The Bodleian, Memory of Mankind

Placeholder Image

Today we take libraries for granted. They are part of the fabric of society, what make us civilised. But libraries are one of the world’s resources that have proven most difficult to build, equally difficult to maintain and, arguably, are the most precious treasures we possess. BDS Life went to visit one of those treasures in the heart of Oxford, the Bodleian Library, one of the world’s great collections…

The association between Oxford University’s principal library and Sir Thomas Bodley (1545-1613) dates back to 1598 when the linguist and fellow of Merton College decided to restore the library to “former glory”. The task took four years to complete but Bodley’s ambition implies that what became known as the Bodleian library has a much longer history.

During the Middle Ages knowledge in Northern Europe lay in Paris. The French capital’s university attracted and trained the best minds in England. However, the Plantagenet kings realised that relying on the enemy to train its scholars, lawyers and doctors could leave their hold on power and their dynasty vulnerable to French ambitions. Such a reliance on learning abroad had to be remedied.

Learning, however, requires books and so along with the creation of Oxford University there came the collecting of learned manuscripts, treatises, classics and codices. A room to house these was funded by Thomas de Cobham, Bishop of Worcester, and begun in 1320. This was the first Oxford library.

It is difficult to imagine what it would have been like standing in a damp, poorly lit and cold room faced with a large, heavy, unique, hand-written tome scribed in Latin or Greek. But the library was England’s path to intellectual sovereignty.

The collection expanded with the gift of 281 priceless manuscripts by Duke Humfrey of Gloucester (1391-1447), younger brother of King Henry the fifth. To house the collection it was decided to build a new library over the Divinity School, itself still under construction. Perhaps prefiguring today’s national problems, the library suffered chronic underfunding and was not completed until 1488.

It is fascinating how the history of the library reflects the history of its times, underlining the central role of the library in the development of culture and civilisation. That truth can be ascertained through enquiry beyond scripture was an idea enshrined in this new library independent of the Church. The Duke Humfrey Library was the first on the current Bodleian site.

The invention of the printing press was to open intellectual enquiry to a much wider social spectrum. The zeal and anti-papist feeling rife in the Reformation lead to the destruction of the greater part of the manuscripts and sold the stalls of the Duke Humfrey Library. A contemporary wrote that the quadrangle “was a thick bed of torn books and manuscripts”. Today, three books remain of that precious collection, one a translation by Leonardo Aretino of Aristotle with an original dedication to the Duke.

The Elizabethan era is, for many, England’s golden age and it was at the end of Elizabeth’s reign that what has come to be known as the Bodleian Library opened in 1602. During its four years of reconstruction Shakespeare had written Hamlet and the East India Company was founded by Royal Charter. The world was changing.

Bodley travelled extensively in Europe and brought back many innovations to add to his library. Notable was the introduction of the press as it was called then or what we know today as the shelf. Perhaps even more significantly, Bodley’s ambition for his library and his desire to keep it up to date and acquire all the latest material meant that in 1610 the Stationers’ Company of London was required to submit to the library a copy of everything registered at Stationers’ Hall. The English Legal Deposit system began with the Bodleian.

Bodley extended the library and left one of the most delightful, elegant and inspiring architectural spaces dedicated to learning in the world. It is a map of the mind and soul of man and the world he inhabits. As English explorers sailed the globe uncovering new continents and territories, seeing hitherto unseen stars in the sky, so the Bodleian library grew. An inscription above the entrance to the quadrangle reads, “That it might turn out happily Oxonian academics for you and for the republic of learned men Thomas Bodley places this library” – it embodies the confidence, independence and humanity that the library had come to represent.

But the Bodleian story doesn’t end there. Dr John Radcliffe (1650-1714), the most successful physician of his day, left a large sum of money to build a new library and fund the post of a librarian and the purchase of books. It took until 1749 to realise one of the most iconic buildings in Britain and model for many libraries to come, The Radcliffe Camera, next door to the famous quadrangle.

The domed building was the creation of Scottish architect James Gibb. It was brought under the control of the Bodleian in 1860. Its circular form raised the eyebrows of librarians who like flat walls on which to shelve books. But it is perhaps the perfection of the circle, its quality of all points as equal that so often since has brought the dome and the library together. We can count the British Museum Reading Room and the Library of Congress among its notable descendants.

Further additions to the library came with the Clarendon Building, designed by Nicholas Hawksmoor and built in 1712-13 and the New Library designed by Sir Giles Gilbert Scott and built between 1937-40. Reflecting the Bodleian’s role as a Legal Deposit library and the huge increase in published material in the latter part of the twentieth century, further buildings were required and storage and administrative extensions were added as far away as Swindon in Wiltshire. Today the Bodleian library extends far beyond the Old Schools Quadrangle.

Of course, all libraries experience the tensions that arise between conservation, the respect for established learning, and progress. Women were not allowed to use the library until 1920; books cannot be borrowed– even king Charles I was turned away empty-handed. Yet large parts of the collection are now being digitised, including a quarter of a million manuscripts.

The Bodleian Library still grows. Its acquisitions require two miles of shelving per year. It serves 22,000 students and 34 colleges. After the British Library it is our largest, holding over 11 million volumes. It houses some of our most treasured books and manuscripts such as The D’Orville Euclid (AD 888) and the Clarke Plato (AD 895), Magna Carta, the Gutenberg Bible and Shakespeare’s First Folio. It is a mirror to the history of England, the development of the human mind and learning, and is the memory of mankind.


The Bodleian Libraries Today

BDS met with the Bodleian Libraries’ Head of Resource Description, Alison Felstead, to find out how one of the world’s most famous libraries is run today.

Managing millions of items and ensuring that they are available to researchers working in some of the world’s most famous academic institutions must be quite a daunting task. So, as we sat over a cup of coffee in the Bodleian’s Clarendon Building which now houses the Directorate and administrative centre for the Libraries, BDS began by asking Alison Felstead about the current organisation of the ‘Bod’ as it is affectionately known locally.

“Since 2010 we have been known as the Bodleian Libraries. Before that we were known, from 2000 when the majority of the University libraries were brought together under a single management structure, as Oxford University Library Services, and we comprise many more libraries than just the grand buildings you see around us.”

The Clarendon Building was originally built for Oxford University Press who needed to move out of the Sheldonian Theatre next door. These two famous structures, the former designed by Hawksmoor and the latter by Wren, stand to the north of the main Bodleian buildings and with the Radcliffe Camera to the south form one of the most impressive architectural sites in Britain.

“Today the Bodleian Libraries comprise, along with the main Bodleian Library, the Taylor Institution Library which supports the study of modern European languages and literature, the Sackler Library which specialises in Archaeology, Art History, and Classics, the Social Science Library, which was designed by Sir Norman Foster, the History Faculty Library, the English Faculty Library, the Bodleian Law Library and the Radcliffe Science Library. These are the largest libraries in the group, but there are many others.”

The New Bodleian Library which stands to the north of the Clarendon Building on the other side of Broad Street has recently been refurbished and extensively remodelled.

“The New Library, as it was known, across the road, was in need of modernisation. To begin refurbishment we had to barcode and move all of the stock to new storage premises,” explains Alison. “Low-use itemswere stored in a huge Book Storage Facility with 153 miles of shelving located near Swindon. The project was a great success. The work on the New Library is completed and it reopened as the Weston Library in 2015, and we are bringing back some of the special collections material currently held in Swindon.”

Storage, especially for Legal Deposit Libraries, such as the Bodleian, is a major problem; another challenge is maintaining the catalogue.

“We make extensive use of BDS CIP records when we are cataloguing our new British stock” says Alison. “If there is a BDS record, the book can go straight to the shelves. This saves a tremendous amount of time, and allows our students and researchers access to the stock within a few days of its arrival.

Most of the libraries in Oxford University share a single bibliographic database (or catalogue) which we call OLIS or Oxford Libraries Information System. This database is made available to our users via the SOLO (Search Oxford Libraries Online) resource discovery interface. In addition to using BDS records for legal deposit items, cataloguers in the Resource Description section based at Osney Mead in west Oxford create records for purchased and foreign material.”

However it wasn’t always as cohesive. The Bodleian used slips of paper to record acquisitions. These were then typeset and printed by Oxford University Press (OUP), and the printed slips were pasted into Guard Books, great ledgers pre-bound with empty pages ready to be filled with entries. This inevitably involved a delay between acquisition and the dissemination of an item’s availability.

“The Bodleian never used a microfiche catalogue but leapt straight into the modern world when it began the process of automating its printed catalogues in the late 1980s. The majority of catalogues have now been retrospectively converted and made available online. The Bodleian Libraries collections are not uniformly classified, but Library of Congress classification began to be introduced in the faculty libraries in 2007 and several libraries are in the process of reclassification to LCC.”

Finally, we asked Alison about the Bodleian’s role as one of the nation’s Legal Deposit Libraries, alongside the British Library, and others based in Cambridge, Edinburgh, Aberystwyth and Dublin.

“We can claim a copy of every book published in the UK but we don’t receive everything. UK publishers are obliged to deposit a copy of everything they publish with the British Library, which therefore receives the highest proportion of the UK published output. The claiming for us and the other Legal Deposit Libraries (excluding the BL) is handled by the Agency for the Legal Deposit Libraries, which has been based in premises shared with the National Library of Scotland in Edinburgh since 2009. However, we receive a much broader selection of material than you may think. For example we collect most children’s publications as well as all publications that relate to academic subjects. We contribute to the Legal Deposit Libraries Shared Cataloguing Programme, by cataloguing all books with a title beginning with the letter M.”

When visiting a library with such an august history, it is all too easy to overlook the way these venerable institutions are addressing the future. Alison Felstead is thinking already about implementing RDA in OLIS, demonstrating that the Bodleian is at the forefront of managing both our literary past and engaging with our literary future.

To learn more about the Bodleian Library, including current exhibitions and tours for visitors go to