Bodleian Library - Entrance. Image courtesy of Billy Wilson.

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Bodleian Library

The Bodleian Library is one of Oxford’s most famous landmarks. Among the oldest in Europe, it’s easy to visit and incredible to see. Anyone visiting Oxford should make a stop here. The library as a whole can be seen from the outside (which is already an impressive sight) but there are also guided tours throughout the day. Make sure you book in advance, though, because tickets are very sought-after.

What's the History of Oxford's Bodleian Library?

The Bodleian Old Library, University of Oxford.
The Bodleian Old Library, University of Oxford.

The Bodleian Library has a continuous history dating back to the year 1602, although its root might be even older! The first purpose-built library, however, dates back to the 14th century.

Thomas Cobham, Bishop of Worcester, created it when he donated his collection of chained books. This initial library, situated above the north side of the University Church of St Mary the Virgin on the High Street, grew with subsequent donations. Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester, gifted a collection of manuscripts between 1435 and 1437 – which required a larger building.

A bigger room was built above the Divinity School – the room that is today known as Duke Humfrey’s Library.

The re-founding of the Bodleian Library

In the late 16th century, the library began a period of decline. Its furniture was sold, and a series of manuscripts were purged due to being considered “supersticious”. But in 1598 Thomas Bodley, a former fellow of Merton College, offered to support the development of the library.

I will take the charge and cost upon me, to reduce it again to his former use” he said. 

Six of the Oxford University dons helped Bodley in refitting the library, and the man himself donated more books. It was formally re-opened on 8 November 1602 under the name “Bodleian Library” – officially Bodley’s Library. At this time, the library had about 2000 books. 

The Bodleian Library - The ceiling of the old library or Divinity School.
The Bodleian Library - The ceiling of the old library or Divinity School. Image courtesy of Peter via Flickr Commons.
The Bodleian Library - Entrance. Image courtesy of Billy Wilson.
The Bodleian Library - Entrance. Image courtesy of Billy Wilson.
Oxford University - Old library (Duke Humfrey’s). Image courtesy of Wikipedia.
The Bodleian Library - Duke Humphrey's Library. Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

Bodley's Varied Interests

Thomas Bodley had varied collecting interests – a tradition that continues today. He attempted to source manuscripts from Turkey as early as June 1603, the same year he acquired the first Chinese book. Interestingly, though, nobody at Oxford could understand them!

Francis Bacon called the Bodleian Library “an Ark to save learning from deluge”. Its popularity grew so fast that by 1610-1612 the building had to expand. By 1620, the library had 16,000 items. 

Expanding to the Schools Quadrangle

By the time Bodley died, in 1613, the Bodleian Library was just beginning its most impressive expansion. The Schools Quadrangle (also known as the “Old Library”) was built between 1613 and 1619. The entrance is the Tower of the Five Orders, named so because of its ornaments representing the five orders of classical architecture: Tuscan, Doric, Ionic, Corinthian and Composite. As the library expanded, the different rooms in the upper floors of the quadrangle were gradually taken over. The lectures and examinations held in them had to be moved to the newly created University Schools building and the art collection as transferred to the Ashmolean

The Bodleian Library Today

The Bodleian today includes twenty-eight libraries across Oxford, including the central University library. Their online services allow to browse and search over 13 million library items. Over a million images have been digitalised, while the Library holds regular exhibitions and offers workshops and tours.

Who Can Consult the Bodleian Library?

You can use the Bodleian Library even if you’re not a member of the University of Oxford. Library access can be provided to any individual provided they have a research need and present the required forms of identity. You must be over 18 years of age and charges apply. You can read more about how to apply for a Bodleian Library card here.

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