The Library: Bodleian, in fact

LibraryDid you ever wonder about the history of a library?

Once arrived in Oxford, I made a beeline to the Bodleian Library, to honor, admire and to marvel!

The Bodleian Library is one of the premier libraries in England. Books were first gathered about 1320 and housed in a room above the Oxford University Church of St. Mary the Virgin. It wasn’t a large room and it didn’t have many books–they were precious and hard to come by–but it was a start. The books, of course, were ecclesiastical in nature.

(You can see it when you climb the steps to the church tower. It’s a nondescript room now used as a vestry and meeting room for the church).

That first little library was expanded in 1444 when Humfrey, Duke of Gloucester (and younger brother of King Henry V), donated his collection of more than 281 manuscripts. 281 books, the entire library for Oxford University.

How many of you have more than 281 books?

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Such a “vast” number couldn’t fit into the library, so in 1478 officials began building the “new” library just north of the church. Reading went on in the library until 1550 when legislation passed by King Edward VI (that would be Henry VIII’s only son) went into affect–designed to purge the English Church of Catholicism.

They burned most of the books.

The only ones that were saved had been “checked out” to a handful of people, who then hid them.

Library File:Thomas Bodley.jpgThings turned around some fifty years later when Elizabeth I was on the throne and one of her courtiers, Sir Thomas Bodley decided to do something about the situation when he retired from public life.

He “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.”

Using his own money and books, as well as that of friends, Bodley organized the refurbishment the old library. They bought and collected 2500 books!

How many of you have more than 2500 books?  🙂

Bodley also negotiated an agreement with the Stationers’ Company of London in which a copy of every book published and registered would be donated to the library.

That arrangement continues on to this day, making the Bodleian Library the British equivalent (or perhaps inspiring example) of the LibraryUS Library of Congress.

It also makes for a storage problem . . .

The library has dug basements, organized auxiliary libraries (the colleges all have their own libraries), built new buildings and still more books arrive.

Can you imagine what someone from 1500 would say to see the Bodleian Library today?

I had a long conversation with the tour guide, who explained that books once were so precious, they were chained to the stacks. A researcher had to sit in front of the shelves of books attached by heavy metal chains, to a reading stand that ran the length of the book shelf.

The reading, obviously, only could be done in the library and within a few feet of where the book belonged.

Shelvers through the ages could appreciate that!

Bodleian currently is undergoing another expansion and books are kept in a storage warehouse 28 miles west. You order your book and it shows up, usually within a day.

I asked him about digitizing the vast collection and he said they had started doing so, but the cost became prohibitive–a British pound a page, basically, to cradle the old books and scan them. The other issue became how long a specific method of storing the books would last. (See my post on floppy disks).

“But would you say there’s a difference in how you respond to a book if you’re holding it, or reading a digitized version?” I asked. “For research, I like to use digitized because it’s easier to search for what I want.”

“True.” The guide waved his hand at the chained books in the oldest section of the library (books that are still used, by the way). “But these books have been here, and read, for several hundred years. We’ve never had to worry about not being able to read them.”

Which is important when you have 11 million books!

How many of you have . . . never mind!  🙂

library signWhich do you prefer to read: digitized or physical books? What difference does it make to you in how you read?


Bodleian Library: 281 books to 11 million in only 600 years! Click to Tweet

A visit to Bodleian Library Click to Tweet


Leave a comment


  1. Phos

     /  November 8, 2013

    I prefer physical books. I was just thinking today, as I paged through an e-book, how much quicker I could find the quote I wanted if I could physically flip through the pages. There is also the aesthetic appeal of a physical book. The cover, front and back, the font, the title page are all individualized. E-books are very generic, and if it weren’t for the words, one would feel like one was reading the same book over and over again. That being said, I do enjoy being able to fit all my favorite authors in one e-reader when I travel.

    • Michelle Ule

       /  November 9, 2013

      Exactly, Phos. It’s particularly frustrating because my apps don’t have page numbers, so I can’t even make a note of where I saw something (and I haven’t bothered to figure out the note taking system). The search feature, however, when I’m just cruising through for research, saves me time.

      But, I’d much rather curl up with a solid book in my hand, pages I refresh myself, and the heft of story.

  2. Susan P

     /  November 8, 2013

    I think I’m bordering on 1000, but 1 million is unfathomable. 🙂

  3. Michelle Ule

     /  November 9, 2013

    Staggering numbers, aren’t they, Susan? I gave away 400 books this summer when we moved (totaled for tax purposes), and the shelves STILL are full, though not quite as stuffed. 🙂

  4. We collectively have well over 1,500 books in our little home. I prefer to get comfy, hold a book in my hands, and turn the pages. I found the history of the Bodleian Library fascinating and I loved learning new facts!


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