Today in Literary History – November 8, 1602 – The Bodleian Library in Oxford is opened

On November 8, 1602, the library at the University of Oxford was re-opened after decades of neglect and renamed as The Bodleian Library after Sir Thomas Bodley, who took charge of the library’s refurbishment, much of it at his own expense.

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There had been a library at Oxford before The Bodleian. Duke Humphrey of Gloucester, the brother of King Henry V, donated a large collection of books and a special room was constructed to house it in 1488. (Parts of the Harry Potter movies were filmed there.)

Over the next century the library went into decline. The furniture was sold off and almost all of Duke Humphrey’s books and manuscripts were either sold or stolen. During the Reformation a massive purge of books with suspected Catholic leanings further depleted the library’s stock.

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Bodley, a former Oxford don who had married a wealthy widow, set out to replenish the library and refurbish the structure. He donated many of his own books and struck a deal with The Stationers Company to have a copy of every book registered with them donated to the library. Francis Bacon called it “an Ark to save learning from deluge.”

In 1602 the library had 2,000 items and by 1620 this had grown to 16,000. Today it has 12 million items. The Bodleian remains a reference library, meaning that its books and manuscripts can not be taken from the library.

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It is the second largest reference library in the UK after the British Library.

I have never been inside The Bodleian myself, only having seen it from the outside. To gain access to use the library, you are required to swear this oath:

“I hereby undertake not to remove from the Library, nor to mark, deface, or injure in any way, any volume, document or other object belonging to it or in its custody; not 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.”

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