Marianne Sweet speaks to David Vaisey

When David Vaisey talks about books he comes alive. You can sense in his voice that very passion he first felt five decades ago at the Bodleian Library. He was completing a year-long course in archiving after finishing his degree in Modern History. He was helping someone who was researching probate inventories of the 16th and 17th centuries. “I was jobbed in to transcribe some of the documents. I got terribly excited sitting in the library late at night transcribing this 16th and 17th century handwriting and thinking who had handled these documents before me.”
The son of a Gloucestershire gardener, David’s love of learning, of history and of books unlocked opportunities for an Oxford education, led to the meeting of his wife and a life-long friendship with celebrated author Alan Bennett.
David was Bodley’s Librarian (head of the Bodleian Library at the University of Oxford) from 1986 to 1996. He was also Keeper of the Archives of the University of Oxford, wrote several books and was appointed a Commander of the Order of the British Empire(CBE).
How apt that a new prize dedicated to the nurturing of Gloucestershire’s libraries is named in honour of a Gloucestershire man who dedicated his life to libraries and archiving the information they hold in safekeeping.
Born in Tetbury in 1935, David’s father was head gardener at The Priory, then a stately home. When he finished primary school, David was awarded scholarships from Gloucestershire County Council and the Rendcomb Foundation to attend Rendcomb College as a boarder. He went on to win scholarships to study Modern History at Exeter College in Oxford where he met Alan Bennett.
“He was two years ahead of me and we did the same subject, the reign of Richard II. He helped me with the work as he’s cleverer than I,” says David. That friendship has spanned a lifetime and Alan Bennett is one of the supporters of the David Vaisey Prize.
The David Vaisey Prize was the brainchild of Gloucestershire-based Jonathan Taylor CBE, a friend of both David and Alan. Like those two men, Jonathan’s life has been steeped in books. Until 2015 Jonathan was chair of the Booker Prize Foundation and is now president of the foundation.
All the men believe passionately in libraries. David says he is touched to have the prize named in his honour and argues that libraries continue to have a role in 21st century society. “Technology has changed libraries and more information is available online but gathering information is very different from reading a book and being intrigued and moved by it” he says.
“Information and knowledge are very different things. During my last year at university, I realised that history is all about discovering evidence, questioning it and forming your own opinion about it rather than just taking someone else’s opinion for granted.”
“Libraries are about knowledge. To have a book in your hand or an original document in front of you is so exciting. It fires you up.”