the 750th anniversary preparations and celebrations. The ball itself was held, unusually, in the summer, so we could enjoy the dining, fireworks, and entertainments in comfort. Having been at Merton for a while by that time, I was happy to meet many returning alumni whom I knew. That night also may have been the only time (so far) that I took off my shoes to dance in a long evening gown.
Tell us something about yourself that we would not know.
I was briefly a football (soccer) referee.
What tips would you give your younger self to prepare for the career you’ve achieved?
I would tell myself to keep an open mind and follow some of those side-paths that do not initially seem relevant. When you’re researching and writing a PhD you do need to be focussed on the job and topic in hand. As an academic librarian however, especially when working with historic collections, you realise how important it is to be curious and observant, to look closely and to be aware that you need to see what’s there and not just what you’re looking for.
Describe Merton in three words.
Intellectual; collegial; committed.
Dr Walworth gave an online talk, part of our 40 Years Series of lectures, on Tuesday 24 November 2020. Her subject was, 'Fostering ‘bright intelligences’: Merton’s library over seven centuries'.