Historical background

Alone among the universities of the United Kingdom, the libraries of Oxford and Cambridge are designated, by government legislation, as libraries of legal deposit which entitles them, under the Legal Deposit Libraries Act of 2003 to receive material published in the United Kingdom & Ireland.

For Oxford, the origin of this privileged status dates back to 1610, when Sir Thomas Bodley, having re-established, re-built and endowed the University’s library at his own expense, obtained the agreement of the Stationers’ Company to permit the Bodleian Library to claim a copy of everything printed under royal licence.

By that agreement the Bodleian Library became, in effect, the first library of legal deposit in the British Isles. This privilege, which by 1662 also extended to the Royal Library and the library of the University of Cambridge, was subsequently embodied in the Copyright Act of 1709/1710 under Queen Anne.

Until the establishment of the British Museum and its Library in 1753, the libraries of Oxford and Cambridge Universities (and especially the Bodleian Library, which had enjoyed the legal deposit privilege for longer than Cambridge) were the de facto national libraries of the United Kingdom.

Subsequent Copyright Acts followed:

  • 1801 Increased the number of libraries from two to nine.
  • 1814 Required deposit within one month and increased the number of libraries to eleven.
  • 1836 Reduced the number of libraries from eleven to five: The British Museum, the Bodleian Library, Cambridge University Library, the Faculty of Advocates in Edinburgh (later National Library of Scotland) and Trinity College, Dublin.
  • 1842 Required that publishers deliver direct to the British Museum, without prior demand, i.e. not via the Stationers’ Hall; the other copyright libraries had to request items, a procedure which continues to this day.

The only relevant act of the twentieth century was the Copyright Act passed in 1911 which extended the legal deposit privilege to the National Library of Wales located in Aberystwyth.

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