Oxford’s Libraries – The Bodleian
Home to more than 100 libraries, Oxford is one of the most bookish cities in the world. Each of its 38 colleges has at least one library, some have two or three and Magdalen college has five! Every faculty has a specialised subject library and the mother of them all is the great Bodleian library.
The University’s first library (the Cobham Library) was in an upstairs room of the University Church of St Mary the Virgin and opened in 1320. In the days before damp proofing, keeping books as far as possible from the ground was the only way to save them from mouldering. Still today, a large number of our Oxford libraries are on upper floors.
However, Merton College breaks all records as the oldest ‘continuously functioning’ academic library in the world, dating from 1373. Merton’s books weren’t originally kept on shelves, but in a locked chest and only Masters of Arts could access them. Later, owing to their great value in the pre-printing world, they were chained to the shelves. You can visit the Merton College website for a virtual tour of this stunning library. Merton College . Notice the beautiful ‘waggon’ ceiling and take a look at some of the stained glass.
The Bodleian Library is positively modern by comparison, founded at the beginning of the 17th century. However, it is now one of the most important libraries in the world and in the UK is second only to London’s British Library.
It is named after Sir Thomas Bodley, who studied at Merton and there developed a love for books. He was a lucky man and his first piece of luck was finding a rich widow willing to marry him. Mrs Bodley’s first husband had been a successful pilchard merchant, so some say that the Bodleian was ‘built on fish’.
However, there was nothing fishy about the deal Bodley made with the Stationers Company of London in 1610. Sharing his vision and keen to promote their books, the Company promised him a ‘free and perfect’ copy of every book ever published in this country. The deal they signed is still in force today and UK publishers still have to send their books. So the Library has quite a collection! Around 13 million books at last count. You can see the original agreement here: Click here
The second most important rule in the Bodleian is that nobody is allowed to take out books. You want to read? You sit in the library. This rule applies to royalty too. During the English Civil War, King Charles I was holed up at Christ Church, having lost London to the Parliamentarians. Desperately needing advice, he decided to consult the Seigneur d’Aubigny’s book on military strategy. So he sent a note to the Bodleian asking to borrow it and the librarian …turned him down. The Bodleian still has the note. The King of England had to come sit in the library. (Not that the book helped, obviously – he still lost the war and, ultimately, his head…)
As observed, books and water don’t mix, but books and fire are an equally major disaster. So rule no. 1 is that anyone who wants to become a ‘reader’ in the library has to take an oath. You swear ‘not to bring into the Library or kindle therein any fire or flame’. This may seem a tame method of fire prevention, but the Bodleian has been as lucky as its founder: it has never had a fire.
As for the Bodleian’s collections… this period of lockdown is the perfect time to investigate and admire them at your leisure. The Marks of Genius Exhibition of 2015 was truly extraordinary for both its range and its depth. It contained everything from the Magna Carta to the Audubon Book of American Birds, from The Wind in the Willows and Tolkien’s Hobbit dust jacket, to 15 century maps, Newton’s Principia and the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam. Access it here: http://genius.bodleian.ox.ac.uk/about/marks-of-genius/ In fact, you’ll get a better view and more information online than had you visited the original exhibition.
If you are interested in Women’s history, try this: Click here for the ‘Women Who Dared’ Exhibition 2016. You can click on each exhibit for more information and for access to a whole world of related exhibits.
In normal times, a tour of the Bodleian Library (https://visit.bodleian.ox.ac.uk/plan-your-visit ) is ideal for bookish people who have already enjoyed a Simply Oxford Tour with Walking Tours of Oxford. Simply Oxford Tour informationWalking Tours of Oxford also offer a wide-ranging and thoroughly entertaining Literary Tour of Oxford and specialist tours on C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien
©Victoria Bentata 2020 for Walking Tours of Oxford