8 November 2014
412 years ago today, the Vice-Chancellor, Proctors and other dignitaries processed from St Mary's Church to the Divinity School, and up the stairs into the University of Oxford Library, now known as the Bodleian Library, to mark its official re-opening to scholars in 1602.
Although a purpose-built University library had been completed above the Divinity School in 1488, by the mid16th century it had fallen into a state of neglect and ruin, until it was rescued and reinvigorated thanks to the generous work of Sir Thomas Bodley (1545-1613).
A fellow of Merton College and a European diplomat of Elizabeth I, Bodley had married a wealthy widow whose husband had built his fortunes in the pilchard trade. After seeing first hand the state the University library was in when he arrived as a student to Magdalen College in 1560, on his retirement from public life in 1598, he decided, in his own words, to 'set up my staff at the library door in Oxon; being thoroughly persuaded, that in my solitude, and surcease from the Commonwealth affairs, I could not busy myself to better purpose, than by reducing that place (which then in every part lay ruined and waste) to the public use of students'.
After gaining permission from the Vice-Chancellor of the University, Bodley spent the next fifteen years fulfilling his plans for the refounding of the library at his own cost: refitting the derelict library room, establishing an endowment for the purchase of the books, the salary of a librarian and the maintenance of the building. Bodley also encouraged gifts and the purchase of books that set the standard of the Library's collections to extend far beyond the confines of the University curriculum and English scholarship as a whole, leading the acquisition of books not only in classical and European languages, but also in languages of the Middle East and the Orient.
The new library opened once 2,000 books had been added to the collection. Today the Bodleian Library is the second largest in the UK after the British Library and holds the largest collection of items within the University of Oxford 100+ library system, with more than 11 million printed items, in addition to 70,000+ e-journals and vast quantities of materials in other formats.