Bodleian Libraries - the working heart of Oxford University
All Oxford colleges have their own libraries, which in a number of cases were established well before the foundation of the Bodleian Library. Historically, the college libraries were entirely independent of the Bodleian. However, recent years have seen them brought together for certain purposes under the umbrella of what was formerly known as Oxford University Library Services (OULS), and now as Bodleian Libraries.
The Bodleian Library is a working library which forms part of the University of Oxford. It is housed in a remarkable group of buildings which forms the historic heart of the University, and you can explore the quadrangles of these magnificent structures at no charge.
The Bodleian Library is not one library but many, housed in buildings spread all over the city of Oxford. The historic core of the Bodleian is located around Radcliffe Square, however, with the oldest parts being the magnificent Duke Humphrey's Library (1488), and the Divinity School.
The Bodleian buildings began in 1613, at the bequest of former Oxford student Thomas Bodley (Sir Thomas Bodley, a Fellow of Oxford’s Merton College). It is now the second largest library in the UK (after the British Library in London). The Bodleian receives a copy of every new book printed in Britain, a practice that began in 1610, so that the library contains an unrivaled 400 year record of British literature.
It was Bodley’s innovation to store books on their ends rather than on their sides as had previously been the custom; this not only allowed more books to fit in a smaller space but also made them more easily accessible.
A strict policy of the library was that no fire may be brought into the library buildings. For this reason, the library was completely unheated until 1845, when Victorian engineers installed channels in the floor to carry hot water into the building after being heated in boilers outside.
The library also lacked artificial lighting until 1929. Reliance on the sun for light and heat kept the library’s hours of operation quite short—as little as five hours per day during the winter.
The Bodleian is unique in that it is not a lending library - no books can be borrowed, only read on the premises. The Bodleian takes this restriction seriously; in two famous cases, King Charles I and Oliver Cromwell was refused permission to borrow a book.
The general public cannot enter the reading rooms; that right is reserved for members. Other parts of the library can be seen on one of the frequent guided tours. One of the highlights of these tours is the Divinity School, which possesses a remarkable vaulted ceiling. It is rightly regarded as a masterpiece of English Gothic architecture.
Different ticket options allow you to visit the interior of some of the buildings, such as the University’s oldest teaching and examination room, The Divinity School (built 1427-88). Here you can discover more of the University’s fascinating history. The guided tours go behind the scenes in the Library, including its oldest research library, dating from 1602-20.
With the exception of the Shop and the Exhibition Room, admission to the interior of the buildings is charged for.
Books by the Mile
The Bodleian Library is one of several copyright deposit libraries, which means that it automatically receives a free copy of all books and periodicals published in Britain. (The library purchases tens of thousands of foreign publications each year to supplement this collection.) The library currently holds over seven million volumes, which occupy 110 miles (180km) of shelving.
Each year, the collection grows by more than 100,000 books and nearly 200,000 periodicals; these volumes expand the shelving requirements by about 2 miles (3.3km) annually. Much of the library’s vast storage space is in underground tunnels built in the early 1900s. A system of conveyor belts delivers volumes through the tunnels to 29 reading rooms in the various library buildings.
Readers may not browse the stacks freely; each book must be requested in advance and retrieved by a librarian. The system of requesting and delivering books ensures that the library knows the exact location of every volume at all times—down to the particular chair in which each reader is sitting.
The Oxford University Reading Rooms
The Bodleian Library is composed of a number of separate buildings and offers readers seven reading rooms to work in. Details and the subject focus of each of the reading rooms is listed below.
Duke Humfrey's Library - Old Bodleian Library,
Oxford OX1 3BG
Duke Humfrey’s is the oldest reading room in the Bodleian Library and is composed of three major portions: the original medieval section (completed 1487, rededicated 1602), the Arts End (1612) to the east, and Selden End (1637) to the west.
It is the principal reading room for those studying codicology, bibliography and local history.
The Gladstone Link - Bodleian Library,
Oxford OX1 3BG
The Gladstone Link is a new area of the Bodleian Library that houses a large interdiscplinary collection of open access material. This area also links the Old Bodleian Library and the Radcliffe Camera, connecting the reading rooms in these buildings for the first time, and offers 120 extra reader spaces, as well as facilities such as reader terminals and photocopiers. It also now holds significant amounts of the History Faculty Library main lending collection.
The Lower Camera - Radcliffe Camera,
Oxford OX1 3BG
The Lower Camera Reading Room now houses the beginning of History Faculty Library's main lending collection, since this library's recent relocation into the Radcliffe Camera and Gladstone Link. This collection continues in the Upper and Lower Gladstone Links.
The Lower Reading Room - Old Bodleian Library,
Oxford OX1 3BG
The Lower Reading Room of the Old Bodleian Library is the principal reading room for all those studying Classics and Ancient History, Theology (including Patristics) and Philosophy. It is also home to the open shelf General Reference collection.
The Special Collections Reading Room - Radcliffe Science Library,
The Special Collections Reading Room at Radcliffe Science Library is the research reading room in which western medieval and modern manuscripts, oriental manuscripts and rare books are consulted. Readers may use only pencil in the Special Collections Reading Room. Bags and cases may not be taken into the reading room and other security measures may be enforced.
The Upper Camera Reading Room - Radcliffe Camera,
Oxford OX1 3BG
The Upper Camera Reading Room holds the Bodleian teaching collection for History and English, including some material on the History of Art and Archaeology, as well as its open shelf collection of Film Studies materials. It also holds the History Faculty Library's Undergraduate Set Text reference collection. It is where History Faculty Library's new staff office is located.
The Upper Reading Room - Old Bodleian Library,
Oxford OX1 3BG
The Upper Reading Room is the principal research reading room for access to printed books published after 1640 in the subject fields of Medieval and Modern History, History of Science, English Language and Literature.
The New Bodleian Library - Broad Street, Oxford, OX1 3BG
Currently being redeveloped & will be renamed Weston Library.
The redeveloped New Bodleian library building will be renamed the Weston Library in honour of the £25 million donation given in March 2008 by the Garfield Weston Foundation toward its transformation into an advanced special collections library and cultural centre.
The report of a University Commission published in 1931 led to the building of the New Bodleian Library, designed by Sir Giles Gilbert Scott, at a cost of £1 million. It was opened in 1940 by King George VI, when unfortunately the silver key broke in the lock.
As well as reading rooms, the library had an eleven-floor book stack with space for 5 million volumes connected to the old Bodleian Library by an underground conveyor belt.
A south-facing extension was built on the roof to the designs of Robert Potter in 1966–68 to accommodate the Indian Institute Library when the old Indian Institute was converted into offices.
The library is now closed and the large redevelopment taking place will revitalise the 1930s facility, originally constructed essentially as a book store and known simply as the ‘New Bodleian’, in contrast to the ‘Old Bodleian’ (Duke Humfrey’s) library, into a major new research centre.
Oxford’s libraries are among the most celebrated in the world, not only for their incomparable collections of books and manuscripts, but also for their buildings, some of which have remained in continuous use since the Middle Ages. Among them the Bodleian, the chief among the University’s libraries, has a special place.
First opened to scholars in 1602, it incorporates an earlier library erected by the University in the fifteenth century to house books donated by Humfrey, Duke of Gloucester. Since 1602 it has expanded, slowly at first but with increasing momentum over the last 150 years, to keep pace with the ever-growing accumulation of books and papers, but the core of the old buildings has remained intact.
The library follows a traditional policy that is considerably liberal - scholars from any university in the world are given free access to the library as readers, and those without a university affiliation can become readers by paying a nominal fee. The only stipulation is that all readers must swear this oath:-
“I hereby undertake not to remove from the Library, or to mark, deface, or injure in any way, any volume, document, or other object belonging to it or in its custody; nor to bring into the Library or kindle therein any fire or flame, and not to smoke in the Library; and I promise to obey all rules of the Library.”
These buildings are still used by students and scholars from all over the world, and they attract an ever-increasing number of visitors.