Friday, July 29, 2011

Oxford I: Bodleian Library

Reading Room in Duke Humfrey's Library
photo credit to
The first library at Oxford was founded in 1320.  It occupied two rooms at St. Mary the Virgin’s Church; which was the original school building for the university.  The library was located on the upper floor, and it remained in these cramped quarters for over 100 years.  Then around 1425 the University and Colleges agreed to design and construct a purpose built library and exam hall.  The Divinity School was to occupy the first floor and the library was to be located above.  Over the course of 15 years 3 walls one story high were built.  The original builder then died and the project stalled.  The Bishop of London Kemp went to work fundraising for the ceiling.  He enlisted many wealthy families to donate to the project, and he made sure that he left his mark.  On the ceiling are coats of arms and initials of the donors, Kemp’s arms and initials occur most frequently.  William Orchard was the architect who completed the building, and he was instructed to make the final wall match the first three, but to make it cheaper.  If viewed closely, the fourth wall is simpler and less ornate than the other three.  Orchard followed his instructions.  Over the years damage has occurred to the exam room, which has not been repaired.  Everything is in its original 15th Century condition.

Ceiling of the Divinity School
In 1488 the library opened.  Duke Humfrey, brother to King Henry V, donated his library to the University to form the basis of the new library.  He donated over 280 manuscripts.  Sadly much of the Duke Humfrey Library was destroyed by fire during the anti-Catholic reign of King Edward VI, son of Henry VIII.  The library was officially closed for about 50 years.

The reduced library was saved by Sir Thomas Bodley, and was renamed in his honor.  Bodley was a fellow of Merton College.  He was a foreign diplomat and collected quite an impressive personal library, complete with many foreign books.  His collection included between 3-4,000 books.  He provided large sums of money to refurbish the Duke Humfrey Library with strong bookshelves.  Unfortunately the building could not support the weight of the new books and shelves.  Sir Christopher Wren was called in to save the building.  Bodley designed extensions to the building to add storage for books, and to help distribute the weight.

Behind the Divinity School a Convocation House was added.  It was built as an exact miniature of Parliament.  It was originally utilized and as the official meeting place of convocation (any person who had received a degree from Oxford, and eligible to cast a vote for the election of the Chancellor).  A small courtroom was also added for University disciplinary needs. 

Sheldon, the Archbishop of Canterbury donated funds to build a new degree granting room, so that the ceremony would no longer occur in the cramped Divinity School.  Wren built the Sheldonian Theatre and added a door in the middle of the Divinity School to provide easy access to the Theatre.  The door is called the Wren vandalism, because he altered the original building 200 years after it had been built.

The library was finally stabilized, through Wren’s additions and reinforcements in the Divinity School.  It was reopened in 1602 and in 1610 Bodley made arrangements for the library to receive one copy of every book published in Britain.  The Bodleian is the oldest copyright library in Britain; its contract predates the British Library.  The collections are comprised of 11 million books total.  The Bodleian is a reference library, no items leave the premises.  Much of the public spaces are actually reading rooms, since so many people make use of the collections.  Every college and department which make up the University have their own lending libraries, but the Bodleian is heavily utilized by students and faculty. 

The Radcliffe Library was built between 1737 and 1748, by James Gibbs.  It opened the following year.  Initially it was an independent library, specializing in medicine, since Dr. John Radcliffe, the principle donor, was a physician.  In the 1860’s the Bodleian took it over and added the collection to its own.  It was renamed the Radcliffe Camera, and the second floor was converted into additional reading rooms, in an attempt to keep up with student demands for study space.  The Bodleian Library complex now includes the Old Bodleian, the Radcliffe Camera, the Clarendon Building (built 1713, incorporated into the Bodleian in 1975), and the New Bodleian (opened in 1946).

I really enjoyed the visit to the Bodleian Library.  The building’s architecture was unique and impressive.  I enjoy seeing Christopher Wren’s work, and the Divinity School and Library were no exception.  The library itself has such a large and prestigious collection.  I didn’t realize prior to the visit that its copyright library status is older than the British Library’s.  On my last trip to Oxford I had not been able to visit the library or any colleges but was glad to get a glimpse this time around.  The Radcliffe Camera was great to finally see as well. 

Interesting websites
The Bodleian website:
Bodleian Electronic Archives and Management Blog:
Bodleian Special Collections Blog:

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