The libraries of the University of Oxford 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 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.

In 1550 Duke Humfrey's Library was stripped of its books under legislation of the Protestant Reformation to purge the English church of all traces of Roman Catholicism, including "superstitious books and images." The library was rescued by Sir Thomas Bodley (1545-1613), an Oxford graduate who had carried out several diplomatic missions for Queen Elizabeth I. He married a rich widow and upon his retirement decided to "set up my staff at the library door in Oxon; being thoroughly persuaded, that in my solitude, and surcease from the Commonwealth affairs, I could not busy myself to better purpose, than by reducing that place (which then in every part lay ruined and waste) to the public use of students."

His money was accepted in 1598, and the old library was refurnished to house a new collection of some 2,500 books, some of them given by Bodley himself, some by other donors. The library opened on November 8, 1602. 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. It thus became a library of legal deposit, a role it has maintained for four hundred years.

Over the next four centuries it was enriched by gifts large and small of rare books and documents, as well as by important purchases. The Bodleian was not only a collection of books and manuscripts; it also housed pictures, sculptures, coins, medals, and "curiosities -- objects of scientific, exotic, or historical interest. Today the Oxford libraries possess more than eleven million printed items, in addition to thirty thousand e-journals and vast quantities of materials in other formats.

Chronology of the Library Buildings

1320: First university-wide library founded at Oxford

1488: Divinity School opens, with Duke Humfrey's Library on the second floor

1550: Duke Humfrey's Library purged during the Protestant Reformation; most books sold or destroyed

1598: Thomas Bodley donates money to refurbish and reopen the library

1602: Bodleian Library opens with 2,500 books; the first Librarian is Thomas James, who serves until 1620

1610-12: Arts End extension built on east side of Duke Humfrey's Library

1610-19: Schools Quadrangle built, adjacent to the library

1613: Thomas Bodley dies, leaving funds and books to the library in his will

1632-37: Selden End, funded by John Selden (1584-1654), built on west side of Duke Humfrey's Library

1737-48: Radcliffe Library built with funds donated by Dr. John Radcliffe (1650-1714)

1860: Bodleian Library annexes Radcliffe Library, renaming it the Radcliffe Camera

1937-40: New Bodleian Library built with funds donated by the Rockefeller Foundation

2011: New Bodleian Library building closes for renovation; it will reopen as the Weston Library in 2015


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