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The Bodleian Library, when finally encountered, does not disappoint the most jaded visitor
Another tradition, still zealously guarded, is that no books were to be lent to readers; even King Charles I was refused permission to borrow a book in 1645

Oxford's libraries are among the most celebrated in the world, not only for their incomparable collections of books and manuscripts, but also for their historic buildings, some of which have remained in continuous use since the Middle Ages. Among them the Bodleian, the chief among the University's libraries, has a special place.

First opened to scholars in 1602, the Bodleian Libraries incorporate an earlier library erected by the University in the 15th century to house books donated by Humfrey, Duke of Gloucester. Since 1602 it has expanded, slowly at first but with increasing momentum over the last 150 years, to keep pace with the ever-growing accumulation of books and papers. However the historic core of the Libraries' old buildings has remained intact and is still used by students and scholars from all over the world, attracting an ever-increasing number of visitors too.

Enter through the Great Gate, into the Old Schools Quadrangle with its monumental Tower of the Five Orders of Architecture.

The first library for Oxford University – as distinct from the colleges – was housed in a room above the Old Congregation House, and begun c.1320 on a site to the north of the chancel of the University Church of St Mary the Virgin. The building stood at the heart of Oxford's 'academic quarter', close to the schools in which lectures were given. The room, which still exists as a vestry and meeting room for the church, is neither large nor architecturally impressive, and it was superseded in 1488 by the library known as Duke Humfrey's, which constitutes the oldest part of the Bodleian complex.

The occasion for moving to a new building was the gift to the University by Humfrey, younger brother of King Henry V, of his priceless collection of more than 281 manuscripts, including several important classical texts. These volumes would have made the existing library desperately overcrowded, and in 1444 the University decided to erect a new library over the Divinity School, on a site at the northern end of School Street, just inside the town wall. The Divinity School, a masterpiece of English Gothic architecture with an intricate fan vaulted ceiling, is the oldest teaching room of the University and is still used for University events today.

Completed in 1448, Duke Humfrey's library survived in its original form for just over sixty years; in 1550 it was denuded of its books after a visitation by Richard Cox, Dean of the newly-founded Christ Church. He was acting under legislation passed by King Edward VI designed to purge the English church of all traces of Catholicism, including "superstitious books and images". In the words of the celebrated historian Anthony Wood, "some of those books so taken out by the Reformers were burnt, some sold away for Robin Hood's pennyworths, either to Booksellers, or to Glovers to press their gloves, or Taylors to make measures, or to Bookbinders to cover books bound by them, and some also kept by the Reformers for their own use".

After falling into a state of dereliction, the library was rescued by Sir Thomas Bodley (1545-1613), a Fellow of Merton College who had travelled extensively in Europe and had between 1585 and 1596 carried out several diplomatic missions for Queen Elizabeth I. In 1587 he married Ann Ball, a widow whose husband had made a fortune from trading in pilchards. On his retirement from public life, Bodley decided, in his own words, 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. A librarian, Thomas James, was appointed, and the library finally opened on 8 November 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. Although at first the agreement was honoured more in the breach than in the observance, it nevertheless pointed to the future of the library as a comprehensive and ever-expanding collection, different in both size and purpose from the libraries of the colleges.

More immediately it imposed an extra strain on space within the building, which was already housing many more books than originally foreseen; new gifts of books made the lack of space ever more acute. So in 1610-12 Bodley planned and financed the first extension of the medieval building, known as Arts End.

On Bodley’s death in 1613, money from his will alongside loans and public subscriptions contributed to the building of a spacious quadrangle of buildings (the Schools Quadrangle) to the east of the library. The buildings were designed to house lecture and examination rooms ('schools' in Oxford parlance) to replace what Bodley called "those ruinous little rooms" on the site in which generations of undergraduates had been taught. In his will Bodley left money to add a third floor designed to serve as "a very large supplement for stowage of books", which also became a public museum and picture gallery, the first in England.

The last addition to the central Bodlian Library site came in 1634-7, when another extension to Duke Humfrey's library was built; known as Selden End, after the lawyer John Selden (1584-1654) who made a gift of 8,000 books which were housed there. It stands at the far end of the Divinity School, over the Convocation House, the meeting room for the University's 'Parliament'.

The library was now able to receive and house numerous gifts of books and, especially, manuscripts: from the 3rd Earl of Pembroke in 1629, from Kenelm Digby in 1634, from William Laud, Archbishop of Canterbury, starting in 1635, and from many others. It was the collections of manuscripts, as much as those of books, which attracted scholars from all over Europe, irrespective of whether or not they were members of the University of Oxford; a tradition which the Bodleian still maintains (undergraduates, on the other hand, were rarely admitted until quite recent times).

Another tradition, still zealously guarded, is that no books were to be lent to readers; even King Charles I was refused permission to borrow a book in 1645. But the number of users should not be overestimated; in 1831 there was an average of three or four readers a day, and there were no readers at all in July. With no heating until 1845 and no artificial lighting until 1929, the library only opened from 10:00am to 3:00pm in the winter and 9:00am to 4:00pm in the summer.

The growth of the collection slowed down in the early 18th century when the library, like the University as a whole, entered into a somewhat somnolent period; no books at all were purchased between 1700 and 1703. Yet the late 17th and early 18th centuries saw a spate of library-building in Oxford. Most of the new libraries were built by the colleges, but the finest of all, at least from an architectural point of view, was the brainchild of an individual, Dr John Radcliffe (1652-1714), perhaps the most successful English physician of his day.

Radcliffe was born in 1650 in Wakefield, Yorkshire, and was educated at Queen Elizabeth Grammar School. He graduated from Oxford in 1669, and after obtaining his M.D. in 1682 he eventually became Physician Royal to William and Mary, and later treated Queen Anne. On his death in 1714, his property was bequeathed to various charitable causes, and he left his trustees a large sum of money with which to purchase both the land for a new library building in Oxford and an endowment to pay a librarian and purchase books.

The site eventually chosen was to the south of the Schools Quadrangle, in the middle of the new square (Radcliffe Square) formed by the demolition of old houses in School Street and Catte Street and bounded by All Souls and Brasenose Colleges and the University Church. Here, between 1737 and 1748, the monumental circular domed building – Oxford's most impressive piece of classical architecture – was erected to the designs of James Gibbs, and it was finally opened in 1749.

For many years the Radcliffe Library, as it was called until 1860, was something of a white elephant. It was completely independent of the Bodleian, readers were few in number, the heterogeneous collection of books served no obvious purpose, and the first librarians displayed a strange reluctance to add to it. Matters improved in the early 19th century, when a collection of books on medicine and natural history was gradually amassed: something celebrated by the publication of the first printed catalogue in 1835.

Meanwhile, the Bodleian's collections had begun to grow again. Successive pieces of legislation made the agreement with the Stationers' Company more effective, so that by 1842 the library could concentrate its purchases on manuscripts and foreign books, secure in the knowledge that new books published in England would be deposited free of charge. Gifts of books and manuscripts continued to be made, notably that of 18,000 printed books (including 300 incunabula – books printed before 1500) and 393 manuscripts from the bequest of Francis Douce in 1834. In 1849, six years after the publication of a new catalogue in three folio volumes, there were estimated to be 220,000 books and some 21,000 manuscripts in the library's collection.

The Bodleian not only held a collection of books and manuscripts; it also housed pictures, sculptures, coins and medals and a plethora of 'curiosities', including a stuffed crocodile from Jamaica. In 1755 the collections were augmented by the Countess of Pomfret's gift of a large part of the Arundel Marbles, the first collection of antique statuary to be formed in England. They were housed in two of the ground-floor rooms around the quadrangle no longer needed for teaching. Starting in 1788, the rooms on the first floor were given over to library use, including the storage of manuscripts, and with the opening of the University Galleries – now the Ashmolean Museum – in Beaumont Street in 1845, the marbles were transferred to a more suitable setting, as were 70 pictures from the top-floor gallery.

This left more space for storing books, which was further increased in 1859 when the University agreed to relinquish the last of its ground-floor lecture rooms; they were rehoused in 1876-82 in the new Examination Schools in the High Street.

A further increase in space came about in 1860, when the Radcliffe Library was taken over by the Bodleian and renamed the Radcliffe Camera (the word camera means room in Latin). The upper-floor library became a reading room, used mainly by undergraduates, who had been admitted to the Bodleian since 1856, and the ground floor was turned into a book-stack. Thus the library acquired its first major addition of space for readers since the building of Selden End in 1634. By the beginning of the 20th century an average of 100 people a day were using it.

The medical and scientific books formerly kept in the Radcliffe Camera were moved to new premises in the University Museum in South Parks Road; they were later transferred to the adjacent but much larger Radcliffe Science Library, built to the designs of Thomas Graham Jackson, architect of the Examination Schools, in 1897-1901.

By the end of the 19th century the Bodleian's book collection was growing by more than 30,000 volumes a year, and the number of books had reached the million mark by 1914. To provide extra storage space an underground book store was excavated beneath Radcliffe Square in 1909-12; it was at the time the largest such store in the world, and the first to use modern compact shelving. But with both readers and books inexorably increasing, the pressure on space once more became critical, leading some members of the University to propose moving the library to a more spacious site elsewhere, as was done in Cambridge when its new University Library was built in 1931-4.

This did not happen, however, and in 1931 the decision was taken to build a new library, housing book-stacks for five million books, library departments and reading rooms, on a site occupied by a row of old timber houses on the north side of Broad Street. The new building, known as the New Bodleian went up to the designs of Sir Giles Gilbert Scott, architect of the Cambridge University Library, between 1936-40, finally officially opened by King George VI in 1946.

The building of the New Library allowed some rationalisation of the older buildings to allow more space for the growing numbers of undergraduates, graduate students and visiting scholars. The former gallery on the top floor of the Schools Quadrangle had already become a reading room (the Upper Reading Room), and the former schools on the floor below, long-used for book storage, now became the Lower Reading Room, leaving the ground floor for offices.

In 1960-3 Duke Humfrey's library underwent a major restoration, including the refacing of its decaying, blackened façades in Clipsham stone, along with those of Selden End and Arts End; the refacing of the rest of the Schools Quadrangle followed in 1964-8.

In 1975 new office space was acquired in the Clarendon Building, built for the University Press in 1712-13, and occupying the crucial site between the Old and New Libraries. Thus the whole area between the Radcliffe Camera and the New Library – the historic core of the University – came into the hands of the Bodleian.

Today the Bodleian Libraries encompass nearly thirty libraries around Oxford, providing general and specialised reader services to over two million reader visits every year. The Libraries are home to over 11 million items, many of which are stored in the Bodleian Book Storage Facility in Swindon, a cavernous warehouse with over 150 miles of shelving. In March 2015 the New Bodleian Library will reopen as the Weston Library following a 3 year refurbishment. For the first time the building will open its doors to not only readers but the public who will have access to two new dedicated exhibition spaces, a public café and a lecture theatre.

A library of the imagination, an architectural icon of Oxford – the Bodleian Library, when finally encountered, does not disappoint the most jaded visitor.

- Peter Holthusen