The Bodleian Library the main research library of the University of Oxford, is one of the oldest libraries in Europe, and in England is second in size only to the British Library. 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 Ireland.
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 Virgin 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 School, and completed in 1489. This room continues to be known as Duke Humfrey’s 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 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. 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".
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 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.
By the late eighteenth 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 adjacent to the University Museum.
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.
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 Kingdom 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 Camera and Radcliffe Square. 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 Building 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:
This is a translation of the following traditional Latin oath:
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 Library). 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 of Oxford, including a disused salt mine in Cheshire. In an effort to improve access to the library’s collections, Oxford University Library Services (OULS) is in the process of obtaining planning permission to build a new book depository on the Osney Mead site, to the south east of Oxford city centre. There are also plans to remodel the New Bodleian building, provide improved storage facilities for rare and fragile material, and to better support researchers.
The library operates a strict policy of copyright enforcement. Until fairly recently, photocopying of library material was not permitted, as there was concern that copying and excessive handling of material would result in damage. However individuals may now copy material produced after 1900, and a staff-mediated service is provided for certain types of older material. Handheld scanners and digital cameras are also permitted for use on post-1900 publications. Microform copies have been made of many of the most fragile items in the library's collection, and these are substituted for the original 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.
The Library's fine architecture has made it a favourite location for filmmakers. It can be seen in the TV series Brideshead Revisited, 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.
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 was kept at the Bodleian. He 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.