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A Brief History of the Bodleian Library

Drawing thousands of culture-seeking tourists and students alike, the world-famous Oxford libraries are renowned both for their prestigious academic collections, and for their architecturally astounding buildings.

Amongst them, the Bodleian stands as one of the most special and the most iconic. First opened to scholars in 1602, it has since expanded, and with increasing momentum over the last 150 years to keep with its growing collections.

Still used by students and scholars across the world, the Bodleian buildings attract an ever-increasing number of visitors each year, all eager to absorb some of its history.

We take a brief look at its life so far...

Firstly, a few facts....

  • ‘The Bod’ has been a library of legal deposit for 400 years.
  • Many people are unaware that The Bodleian is not actually one single circular building. Though it sits in the centre of Radcliffe Square, the Bodleian is actually a collection of buildings that comprise to make one library.
  • It is one of the oldest libraries in the world - the oldest is in Morocco and was built in 1359 C.E.
  • It is the second largest library in Britain - the first is The British Library.
  • The Bodleian buildings hold over 13 million printed items.
  • It first opened to scholars in 1602.
  • It is still in use today by current Oxford students and scholars from around the world.

The Early Years

1320: The University’s first library began in a room in the University Church of St Mary the Virgin - a room which is still in existence today and is used as both a vestry and a meeting room for church.

The building stood at the heart of Oxford's ‘academic quarter’ - it was located near the schools where students had their lectures and seminars.

1478: The room was later replaced by the Duke Humfrey’s library, which still stands as the oldest part of the Bodleian. Humfrey, who was both the Duke of Gloucester and the younger brother of King Henry V, gave the university his collection of manuscripts, which amounted to around 281 and included several ancient and historical texts.

To hold such a prestigious collection of documents, the University of Oxford decided to build a new library for Humfrey’s donations. Taking ten years to build, it was located over at the new Divinity School and finally opened in 1488.

1550: After 60 years of the library being in operation, The Dean of Christ Church (Richard Cox) removed all of the books from Duke Humfrey’s library, some of which were burnt. He did so under the legislation of King Edward VI, who wanted to remove all books and traces of Roman Catholicism from the church. At the time, the University of Oxford was not a wealthy institution and did not have the finances or the resources to gather a new collection to replace those which had been discarded.

1556: As a result of Cox’s actions and the failure to secure replacement books and manuscripts, the library sold their desks and the Faculty of Medicine took over the room for teaching.

The Late 16th & Early 17th Century

After hearing of the troubles caused by Cox, Sir Thomas Bodley (1545-1613), a Fellow of Merton College and a diplomat in Queen Elizabeth I’s court, decided to rescue the library in the late 1500s.

Having married a rich widow, Bodley was able to retire where he decided to dedicate his time and effort to;

set up my staff at the library door in Oxon; being thoroughly persuaded, that in my solitude, and surcease from the Commonwealth affairs, I could not busy myself to better purpose, than by reducing that place to the public use of students.

1598: Bodley refurbished the old library and stocked it with a fresh, new collection of around 2,500 books, some of which had been donated by himself.

8 November 1602: After refurbishing and re-stocking, the Bodleian could finally be re-opened for student use. With a large volume of books and being in regular use, Bodley decided to recruit the building’s first ever librarian, Thomas James.

1610: Bodley entered into an agreement with the Stationers’ Company of London which stated that a copy of every book published in England and registered at the Stationers’ Hall would have to be deposited in his new library - this really set Bodley’s library apart from the others at the Oxford colleges.

1610-12: After entering the above agreement, Bodley - who now needed more space for the library’s expanding collection - planned and financed the first extension to the building, which is known as Arts End.

1613: Bodley also began working on his Schools Quadrangle - buildings that were designed to upgrade the undergraduate teaching rooms so that they were large enough to host lectures and examinations.

28th January 1613: Bodley sadly passed away, aged 67, but left a hefty sum of money in his will to continue the project. The money was ordered to be used towards building a third floor which would serve as extra storage space for books and manuscripts. This third floor also became the first public museum and picture gallery in England.

1619: The structural work on the quadrangle was completed, though work still continued on the buildings until at least 1624.

1634-37: English jurist, John Selden (1584-1654) added the final addition to Bodley’s collection of buildings when he constructed another extension to Duke Humfrey’s Library, known as Selden End. Gifting around 8000 books, the library was now large enough to receive and house plenty of gifts, books and manuscripts. It was collections of this size which attracted scholars from all over Europe, and which still do today.

The 18th & 19th Centuries

The growth of the collection slowed down in the early 18th century, perhaps due to the fact that between the late 17th and early 18th centuries, there were a spate of new libraries being built in Oxford.

Most of the new libraries were being built by the colleges themselves, but the finest of all the new libraries was the one commissioned by John Radcliffe (1650-1714). Radcliffe, who was one of the most successful English physicians in his day, left his trustees a large amount of money in his will which was to be used to buy the land for the new building, pay for a librarian and purchase a stupendous collection of books.

1737 - 1748: When the site was eventually chosen - south of the Schools Quadrangle, in the middle of a new square (Radcliffe’s square) - Radcliffe’s iconic circular domed building was constructed after being carefully designed by architect, James Gibbs.

1849: Because of Bodley’s agreements with the Stationers’ Company in 1610, by 1849 there were by now estimated to be 220,000 books and 21,000 manuscripts in the library’s collection, making it one of the largest collections in Europe.

1860: After years of standing as independent, the circular ‘Radcliffe Library’ was renamed the ‘Radcliffe Camera’ (camera meaning ‘room’ in Latin) and was joined to the rest of the Bodleian buildings to be used as extra storage space for Bodley’s accumulation of books.

20th Century & Today

By the end of the 19th century, the Bodleian’s book collection was growing by more than 30,000 volumes a year, and by 1914, the number of books had reached a total of one million, meaning that more storage was urgently needed.  

1909-1912: An underground book store was excavated beneath Radcliffe Square to provide this additional storage space. At the time of its construction, it was the largest bookstore in the world, and also the first to use modern compact shelving.

1931: As both the books and the number of visitors increased, the pressure on space became critical. Therefore, it was decided that a new library would be built on Broad Street. The New Bodleian, as it was first known, was designed by Sir Giles Gilbert Scott (1880 - 1960) and provided enough space for five million books, library departments and reading rooms. After nine years of development, it finished construction in 1940.

1975: New office space was acquired in the Clarendon Building, built for the Oxford University Press. Sitting in the crucial space between the Old and New Libraries, it was decided that it should join the other buildings, and thus, became part of the Bodleian.

2015: The New Bodleian building was completely renovated and transformed into the Weston Library , where it could accommodate large volumes of tourists, exhibitions and academic users.

What do you think to the Bodleian’s history? 

Are there any iconic locations in Oxford that you would like to know more about the history of?

Get in contact with us on social - @oxfordsummercourses - and let us know your thoughts

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In our first article in the History of Oxford series, we take a brief look at the history of the Radcliffe Camera and surrounding Bodleian library buildings.

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