The Bodleian Library is one of the world’s oldest public libraries at the heart of Oxford’s historic University and possibly the most impressive one you’ll ever see. It is now the second largest library in the UK (after the British Library in London).
The Bodleian has its roots in a 15th-century collection of books, and its present state is largely due to the efforts of Sir Thomas Bodley, a 16th-century fellow of Merton College. He founded the library in 1602 and, in 1610, came to the agreement with the Stationers’ Company of London that it would receive a copy of every single book published in the UK – an agreement that still stands today, so the library contains an unrivalled 400-year record of British literature. The library started off with 20 books; it currently holds more than 12 million items, contains 117 miles of shelving and has seating space for up to 2500 readers. A staggering 5000 books and articles arrive every Wednesday, all of which need to be catalogued and stored.
The oldest part of the library surrounds the Jacobean Gothic Old Schools Quadrangle, which dates from the early 17th century and sports some of Oxford’s odder architectural gems.
On the eastern side of the quad is the Tower of Five Orders, an ornate building depicting the five classical orders of architecture. On the western side is the exquisite Divinity School, the university’s first teaching room. Completed in 1488, it is renowned as a masterpiece of 15th-century English Gothic architecture and has a superb fan-vaulted ceiling sporting the initials of its many benefactors. It featured as the Hogwarts hospital wing in the Harry Potter films.
Half-hour mini tours include the Divinity School and the medieval Duke Humfrey’s library, where no fewer than five kings, 40 Nobel Prize winners, 26 British prime ministers, and writers such as Oscar Wilde, CS Lewis and JRR Tolkien studied amid rows filled with grand ancient tomes chained to the shelves. It also featured in the Harry Potter films as the Hogwarts library. Those wishing to read here (books may not be borrowed) to this day must swear Bodley’s Oath, which involves vowing not to bring fire or flames into the library.
Hour-long standard tours also visit the 17th-century oak-panelled Convocation House, where parliament was held during the Civil War, and the Chancellor’s Court, in which Oscar Wilde and Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley were tried (for debt and promoting atheism, respectively). Extended 1½-hour tours include the Radcliffe Camera, the Upper Reading Room and the underground Gladstone Link.
Some of the library’s collections are now housed in the newly renovated Weston Library (Broad St), which opened to visitors in 2015. The Weston branch of the Bodleian is home to their special collections, which houses some of the rarest and most expensive books in the world. The Bay Psalm Book, Shakespeare’s First Folio, and even some papyri dating back to the 3rd century B.C. reside within the Bodleian’s walls.
The Bodleian is unique in that it is not a lending library - no books can be borrowed, only read on the premises. The Bodleian takes this restriction seriously. The Bodleian collections are highly safeguarded. So secure are they, that even a King couldn’t borrow a book. King Charles I tried in 1645 — and was denied.
In order to gain access to the library’s collections, patrons are required to take an oath. For visitors not affiliated with the university, an oral oath is mandatory — university guests can sign a written declaration. However, oath ceremonies are still performed for nostalgic individuals wishing to remain more traditional. The statement, in English, reads:
“I hereby undertake not to remove from the Library, nor to mark, deface, or injure in any way, any volume, document or other object belonging to it or in its custody; not to bring into the Library, or kindle therein, any fire or flame, and not to smoke in the Library; and I promise to obey all rules of the Library.”
To obtain your Bodleian Card, which gives you access to the unrivalled resources of the Bodleian Library, delegates of the Central Banking Executive Programme will also need to swear this oath in a brief formal ceremony, before they are given their valuable Bodleian ID card.
The chains were removed from the library’s books in 1757. “Nathaniel Bull, a blacksmith, unchained 1,448 volumes between 1760 and 1761 and for this was paid £3 0s 4d.”
The Bodleian used to feature an underground bookstore. In 1914, the library’s collection grew to over a million books. More room was needed so in 1909-1912 the area beneath Radcliffe Square was excavated to become the largest bookstore in the world at the time. The area is now the called Gladstone Link and is being renovated to include a fully refurbished bookstore, two floors of open stack library space for patrons, as well as better access for disabled patrons.
The Bodleian has been the backdrop for 14 movies and television shows. Besides the three Harry Potter movies, some others are:
The Bodleian has an exceptional collection of... pins. Yes, mainly pins retrieved from manuscripts and books from the days before staples and paper clips. Its most distinguished pin, acquired in 2011, belonged to Jane Austen, who used it within her manuscript of “The Watsons.”
The general public cannot enter the reading rooms; that right is reserved for members. Other parts of the library can be seen on one of the frequent guided tours. One of the highlights of these tours is the Divinity School, which possesses a remarkable vaulted ceiling. It is rightly regarded as a masterpiece of English Gothic architecture.
Each year, the collection grows by more than 100,000 books and nearly 200,000 periodicals; these volumes expand the shelving requirements by about 2 miles (3.3km) annually. Much of the library’s vast storage space is in underground tunnels built in the early 1900s. A system of conveyor belts delivers volumes through the tunnels to 29 reading rooms in the various library buildings.
It was Bodley’s innovation to store books on their ends rather than on their sides as had previously been the custom; this not only allowed more books to fit in a smaller space but also made them more easily accessible.
A strict policy of the library was that no fire may be brought into the library buildings. For this reason, the library was completely unheated until 1845, when Victorian engineers installed channels in the floor to carry hot water into the building after being heated in boilers outside.
The library also lacked artificial lighting until 1929. Reliance on the sun for light and heat kept the library’s hours of operation quite short—as little as five hours per day during the winter.
In 1642 the Library was forced to loan the King, Charles I, £500. This ‘loan’ was kept on the books for 140 years before finally being written off as ‘bad debts’
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