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The Bodleian Library in Oxford is one of the oldest in Britain, and is the second largest after the British Library in London. The complex is based around the Old Schools Quadrangle of which there are several entrances. The ticket office entrance is on Catte Street but you can enter from Broad Street or Radcliffe Square.
The first Oxford University library was founded in the 14th Century but moved to its current site in the latter part of the 15th Century after a generous donation of manuscripts by Humfrey, Duke of Gloucester (Henry V's brother). In 1550 the library was purged of most of its books during Edward VI's reign, to get rid of any references to Roman Catholicism. Due to lack of funds to re-establish its collection, the library was closed. It was re-opened in 1602 after a generous donation by Sir Thomas Bodley amongst others and has expanded several times since, including taking over the Radcliffe Library (now know as the Radcliffe Camera). It is not a lending library but a reference library, even King Charles I was declined when he requested to borrow a book. For many years (until 1845) there was no heating in the library and no artificial lighting until 1929. As candles could not be used due to the risk of fire, the library could only be used for a few hours a day up until this point. Nowadays the library receives a copy of every book published - thousands every week.
There are a number of options available for visitors.
You can wander the quadrangle for free and visit the free exhibition or you can hire an audio guide for £3.50. This apparently allows you to walk through the grounds and enter the Divinity School and takes approx 40 minutes.
They do a variety of guided tour options of 30, 60 and 90 minutes. Due to the times they were scheduled and to prior commitments we could only fit in the 30 minute short tour which was £4.50.
I booked the tickets in advance so that they didn't sell out. I would recommend this if possible, especially if visiting on a weekend or during a peak period, as whilst we were waiting to go in, people were taking the last places on tours an hour ahead.
We presented our tickets at the door opposite the ticket office about 5 minutes before the tour was to start and asked to wait in the Divinity School. Our guide was a Finnish girl and she sat us down at the far end and went through some of the points of architecture in the room. The Divinity School is the University's first examination school and the room is decorated in a Gothic style, and she pointed out (with her little laser pen) a number of carving of significance, as well as explaining some of the background to the library.
Also included was a visit to Duke Humfrey's Library above it. We were not allowed to take bags or cameras to this bit, and they were all securely locked away. There is a long flight of stairs up to this part, I am pretty sure due to the age of the building that there is no lift access! Here is where we see an actual working pat of the library (except it was a Sunday and the library is closed to students), if you come mid week the guide will have to speak quietly so as not to disturb anyone studying. The architecture was described to us, as was how the library worked. If you wanted a certain book you had to request it by number rather than name. The number is marked on the open side of the book - on the edges of the pages, rather than the spine. This is because the books are chained in place on the front edge of the book to prevent theft. The bulky chain means the book can't be returned to the shelf spine outwards, as in a conventional library, as it would damage the book. Thus books are reversed and their numbers marked on the page edges.
I thought it a very interesting tour, although brief, it was informative. The only downside is that I had trouble with our guide's accent, especially as she was using a lot of unfamiliar names.
The standard tour (60 mins) includes the above as well as Convocation House and Chancellor's Court and costs £6.50, and the 90 minute extended tour (£13) also includes visits to various reading rooms including the Radcliffe Camera, which I think is a very attractive option should time or interest allow. You can also visit the Old Library at the University Church.
There is always a free exhibition available in one corner of the Quadrangle, this is wheelchair accessible. I believe the topic changes every six months, but when I visited it was 'Oxford and the Making of The King James Bible' (I think it has finsihed now). Whilst not a large exhibition, it covers the history of the bible as far as its translation into English goes and its relevance to Oxford. There is an original copy of the King James bible from 1611, as well as some older texts. Worth looking out for is an edition of the 'Wicked Bible' from 1631 where a rather important "not" was missed out from the commandment "Thou shalt not commit adultery". Ooops. Obviously not all exhibitions will be everyone's cup of tea.
I do recommend doing a tour here if you get the chance whilst visiting Oxford and recommend booking your tour in advance as times seem to vary.
"I have always imagined that Paradise will be a kind of library" ~ Jorge Luis Borges
I am a bibliophile. I am married to another bibliophile. We are the sort of people who think that decorating consists mainly of arranging our furniture so that we can get the maximum amount of bookshelves into our rooms - although they are still often stacked two deep, and overflowing off the shelves onto virtually every other available surface in our living room. We love books and by extension we also love libraries. So, when we spent a weekend visiting Oxford, it is perhaps not surprising that our first port of call was the Bodleian Library, Oxford University's famous research library.
While Oxford's libraries are widely celebrated, both for their magnificent collections and for their architectural merit, the Bodleian Library stands out as being particularly special. When the University was originally founded in the twelfth century, the number of books available would have been very small due to their great cost and these would have been held by the individual colleges. It wasn't until around 1320 that the University felt the need for a specific library; in this case it was a one room affair that wasn't particularly impressive in scale or design. It wasn't until Humfrey, Duke of Gloucester, donated his priceless collection of over 280 manuscripts to the university - a collection which would have swamped the tiny room - that the decision was taken to build a new, bigger library over the Divinity School. Begun in 1424, a chronic lack of funds repeatedly delayed the construction of Duke Humfrey's Library, and it wasn't until 1488 that the work was finally completed. This group of rooms is still in use today, and remains the core of the Bodleian Library complex.
However, the new library wasn't to last in its present state for very long, and when the Reformers in the sixteenth century raided the library's collection, destroying and dispersing the works they contained under the accusation that they held "superstitious books and images", the library went into decline. It took the invention of Sir Thomas Bodley and his (or rather, his wife's) wealth in 1598 to rescue what was left of the library and build it up once more. Bodley was responsible for refurnishing the library with a new collection of some 2,500 books (some donated personally) and for the agreement with the Stationers' Company of London in 1610 that arranged to provide a copy of every new book published in England to the library. This agreement was significant in that it pointed to the future of the library as an expanding and comprehensive collection, and that it triggered the need to expand the building beyond its medieval core. Despite these many changes - which saw the library become known as Bodley's Library, and later the Bodleian Library - the library still clings to its founding principles that items cannot be borrowed from the collection, and instead must be used in situ by readers (there is a record that even King Charles I was refused permission to borrow a book).
The Bodleian is now the largest University library system in the UK and is second in size only to the British Library in this country.
**Visiting the Library**
While I confess there is a big part of me that would much rather be visiting the Bodleian as a scholar than as a tourist, I would still rather be visiting as a tourist than not visiting at all. Although the Bodleian is still very much a working library, it is possible to visit it and tour this remarkable set of buildings, with proceeds from the access offer going to help maintain the library and its contents. Free access is provided to the Old Schools Quadrangle, from where you can visit the Bodleian shop (yes, like everything else these days there is a gift shop) and the exhibition room, which displays a series of temporary exhibitions over the course of the year. The quadrangle is very impressive (so much so that a wedding party were using it as a backdrop to some of their shots while we were there), but if you want to go any further than this, you will need to sign up to one of the available tours:
Self-guided tour of the Divinity School with no aid - self-timed - £1 per person
Self-guided audio tour - 40 minutes - £2.50 per person
Mini guided tours - 30 minutes - £4.50 per person
Standard guided tours - 60 minutes - £6.50 per person
Extended guided tours - 90 minutes - £13 per person
While the audio tour is available through opening hours and the mini tours run very regularly, the standard and extended tours have limited availability. When we visited in late September there were no extended tours because parts of the University were closed to accommodate graduation ceremonies and an alumni weekend, and only two standard tours were running, one mid-morning and one mid-afternoon (normally there would be four, reduced to three on Sundays). When we arrived at 9.45am, the morning standard tour was already fully booked and there were only half a dozen or so places left on the afternoon tour, which we gratefully signed up to. Please bear this in mind; advance booking is limited to occasional special tours and the extended tours, and all other tickets need to be bought on the day. These tours are understandably very popular, so if you want to take one, make sure you turn up as soon after 9am as you can to the lodge in the library's Great Gate to book your places (especially so on weekends and in peak season). You should also note that tours are not suitable for younger children and only those 11 and over can be taken on them.
**Taking the Tour**
Shortly before our tour began, we made our way through the glass doors behind the statue of the Early of Pembroke in the Quadrangle. This space, known as the Proscholium, is the entrance to the Old Bodleian and the Divinity School, and is the departure point for guided tours. Our guide called us forward about five minutes before departure time to check the tickets we had been issued with at the lodge, and gave us a numbered sticker so that members of the tour could be easily identified from other visitors. Once she was happy that we were all present and correct, we were lead forward through the wooden doors into the Divinity School.
The Divinity School - a lecture and examination room built for the theology faculty in the mid-fifteenth century - is simply stunning. A large room with elaborate stone carving and a very fine fan-vaulted ceiling, it is a masterpiece of the English Gothic style and must be among the most beautiful medieval rooms in the country, never mind Oxford. We were led by our guide to wooden benches at the far end (beyond where self-guided tourists are permitted) and given a potted history of the school and the significance of various points of the architecture. Many of the 455 bosses carved into the vaulting bear the coats of arms of those who donated money to the building of the room, although what stays with me most is the guide telling us that at the time the room was built an undergraduate degree took seven years to complete, and examination was conducted orally, with the student standing in a stone pulpit in front of his examiners and relatively few passing the very rigorous standards set. I doubt many students would like their degree to take this format now!
At the far end of the Divinity School, we move through into the Convocation House and Court, much younger buildings constructed between 1634 and 1637 for the University's convocations (ceremonial gatherings). It is still used for University ceremonies such as the election of the Chancellor, although it is probably best known as being the seat of the English Parliament during the civil war when they could not convene in London. This room also has a fan-vaulted ceiling, although the large expanses of dark Jacobean wood panelling give this space a much gloomier feel. This isn't much helped by the fact that it doesn't have electric light installed; instead there are two panes of coloured glass, one it each of the windows at the far end, which mark the passage of the sun. It is supposedly the case that when the sun shines through one it is time to start the day and when it passes round to the other it is late enough to finish, although it has one big flaw - the sun rarely shines well enough for this system to work. The court room is an extension to this space, where problematic students could be brought for disciplining.
The highlight of the tour for me, though, was visiting Duke Humfrey's Library - the original medieval reading room, which is still in use today (I hasten to add this is because I had been recently reading about it in another context and not because it has doubled as the Hogwarts library in the Harry Potter franchise). Duke Humphrey's Library is quite incredible, and it unsurprisingly the oldest reading room in the University, storing the pre-1641 rare books collection, and entering it feels like you have walked into the quintessential library. It makes you want to be a student or scholar again so you can spend your days sat in this magnificent setting of ancient leather-bound books, intricately painted wooden ceilings and hushed reverence. So special are the manuscripts kept here that pens are banned (you are only allowed in with pencils or a laptop) and all visitors and readers alike have to leave their bags in the secure storage area downstairs before being permitted to enter. As a visitor you can only stay outside of the secure reader area and gawk in silence, but how I would have loved to have access beyond the security desk!
The extended tour follows the same route but also takes in some of the working areas of the library and the Radcliffe Camera.
My visit to the Bodleian was the highlight of my visit to Oxford, and although the tour was only short, it was excellently done. All the guides at the library are volunteers, and ours was very knowledgeable, full of fascinating pieces of information and very willing to answer questions. For this reason I would recommend taking a tour if you are interested in the library rather than relying on a self-guided around the public bit of the Divinity School.
As a disadvantage, visitor facilities are quite limited - there are no toilets available for visitor use, and no cafe or refreshments available on site (although you will have no trouble finding sustenance a short distance away in the city centre). There is, however, a shop that sells a better quality of tourist goods, including a good deal of exclusive stationary, Christmas cards and the like. Things are by no means cheap (I paid around £8 for a small pack of note cards) but are good quality and make better souvenirs of Oxford than a lot of other things you could buy in town.
Time well spent - highly recommended.
Location: The Bodleian Library is located on Broad Street in central Oxford. You can view the location here: http://www.bodleian.ox.ac.uk/__data/assets /pdf_file/0018/52155/Location_Map_2008_non-events.pdf
Opening Hours: Monday - Friday 9.00 - 17.00 / Saturday 9.00 - 16.30 / Sunday 11.00-17.00. The library is open year round, with the exception of Christmas, New Year and Easter.
Access: Visitors should note that as these are very old buildings, there is no lift and some areas have many stairs and uneven floors. Accessibility information can be checked here: http://www.bodleian.ox.ac.uk/bodley/about/visitors/disabled
Note: The content of the tours may vary and tours may be cancelled at short notice due to this being a working library.
Further information: http://www.bodleian.ox.ac.uk/bodley/about