Day 5: Bodleian Library at Oxford


Tuesday, June 30, 2015
The Bodleian Library is one of those libraries that you hear about in the rare book world. It’s located at a famous university, first off, and has quite a long history.

Selfie at the Bodleian! (via K. Emmons)
Selfie at the Bodleian! (via K. Emmons)

The doors of the Bodleian Library officially opened to scholars in 1602, but at that time scholars meant men of a certain status. Women were later allowed into lectures at Oxford in 1878. Even before 1602, though, the building had to be constructed. The Divinity School building (above which sits the Duke Humphrey’s) took 65 years to build and was finished in 1488. Funding, unfortunately slowed by the end of it and you can see differences in the architecture. This building did house the books of Humphrey Plantagenet, the youngest of Henry IV by his first wife; this collection is the Duke Humphrey’s of today.

(Photo by James Whitaker via Bodleian website)
(Photo by James Whitaker via Bodleian website)

Duke Humphrey’s has a wooden ceiling filled with panels of the University’s coat of arms. There are scores of leather bound books filling floor to ceiling bookcases. Larger books are in the lower gallery and smaller books fill the uppermost shelves. It once was a chained library and you can still see an example near the entrance. There are still lecterns dotted about where scholars had to read the chained materials.

After 1488, though, the printing press began affecting the world. New technologies tend to do that, you know. Administrators pressured by legislation passed during the Reformation (the English Church triumphing over the Roman Catholicism) decided to dispose of many of the libraries materials. Apparently the new regime wanted to rid themselves of Catholic images and documents. Only 50 of the original 500 survive – 12 of them having returned to Oxford.

Sir Thomas Sackville Bodley rescued the library around 1598 and eventually reopened the library in 1602. Thomas James became the first librarian of this library. Thankfully, Bodley was a thinking man. He made an agreement with the Stationer’s Company in London to have one copy of every book published in England and registered with the Stationer’s Company deposited in the Bodleian. This created a wide-ranging library full of many topics, since they’ve been collecting for 400 years.

The magic that is Duke Humfrey (via Bodleian weblog)
The magic that is Duke Humfrey (via Bodleian weblog)

The Bodleian is a research library, meaning that no book can be borrowed. No book can leave the walls of the building and be taken home. Even the King of England has been refused! King Charles I was denied book borrowing privileges in 1645.

Today, the library’s mission is “to provide an excellent service to support the learning, teaching, and research objectives of the University of Oxford; and to develop and maintain access to Oxford’s unique collections for the benefit of scholarship and society.” There are more than 11 million printed items in the collections.

The Bodleian’s website claims the following:
“Every second someone interacts with out electronic collections.
Every 14 seconds someone visits one of our libraries.
Every 21 seconds someone borrows one of our books.”

Interesting statistics, wouldn’t you say?

Space seems to be a problem in all libraries. Being a national deposit library, the Bodleian faces interesting challenges. The buildings are also “listed” and protected, so major construction can’t really take place to add more storage. Off-site storage is important in this instance. Tourism and research are equally important here, I would also claim, though research possibly more so. The librarians did not talk to us, library students. That was disappointing. The tour guides were EXCELLENT and I highly recommend going on their tour, please don’t get me wrong! Just… as a library student… I would expect to speak to library professionals… that’s my opinion though, and it definitely did NOT hurt my experience in the Bodleian Library of Oxford Univeristy.


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