Before Oxford’s Library Was the Finest Institutional Library in Europe, It Was… Kind of a Dump
Andrew Pettegree and Arthur der Weduwen on the Library’s Transformation Under Sir Thomas Bodley
In 1598, the University of Oxford received an extraordinary proposal. Sir Thomas Bodley, a retired diplomat and Oxford alumnus, offered to restore the dilapidated university library, entirely at his own cost. He promised to make the library “handsome with seates and shelfes and deskes and all that may be needful to stirre up other mens benevolence, to helpe furnish it with bookes.” The library hall had stood vacant for several decades, its books removed during the upheavals of the Reformation, its furniture sold off in 1556. When Bodley turned his attention to the library, it was in use only as a lecture hall.
Over the course of fifteen years, until his death in 1613, Bodley would oversee the transformation of Oxford’s library from this empty shell to the finest institutional library in Europe. First the building itself had to be repaired, not least its roof. By June 1600 the hall was fitted out with oak bookcases with integral reading desks. On 8 November 1602, the library was inaugurated with a collection of over 2,000 volumes. By 1605, when the first published catalogue of the collection appeared, it had 5,600 volumes; fifteen years later the collection had quadrupled in size, to 23,000. This extraordinary growth was the result of Bodley’s uncompromising ambition, combined with impeccable scholarly and political connections.
He solicited donations from his network of fellow statesmen and diplomats, and his friends gave liberally, among them Sir Walter Raleigh, who would soon be languishing in the Tower of London, and Robert Sidney, the Earl of Leicester. The Earl of Essex gave books instead of money, as he had recently acquired 252 volumes from the library of a bishop in Faro, Portugal, that he had plundered on his return from naval engagement against the Spanish crown. Bodley contributed most of the funds from his own deep pockets, padded by the fortunes of a wealthy Devon widow who had succumbed to his charms some years earlier.
The fact that Bodley could raise the status of Oxford’s library so rapidly is also indicative of the poor conditions of university libraries throughout Europe. Most universities were founded without a library. Some, like Louvain and St Andrews, had several college libraries, but lacked a central university library for almost two centuries after their foundation. The Sorbonne at Paris had no central library until 1762, 500 years after it was first established. Others, like Oxford, assembled a library in the medieval period, but saw their libraries damaged, confiscated or destroyed in the early upheavals of the Reformation.The library’s extraordinary growth was the result of Bodley’s uncompromising ambition, combined with impeccable scholarly and political connections.
The convulsions of the sixteenth century left a lasting impression. In 1605, Francis Bacon thanked Bodley for building “an ark to save learning from the deluge.” Scholars on the continent, Catholic and Protestant, felt similarly, and by around 1600, universities, new and old, began to acquire libraries. Yet the purpose of these institutional libraries, what books would be in them, and, crucially, who would pay for them, were contentious issues, in many cases inadequately resolved. In 1710, the German scholar Zacharias von Uffenbach observed that “Large works, those that not everyone can buy, should be bought [for university libraries]; the little books anyone can collect as they wish.”
This was a widely shared view. As we have seen in the last chapter, professors were part of a new book-buying elite and enjoyed building their own substantial libraries: in many towns the libraries of professors would be much larger than the library of the university. The rise of a lively auction market ensured that many collectors sold their libraries, rather than donating the books to their local institution. Yet even when they did bequeath their books, it was never guaranteed that any would be consulted by future readers. Changing university curricula and new models of thought were as great a threat to the success of a library as was destruction by fire or sword. How universities chose to navigate these issues would have a lasting influence on the future of the institutional library.
Kindling a Flame
Thomas Bodley was without doubt a visionary. A child of exile during the reign of the Catholic Queen Mary, he had seen many scholars scattered to the winds, their libraries confiscated or abandoned in their haste to depart. He enjoyed a superb education in Geneva and Oxford that had instilled in him the value of books, but he also understood that libraries could not survive if one did not plan for their future, so that the initial enthusiasm did not die with its founder. Bodley, it seemed, had learned the lessons from the failures of earlier collectors: he ensured that his library would be provided with a substantial endowment, of land and property rents, to acquire books. This was key if the library was to remain supplied with the latest scholarly publications; he was rightly convinced that it was the absence of this provision that had caused so many ambitious library projects to atrophy.
A second key provision was the prohibition on borrowing books from the library. University libraries regularly struggled with the loss of books, often taken home by professors, sometimes by visitors. Once the books left they rarely returned. Oxford’s blanket ban on lending was maintained after Bodley’s death and upheld even in the face of requests to borrow books from both King Charles I and the Lord Protector, Oliver Cromwell. Bodley also insisted that the Bodleian Library should welcome readers, and not only those from Oxford. This was perhaps the most significant aspect of Bodley’s vision. Thus far, university or college libraries had largely been for the use only of the scholars employed at that institution. Some distinguished visitors might be granted access, but always by invitation only. Bodley inverted this rule, and although he cautioned against letting new undergraduate students into the library, visiting scholars were welcome to use the library’s resources.
Within the first year of the Bodleian’s establishment, it welcomed a remarkable 248 visitors, including scholars from France, Denmark, Silesia, Prussia, Switzerland and Saxony. Over time their number would grow, especially to consult the Bodleian’s substantial collection of manuscripts. Bodley rightly considered that manuscripts, rather than printed books, would be the greatest attraction of the library. Manuscripts were essential for the work of theologians and humanist scholars, but were naturally much rarer. Few libraries had large collections, and access was tightly controlled, but the status of the Bodleian ensured that it received significant bequests of manuscript collections, such as that from Archbishop William Laud, who gave 1,300 manuscripts to the library between 1635 and 1640. Such large donations were supplemented by the Bodleian’s generous acquisitions budget. Within half a century it had an unrivalled collection of Oriental, Anglo-Saxon and northern European manuscripts.
Few of the foreign visitors left their impressions of working at the Bodleian. Although more than one noted the absence of Oxford’s resident scholars from the library, on the whole visitors had little to complain about: the hours were extremely generous, the library being open for an unprecedented six hours each day at a time when most other institutional libraries, if they were open at all, offered readers only four hours a week. Bodley was adamant in his instructions that the library should never be closed, and this too was followed to the letter.
Excerpted from The Library: A Fragile History by Andrew Pettegree and Arthur der Weduwen. Copyright © 2021. Available from Basic Books, an imprint of Hachette Book Group, Inc.