Historical background

The libraries of Oxford, Cambridge and Trinity College, Dublin, are the only university libraries designated as libraries of legal deposit by UK government legislation. Under the Legal Deposit Libraries Act of 2003, they are entitled to receive material published in the United Kingdom & Ireland.

For Oxford, the origin of this privileged status dates back to 1610. After re-establishing, rebuilding and endowing the University’s library at his own expense, Sir Thomas Bodley obtained the agreement of the Stationers’ Company that the Bodleian Library could claim a copy of everything printed under royal licence. The Bodleian Library became, in effect, the first library of legal deposit in the British Isles.

By 1662 this privilege had also been extended to the Royal Library and the library of the University of Cambridge. It 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 Copyright Act of 1911 extended the legal deposit privilege to the National Library of Wales in Aberystwyth.