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The Bodleian Library ( ), the main research library of the University of Oxfordmarker, is one of the oldest libraries in Europe, and in Britainmarker is second in size only to the British Librarymarker. Known to Oxford scholars as “Bodley” or simply “the Bod”, under the Legal Deposit Libraries Act 2003 it is one of six legal deposit libraries for works published in the United Kingdom and under Irish Law it is entitled to request a copy of each book published in the Republic of Irelandmarker. Though University members may borrow some books from dependent libraries (such as the Radcliffe Science Librarymarker), the Bodleian operates principally as a reference library and in general documents cannot be removed from the reading rooms.

Early history

Whilst the Bodleian Library, in its current incarnation, has a continuous history dating back to 1602, its roots date back even further. The first purpose-built library known to have existed in Oxford was founded in the fourteenth century by Thomas Cobham, Bishop of Worcester. This small collection of chained books was situated above the north side of the University Church of St Mary the Virginmarker on the High Street. This collection continued to grow steadily, but when, between 1435 and 1437 Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester (brother of Henry V of England), donated a great collection of manuscripts, the space was deemed insufficient and a larger building was required. A suitable room was finally built above the Divinity Schoolmarker, and completed in 1489. This room continues to be known as Duke Humfrey’s Library.

Sir Thomas Bodley and the re-founding of the University Library

The late sixteenth century saw the library go through a period of decline (to the extent that the library’s furniture was sold, and only three of the original books belonging to Duke Humfrey remained in the collection). It was not until 1598 that the library began to thrive once more, when Thomas Bodley (a former fellow of Merton Collegemarker) wrote to the Vice Chancellor of the University offering to support the development of the library: "where there hath bin hertofore a publike library in Oxford: which you know is apparent by the rome it self remayning, and by your statute records I will take the charge and cost upon me, to reduce it again to his former use." Duke Humfrey’s Library was refitted, and Bodley donated a number of his own books to furnish it. The library was formally re-opened on 8 November 1602 under the name “Bodleian Library” (officially Bodley's Library).

Bodley’s collecting interests were varied; according to the historian Ian Philip, as early as June 1603 he was attempting to source manuscripts from Turkey, and it was during “the same year that the first Chinese book was acquired.” In 1610, Bodley made an agreement with the Stationers' Company in London to put a copy of every book registered with them in the library. The Bodleian collection grew so fast that the building was expanded between 1610–1612, (known as the Arts End) and again in 1634–1637. When John Selden died in 1654, he left the Bodleian his large collection of books and manuscripts. The later addition to Duke Humfrey’s Library continues to be known as the "Selden End".

Doorway to the Schola Moralis Philosophiae (School of Moral Philosophy) at the Bodleian Library.
This is now the staff entrance to the Schools Quadrangle.
The courtyard of the Bodleian Library from the south entrance, looking to the north entrance.

Schools Quadrangle and Tower of the Five Orders

By the time of Bodley’s death in 1612, further expansion to the library was being planned. The Schools Quadrangle (sometimes referred to as the "Old Schools Quadrangle", or the "Old Library") was built between 1613 and 1619. Its tower forms the main entrance to the library, and is known as the Tower of the Five Orders. The Tower is so named because it is ornamented, in ascending order, with the columns of each of the five orders of classical architecture: Doric, Tuscan, Ionic, Corinthian and Composite.

The astronomer Thomas Hornsby observed the transit of Venus from this tower in 1769.

The rooms on the ground and upper floor of the quadrangle (excluding Duke Humfrey’s library, above the Divinity School) were originally used as lecture space. Their function is still indicated by the inscriptions over the doors. As the library’s collections expanded, these rooms were gradually taken over. One of the schools is now used to host exhibitions of the library’s treasures, whilst the others are used as offices and meeting rooms for the library administrators.

Radcliffe Camera

By the late 18th century, further growth of the library demanded more expansion space. In 1860, the library was allowed to take over the adjacent building, known as the Radcliffe Cameramarker. In 1861, the library’s medical and scientific collections were transferred to the Radcliffe Science Librarymarker, which had been built adjacent to the University Museummarker.

Clarendon Building

The Clarendon Buildingmarker was designed by Nicholas Hawksmoor and was built between 1711 and 1715, originally to house the printing presses of the Oxford University Press. It was vacated by the Press in the early nineteenth century, and used by the university for administrative purposes. In 1975 it was handed over to the Bodleian Library, and now provides office and meeting space for senior members of staff.

The Radcliffe Camera, viewed from the University Church.

In the twentieth century

In 1911, the Copyright Act continued the Stationers' agreement by making the Bodleian one of the six (at that time) libraries covering legal deposit in the United Kingdommarker where a copy of each book copyrighted must be deposited. See: Legal deposit.

Between 1909 and 1912, an underground bookstack was constructed beneath the Radcliffe Cameramarker and Radcliffe Squaremarker. In 1914, the total number of books in the library’s collections breached the 1 million mark. By the 1920s, the Library needed further expansion space, and in 1937 building commenced on the New Bodleian building, opposite the Clarendon Buildingmarker on the corner of Broad Street.

The New Bodleian was designed by architect Sir Giles Gilbert Scott. Construction was completed in 1940. The building was of an innovative ziggurat design, with 60% of the bookstack below ground level. A tunnel under Broad Street connects the Old and New Bodleian buildings, and contains a pedestrian walkway, a mechanical book conveyor and a pneumatic Lamson tube system which was used for book orders until an electronic automated stack request system was introduced in 2002. The Lamson tube system is still used by users requesting manuscripts to be delivered to Duke Humfrey’s Library, since many of these have yet to be entered onto OLIS, the online public access catalogue and stack request system.


Today, the Bodleian includes several off-site storage areas as well as nine other libraries in Oxford:

Before being granted access to the library, new readers are required to agree to a formal declaration. This declaration was traditionally oral, but is now usually made by signing a letter to the same effect — ceremonies in which readers recite the declaration are still performed for those who wish to take them, these occur primarily at the start of the University's Michaelmas term. The English text of the declaration is as follows:

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.

This is a translation of the following traditional Latin oath:

Do fidem me nullum librum vel instrumentum aliamve quam rem ad bibliothecam pertinentem, vel ibi custodiae causa depositam, aut e bibliotheca sublaturum esse, aut foedaturum deformaturum aliove quo modo laesurum; item neque ignem nec flammam in bibliothecam inlaturum vel in ea accensurum, neque fumo nicotiano aliove quovis ibi usurum; item promitto me omnes leges ad bibliothecam Bodleianam attinentes semper observaturum esse. (Leges bibliothecae bodleianae alta voce praelegendae custodis iussu).


The Bodleian Group now cares for some 8 million items on 117 miles of shelving, and a staff of over 400. It is the second largest library in the UK (behind the British Librarymarker). The continued growth of the library has resulted in a severe shortage of storage space. Over 1.5 million items are currently stored in locations outside Oxford, including a disused salt mine in Cheshiremarker. In 2007 and 2008, in an effort to obtain better and more capacious storage facilities for the library’s collections, Oxford University Library Services (OULS) tried to obtain planning permission to build a new book depository on the Osneymarker Mead site, to the south east of Oxfordmarker city centre. However, this application has been unsuccessful and other plans are now being considered. There are also plans to remodel the New Bodleian building, to provide improved storage facilities for rare and fragile material, as well as better facilities for readers and visitors.

Copyright and preservation of material

The library operates a strict policy on copyright. Until fairly recently, personal photocopying of library material was not permitted, as there was concern that copying and excessive handling would result in damage. However individuals may now copy most material produced after 1900, and a staff-mediated service is provided for certain types of material dated between 1801 and 1900. Handheld scanners and digital cameras are also permitted for use on most post-1900 publications. The Library will supply digital scans of most pre-1801 material. Microform copies have been made of many of the most fragile items in the library's collection, and these are substituted for the originals whenever possible. The library has a close relationship with the Digital Library, which is in the process of digitising some of the many rare and unusual items in the University's collection.

In fiction

The Bodleian is used as background scenery in Dorothy L. Sayers Gaudy Night, features in Michael White's Equinox, and is one of the libraries consulted by Christine Greenaway (one of Bodley's librarians) in Colin Dexter's Inspector Morse novel The Wench Is Dead. The Bodleian also featured in the Inspector Morse televised spin off Lewismarker, in the episode "And the Moonbeams Kiss the Sea", where a murder takes place in the basement. The denouement of Michael Innes's Operation Pax (1951) is set in an imaginary version of the underground bookstack, reached at night by sliding down the 'Mendip cleft', a chute concealed in Radcliffe Squaremarker.

The Library's fine architecture has made it a favourite location for filmmakers, representing either Oxford University or other locations. It can be seen in Brideshead Revisited (1981 TV serial), Another Country (1984), The Madness of King George III (1994), and the first two Harry Potter films, in which the Divinity School doubles as the Hogwarts hospital wing and Duke Humfrey's Library as the Hogwarts library. In The New World (2005) the libraries' edifice is portrayed as the entrance to the Royal Court of the English monarchy.

Also, the first few words of the Latin version of the reader's promise seen above (Do fidem me nullum librum vel) can be found on the linguist's hat in the 1996 mini-series Gulliver's Travels.

Since J.R.R. Tolkien had studied philology at Oxford and eventually became a professor, he was very familiar with the Red Book of Hergest which is kept at the Bodleian on behalf of Jesus Collegemarker. Tolkien later created his own fictional Red Book of Westmarch telling the story of The Lord of the Rings. Many of Tolkien's manuscripts are now at the library.

Treasures include

See also


  1. Legal Deposit Libraries Act 2003
  2. Agency for the Legal Deposit Libraries
  3. S198(5) Copyright and Related Rights Act 2000
  4. Philip, Ian: “The Bodleian Library in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries”, (Clarendon Press: Oxford, 1983), p.5, isbn: 0198224842 .
  5. “The Bodleian Library ”, (Jarrold & Sons, 1976), isbn: 0900177624.
  6. “The Bodleian Library”, (Jarrold & Sons, 1976).
  7. Philip, Ian: “The Bodleian Library in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries”, p.1.
  8. “The Bodleian Library” (Jarrold & Sons, 1976).
  9. Philip, Ian: “The Bodleian Library in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries”, p.19.
  10. University of Oxford: Museum of the History of Science, “The most noble problem in nature: the transit of Venus in the eighteenth century” online catalogue of an exhibition held in 2004:
  11. Jenkins, S. Accessed 2007-02-10.
  12. Text of the 1911 act
  13. Oxford University Library Services: “A university library for the 21st century: an exhibition of proposals by the oxford university library services (OULS)”, (University of Oxford, 2005) , accessed: 2006-02-09.
  14. Oxford University Library Services: “A university library for the 21st century: an exhibition of proposals by the oxford university library services (OULS)”, (University of Oxford, 2005) , accessed: 2006-02-09.
  15. Oxford University Gazette: “A university library for the twenty-first century: a report to Congregation by the Curators of the University Libraries”, (University of Oxford, 2005-22-09) , accessed: 2006-02-09.
  16. University of Oxford Systems and Electronic Resources Service:, accessed 2007-02-10..
  17. Bodleian Library: Department of Special Collections and Western Manuscripts:, accessed 2007-02-10.
  18. Bodleian preparing to move stock to salt mine:, accessed 2007-02-26.
  19. Oxford University Library Services: “Buildings Update”:, accessed 2007-02-10.
  20. See Bodleian Library photocopying regulations:, accessed 2007-02-09.
  21. Leonard, Bill, The Oxford of Inspector Morse Location Guides, Oxford (2004) p.203 ISBN 0-9547671-1-X.
  22. Birmingham University English Department’s project to digitize the Vernon Manuscript:, accessed 2009-09-17.

Further reading

External links

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