Bodleian Library

Not to be confused with the Bodleian Libraries, the library group of which the Bodleian is a member.
Bodleian Library

Library's entrance with the coats-of-arms of several Oxford colleges
Country United Kingdom
Type Academic library
Established 1602 (1602)
Location Broad Street, Oxford
Items collected books, journals, newspapers, magazines, sound and music recordings, maps, prints, drawings and manuscripts
Size 12M+[1]
Legal deposit Included in the Legal Deposit Libraries Act 2003
Access and use
Access requirements Old Schools Quadrangle, Divinity School, Exhibition Room and Bodleian Library Gift Shop open to the public
Members Students and fellows of University of Oxford
Other information
Director Richard Ovenden
Location of the Old Library within central Oxford

The Bodleian Library (/ˈbɒdliən, bɒdˈlən/), the main research library of the University of Oxford, is one of the oldest libraries in Europe. With over 12 million items,[1] it is the second largest library in Britain after the British Library. Under the Legal Deposit Libraries Act 2003 it is one of six legal deposit libraries for works published in the United Kingdom[2][3] and under Irish Law it is entitled to request a copy of each book published in the Republic of Ireland.[4] Known to Oxford scholars as "Bodley" or "the Bod", it operates principally as a reference library and, in general, documents may not be removed from the reading rooms.

In 2000, a number of libraries within the University of Oxford were brought together for administrative purposes under the aegis of what was initially known as Oxford University Library Services (OULS), and since 2010 as the Bodleian Libraries, of which the Bodleian Library is the largest component.

All colleges of the University of Oxford have their own libraries, which in a number of cases were established well before the foundation of the Bodleian, and all of which remain entirely independent of the Bodleian. They do, however, participate in OLIS (Oxford Libraries Information System), the Bodleian Libraries' online union catalogue. Much of the library's archives were digitized and put online for public access in 2015.[5]

Sites and regulations

The Bodleian Library occupies a group of five buildings near Broad Street: the 15th-century Duke Humfrey's Library, the 17th-century Schools Quadrangle, the 18th-century Clarendon Building and Radcliffe Camera, and the 21st-century Weston Library, with the Bodleian Law Library a few hundred yards away on South Parks Road. Since the 19th century a number of underground stores have been built and the Bodleian also has several off-site storage areas.


Before being granted access to the library, new readers are required to agree to a formal declaration. This declaration was traditionally an oral oath, but is now usually made by signing a letter to a similar 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. External readers (those not attached to the University) are still required to recite the declaration orally prior to admission. The Bodleian Admissions Office has amassed a large collection of translations of the declaration allowing those who are not native English speakers to recite it in their first language. 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 traditional Latin oath (the original version of which did not forbid tobacco smoking, though libraries were then unheated because fires were so hazardous):

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.[6]


14th and 15th centuries

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 under the will of Thomas Cobham, Bishop of Worcester (d. 1327). This small collection of chained books was situated above the north side of the University Church of St Mary the Virgin on the High Street.[7][8] This collection continued to grow steadily, but when Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester (brother of Henry V of England) donated a great collection of manuscripts between 1435 and 1437, the space was deemed insufficient and a larger building was required. A suitable room was finally built above the Divinity School, and completed in 1488. This room continues to be known as Duke Humfrey's Library.[9]

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

The late sixteenth century saw the library go through a period of decline: the library’s furniture was sold, and only three of the original books belonging to Duke Humfrey remained in the collection.[9] It was not until 1598 that the library began to thrive once more, when Thomas Bodley (a former fellow of Merton College) 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."[10] 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).[9]

Bodley’s collecting interests were varied; according to the library's 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.”[11] 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 (now the staff entrance to the Schools Quadrangle)
The Tower of the Five Orders, as viewed from the entrance to the Divinity School
The Library seen from Radcliffe Square
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 by adding three wings to the Proscholium and Arts End. 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: Tuscan, Doric, Ionic, Corinthian and Composite.

The three wings of the quadrangle have three floors: rooms on the ground and upper floors of the quadrangle (excluding Duke Humfrey’s library, above the Divinity School) were originally used as lecture space and an art gallery. The lecture rooms are still indicated by the inscriptions over the doors (see illustration). As the library’s collections expanded, these rooms were gradually taken over, the University lectures and examinations were moved into the a newly created University Schools building. The art collection was transferred to the Ashmolean. 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.

Later 17th and 18th centuries

Bodleian Library by Henry Fox Talbot, circa 1843/46

The agreement with the Stationers' Company meant that the growth of stock was constant and there were also a number of large bequests and acquisitions for other reasons. Until the establishment of the British Museum in 1753 the Bodleian was effectively the national library of England. By then the Bodleian, Cambridge University Library and the Royal Library were the most extensive book collections in England and Wales.

The astronomer Thomas Hornsby observed the transit of Venus from the tower of the five orders in 1769.[12]

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 Camera. In 1861, the library’s medical and scientific collections were transferred to the Radcliffe Science Library, which had been built farther north next to the University Museum.

Clarendon Building

The Clarendon Building 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.[13]

The Radcliffe Camera, viewed from the University Church

Twentieth century and after

In 1911, the Copyright Act[14] (now superseded by the Legal Deposit Libraries Act 2003) continued the Stationers' agreement by making the Bodleian one of the six (at that time) libraries covering legal deposit in the United Kingdom where a copy of each book copyrighted must be deposited.

Between 1909 and 1912, an underground bookstack was constructed beneath the Radcliffe Camera and Radcliffe Square.[15] In 1914, the total number of books in the library’s collections breached the 1 million mark.[15] By the 1920s, the Library needed further expansion space, and in 1937 building work began on the New Bodleian building, opposite the Clarendon Building on the northeast 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.[16][17] 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.[18] The Lamson tube system continued to be used by readers requesting manuscripts to be delivered to Duke Humfrey’s Library until it was turned off in July 2009. In 2010, it was announced that the conveyor, which had been transporting books under Broad Street since the 1940s, would be shut down and dismantled on 20 August 2010.[19][20] The New Bodleian closed on 29 July 2011.

Present and future of the libraries

The New Bodleian Library while closed during a major refurbishment in November 2011

The New Bodleian building was rebuilt behind its original façade to provide improved storage facilities for rare and fragile material, as well as better facilities for readers and visitors.[21] The new building concept was designed by Wilkinson Eyre Architects and the MEP design was undertaken by engineering consultancy Hurley Palmer Flatt.[22] It reopened to readers as the Weston Library on 21 March 2015.[23] In March 2010 the group of libraries known collectively as "Oxford University Library Services" was renamed "The Bodleian Libraries", thus allowing those Oxford members outside the Bodleian to acquire the gloss of the Bodleian brand.[24] The building has been nominated for the 2016 Sterling Prize.[25]

Copying and preservation of material

The library operates a strict policy on copying of material. 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 and digital cameras may also be used, with permission, with older material.[26] 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 Oxford Digital Library, which is in the process of digitising some of the many rare and unusual items in the University's collection.

Treasures of the library

Manuscript collections
Individual manuscripts
Individual printed books

Bodley's Librarians

Main article: Bodley's Librarian

The head of the Bodleian Library is known as "Bodley's Librarian". The first librarian, Thomas James, was selected by Bodley in 1599, and the university confirmed James in his post in 1602.[29][30] Bodley wanted his librarian to be "some one that is noted and known for a diligent Student, and in all his conversation to be trusty, active, and discreet, a graduate also and a Linguist, not encumbered with marriage, nor with a benefice of Cure",[31] although James was able to persuade Bodley to let him get married and to become Rector of St Aldate's Church, Oxford.[30]

In all, 24 have served as Bodley's Librarian; their levels of diligence have varied over the years. Thomas Lockey (1660–1665) was regarded as not fit for the post,[32] John Hudson (1701–1719) has been described as "negligent if not incapable",[33] and John Price (1768–1813) was accused by a contemporary scholar of "a regular and constant neglect of his duty".[34] The last Librarian, Sarah Thomas, served from 2007 to 2013; she was the first woman to hold the position, and the second Librarian (after her predecessor, Reginald Carr) also to be Director of Oxford University Library Services (now Bodleian Libraries). Thomas, an American, was also the first foreign librarian to run the Bodleian.[35] Her successor from January 2014 is Richard Ovenden, who was Deputy Librarian under Thomas.

In popular culture


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 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 Square.

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 College. 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.

Historian and novelist Deborah Harkness, set much of the early part of her 2011 novel, A Discovery of Witches, in the Bodleian, particularly the Selden End. The novel also features one of the library's Ashmolean manuscripts (Ashmole 782) as a central element of the book.

Medieval historian Dominic Selwood set part of his 2013 crypto-thriller The Sword of Moses in Duke Humfrey's library, and the novel hinges on the library's copy of a magical medieval Hebrew manuscript known as 'The Sword of Moses'.

Location filming

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 the opening scene of The Golden Compass, 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.[36] In The New World (2005), the library edifice is portrayed as the entrance to the Royal Court of the English monarchy. The Bodleian also featured in the Inspector Morse televised spin off Lewis, in the episode "And the Moonbeams Kiss the Sea", where a murder takes place in the basement. It also featured in the episode "Fugue" of the Inspector Morse televised spin off Endeavour as the answer to an anagrammatic clue left by a serial killer for the young Morse.


The first few words of the Latin version of the reader's promise noted above (Do fidem me nullum librum vel) can be found on the linguist's hat in the 1996 miniseries Gulliver's Travels.[6]

See also


  1. 1 2 "Bodleian Libraries - About us".
  2. Legal Deposit Libraries Act 2003
  3. "Agency for the Legal Deposit Libraries".
  4. S198(5) Copyright and Related Rights Act 2000
  5. Jonathan Jones, Oxford’s online Bodleian archive: illumination for all, The Guardian, 8 August 2015.
  6. 1 2 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). One early reader bequeathed a fur coat to the library to help future readers.
  7. Philip, Ian (1983) The Bodleian Library in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries. Oxford: Clarendon Press ISBN 0-19-822484-2; p. 5
  8. The Bodleian Library. London: Jarrold & Sons, 1976 ISBN 0-900177-62-4.
  9. 1 2 3 The Bodleian Library 1976. See also Bodleian history page at
  10. Philip, Ian (1983); p. 1
  11. Philip, Ian (1983); p. 19
  12. 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
  13. Jenkins, S. Clarendon Building. Accessed 9 October 2013.
  14. Text of the 1911 act
  15. 1 2 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 2 April 2015.
  16. "A university library for the twenty-first century: a report to Congregation by the Curators of the University Libraries", Oxford University Gazette, University of Oxford, 4743, 22 September 2005, retrieved 14 February 2012
  17. Craster, H. H. E. (1941) "The Bodleian Library Extension Scheme", in: Bulletin of the John Rylands Library; vol. 25, pp. 83–96
  18. University of Oxford Systems and Electronic Resources Service:, accessed 10 February 2007
  19. Core, Sophie (17 August 2010). "Radical revamp approved by Council".
  20. Project Information: Gladstone Link (previously Underground Bookstore), Bodleian Libraries, retrieved 13 November 2012
  21. Oxford University Library Services: “Buildings Update”:, accessed 10 February 2007. See also, accessed 2009-12-28.
  22. Ljeh, Ike (7 April 2015). "Bodleian library: The new edition".
  23. "Weston Library opens to academics after £80m revamp". Oxford: BBC News. 29 September 2014. Retrieved 1 October 2014.
  24. "Bodleian Libraries - OULS changes name to BODLEIAN LIBRARIES".
  25. Mills, Eleanor (20 July 2016). "RIBA announces Stirling Prize Shorlist". Museums Association.
  26. See Bodleian Library photocopying regulations:, accessed 2 April 2015.
  27. "The Vernon Manuscript Project". University of Birmingham. Retrieved 11 May 2012.
  28. "Digital facsimile edition, October 2009". EVellum. Retrieved 11 May 2012.
  29. Salter, H. E.; Lobel, Mary D., eds. (1954). "The Bodleian Library". A History of the County of Oxford Volume III – The University of Oxford. Victoria County History. Institute of Historical Research, University of London. pp. 44–47. ISBN 978-0-7129-1064-4. Retrieved 5 January 2010.
  30. 1 2 Roberts, R. Julian (2004). "James, Thomas (1572/3–1629)". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford University Press. Retrieved 2 January 2010.
  31. Madan, Falconer (1919). The Bodleian Library at Oxford. Duckworth & Co. p. 18.
  32. Bradley, E. T.; Ramsay, Nigel (2004). "Lockey, Thomas (1602?–1679)". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford University Press. Retrieved 2 January 2010.
  33. Harmsen, Theodor (2004). "Hudson, John (1662–1719)". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford University Press. Retrieved 2 January 2010.
  34. Vaisey, David (2004). "Price, John (1735–1813)". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford University Press. Retrieved 4 January 2010.
  35. Garner, Richard (21 February 2007). "A double-first at the Bodleian library as US woman takes over". The Independent. Retrieved 5 January 2010.
  36. Leonard, Bill, The Oxford of Inspector Morse Location Guides, Oxford (2004) p. 203 ISBN 0-9547671-1-X.

Further reading

External links

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