409 years serving the 'Republic of the Learned': Bodleian celebrates anniversary

8 November 2011

towerOn 8 November 1602, the University Library we know as the Bodleian Library officially re-opened its doors.

The re-institution of the Public Library of the University of Oxford by Thomas Bodley (1545—1613) at the beginning of the 17th century represents a milestone in the provision of library services in England and worldwide.

The first University Library in Oxford had in the mid 14th century been housed in a room adjoining the church of St Mary the Virgin, on High Street. The gift of 279 manuscripts to the University by Humfrey, Duke of Gloucester, between 1439 and 1444 prompted the building of a purpose-built library room above the Divinity school. Completed in 1488, this, the University’s second library, flourished for about sixty years. When Thomas Bodley came to Magdalen College in 1560, however, the library room was empty and derelict. Throughout his Oxford career the only libraries available to students at the University were in their colleges.

On his retirement from the diplomatic service, Bodley decided to undertake the re-establishment of the University Library at Oxford. In a letter addressed to the Vice-Chancellor of the University on 23 February 1598, Bodley set out his plans for refounding the library at his own cost: to refit the derelict library room, provide an endowment for the purchase of the books, the salary of a librarian and the maintenance of the building, and ‘stirre up other men’s benevolence, to helpe to furnish it with books.’ The University accepted his offer with enthusiasm.

Gifts and purchases combined to ensure that the Library’s collections ranged far beyond the confines of the University curriculum and of English scholarship as a whole. Bodley encouraged the acquisition of books not only in classical and European languages, but also in the languages of the Middle East and the Orient. By 8 November 1602, he judged the 2,000-volume collection large enough for the Library to be opened formally. The Vice-Chancellor, Proctors and other dignitaries processed from St Mary’s Church to the Divinity School and climbed the stairs into the library, where the Librarian made a short speech of welcome.

Bodley wanted his library to become ‘a notable treasure for the multitude of volumes: an excellent benefit for the use and ease of studentes: and a singular ornament in the University.’ Sir Thomas Bodley’s vision of a library serving not only Oxford but the whole scholarly world – what he called the Republic of the Learned – has defined the Bodleian’s role as a university, national, and international library for over four hundred years.

Today the University of Oxford has more than 100 libraries which collectively hold over 11 million volumes. The libraries continue to expand and redefine themselves in the era of digital access and collections. The Bodleian and the other Oxford libraries aim to be at the forefront of contemporary scholarship by increasing provision of material in the digital format. The University of Oxford offers greater access to online publications and databases than any other academic institution in the UK.

With Bodley’s ambition in mind, the Bodleian’s current exhibition examines the treasures that the Library has collected over the years. University and its Library  asks the public to comment on these ‘notable treasures’, telling us what should be valued among the libraries' most important and evocative items. Visit the exhibition website to participate.

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