Friday, July 16, 2010

Bodleian Library

I got up bright and early (7:30) on 16 July to get ready for our trip to Oxford to tour the Bodleian Library. We started off our journey by taking the Tube to Paddington Station where I of course had to buy a bear (or two) and then we took the train to Oxford. This was my first experience on a UK train, and as it was rush hour it was unfortunately packed to the gills. I had to stand the entire way, about an hour, and also had to stand on the way back. Once we arrived in Oxford Dr. Welsh was kind enough to provide us with tickets for the sightseeing bus so that we could see the town. The town itself was beautiful; lots of old buildings housing colleges and churches.

Following a partial tour on the bus we alighted to make our appointment at the Bodleian Library, the biggest university library in the world. The Library was begun in the 14th century with only around 20 books. In 1439 Humfrey, Duke of Gloucester, donated 281 manuscripts from his own collection. While this might seem like a small number, for the Library it was a huge amount. Books were originally chained to the lecterns, and later, to the shelves, requiring a lot of space. The Library had to move to a new building to accommodate these new materials. Unfortunately, these books were destroyed during the Reformation and the space was left empty. Luckily, a man named Thomas Bodley came to the rescue.

Thomas Bodley was a world traveler and in 1598 he offered money and about 2,000 books to rebuild the Library. The new institution opened in 1602 and was named in his honor. While the Library was still rather primitive, electrical lighting and heat came centuries later, it featured shelves and chairs between the shelves, so that one no longer had to stand at the lectern to read. Books were chained to the shelves by their front covers. As this required the pages to face outward, the books were numbered on the pages and then recorded by number in the catalogue. In 1610 Bodley negotiated an agreement to get one copy of all published books for free. Presently the Bodleian Library has a partnership with the British Library, the National Library of Scotland & Wales, Trinity College, and Cambridge to receive all books published and share them between the group. The Bodleian receives from 3,000 to 4,000 items per week and has a current collection size of around 9 million items.

Students from Oxford University as well as any university in the world may apply for a reader's card. With a good reason members of the public may also apply for a card. As part of our tour, we went behind the scenes and looked at the book delivery system. Because the Library occupies more than one building, including the Radcliffe Camera, reader requests are received on a computer, then are fetched by staff, and are delivered using an automated machine. It takes about three hours to get a book through this system. Unfortunately, this delivery system will soon cease.

After emerging from the depths of the Library, we toured the Divinity School (take a virtual tour here) and Convocation House. The Divinity School was beautiful, with Gothic ceilings and interesting carvings. It was opened in 1488 and served as the school's first examination room. Andrea and I volunteered to go up to the pulpits and perform a mock examination. I was the student, and even though I did not know Latin, our guide pronounced that I had passed. Oral examinations could last up to 3 days and could be witnessed by other interested parties. It took 7 years to get a degree (1 year for each liberal art) and another 3 years to get a doctoral degree. The Divinity School was used as the setting for the infirmary in the Harry Potter films.


  1. What an incredibly attractive building. I am curious about the reader's cards that are available, do they have to read the books there, or can they take some out? I am guessing they have to be read there? How long did you get to spend inside the library? Was it enough, or did you long for more? Also, congratulations on your bear acquisition, they sound delightful and will make a nice warm memory of your adventure.

  2. I think we spent about an hour and a half at this library, although I wished for more time. You are right, books cannot be borrowed, only read in the building. I now have five bears (!) although I could have bought many more.