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  • Writer's pictureOscar Patton, MA

A Brief History of the Bodleian Library in Oxford

What is the Bodleian Library?

The Bodleian Library is the library at the University of Oxford. It was founded in 1602 and is the second largest in Britain after the British Library.

Bodleian Library

Bodleian Library History

This magnificent complex is one of the oldest libraries in Europe. In fact, the Bodleian Library has enjoyed international renown since its foundation over 400 years ago. Holding over 13 million printed items, it’s the second-largest library in Britain, and the mother of all Oxford’s myriad libraries. It operates on the whole as a reference library, with most items confined, although some can be borrowed. On entry to the University of Oxford, all readers, whether a student, fellow, or member of the public, must swear the ‘Bodleian Oath’. The oath briefly translates to a promise not to remove, mark, deface, or injure any items, nor ‘bring into the Library or kindle therein any fire or flame, and not to smoke in the Library’. Smoking, ironically, was not originally forbidden.

The Bodleian’s origins lie earlier than its official foundation. The original books forming the ‘official’ library of the University of Oxford were initially kept in the University Church of St Mary the Virgin at the south side of Radcliffe Square. That collection grew to an unmanageable level after the donation of a bulk of manuscripts by Humfrey, Duke of Gloucester, 15th-century English humanist and brother of King Henry V. The collection was moved to a room above the floridly Gothic Divinity School, across the square to the north, and named the Duke Humfrey’s Library.

In 1550, King Edward VI’s radically Protestant government ordered that all pre-Reformation books deemed too Catholic (which was most of them) be purged, and it was only with the intervention of Thomas Bodley in 1602, that the library was restored to its previous fullness. Bodley used his wealth from his wife Ann Ball, and his service as an English diplomat, to stock the library with around 2,000 books, including manuscripts from modern-day Turkey and China. The collection rapidly grew, requiring architectural extensions to be made.

Today, the Bodleian (or ‘Bod’ as it’s known to students) consists of multiple buildings between Broad Street and the High Street: the 15th-century Duke Humfrey’s Library; the 17th-century ‘Schools’ Quadrangle (or ‘Old Bodleian’) built around it; the 18th-century Clarendon Building, a Neoclassical structure at the east end of Broad street; the Radcliffe Camera in the centre of Radcliffe Square; and the 20th-century Weston Library, latterly the ‘New Bodleian’. An underground tunnel and smaller library, named the ‘Gladstone Link’, joins the ‘Old Bodleian’ with the Radcliffe Camera. Students might choose to work here, finding the neutral subterranean setting good for concentration; or they might sit in the Upper Reading Room, an enormous capital-C shaped expanse of desks on the second floor of the Old Bodleian, the ceiling covered with coats of arms of the library’s patrons.

The bronze statue in front of the main entrance to the Old Bodleian is of William Herbert, 3rd Earl of Pembroke, Chancellor of Oxford University in the early 17th century, and founder of Pembroke College. The statue itself was donated in the 18th century by a descendent, in recognition of Pembroke’s service as Chancellor, and the Latin inscription on its base notes Pembroke’s royal and university duties, and the donation of the statue by his great nephew.

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