The first library for Oxford University was housed in a room above the Old Congregation House, begun around 1320. The library was built with funds supplied by the Bishop of Worcester but was still unfinished when he died in 1327. It was superseded in 1488 by the library known as Duke Humfrey’s, which is the oldest part of the Bodleian complex.
The reason for moving to a new building was the gift to the university by the Duke of Gloucester of his priceless collection of more than 281 manuscripts, including several important classical texts. These volumes would have made the existing library overcrowded, so in 1444 the university decided to build a new library over the Divinity School. The School of Divinity was started in 1424 but because of chronic shortages of funds the building was still unfinished in the 1440s, and the library was not opened until 1488.
The library is named after Sir Thomas Bodley who rescued the library after the majority of its collections had been dispersed to eliminate books and materials related to Roman Catholicism according to King Edward VI. In 1610 Bodley entered into an agreement with the Stationers’ Company of London under which a copy of every book published in England and registered at Stationers’ Hall would be deposited in the new library. Because of this arrangement, the Bodleian became the first copyright library in the country.
The Bodleian Library is one of the famous academic libraries of the world, and I enjoyed having an opportunity to learn about its founding and history through the tour. It seems like many of the great academic library collections within England were bequests of wealthy bibliophiles, and they have left significant holdings. I was also unaware that the Bodleian was the first copyright library within the country, though I remember reading about how once they received Shakespeare’s Second Folio, they considered the First Folio to be a duplicate and then de-accessioned it. Even the great libraries are not exempt from concerns about space that might result in discarding items that might in future be considered treasures.
It was a wonderful opportunity to be able to see the Bodleian Library and learn more about its history. I think it would have been wonderful to speak with an actual librarian as well, but the architecture and the story of the library’s creation were quite amazing unto themselves.