Old Bodleian Library

Oxford, England

The Old Bodleian Library of Oxford University opened in 1602 and is one of the oldest libraries in the world still in use; the library contains 13 million volumes, equivalent to 117 miles of shelving.

Before The Old Bodleian Library


The story of the Old Bodleian Library begins over 400 years ago in medieval England, and its tale is one of many twists and turns, peppered with familiar and unfamiliar names that, combined, created this iconic Oxford landmark of learning.

The University of Oxford dates back to 1096. Its first library was founded in the 14th century following the will of Thomas Cobham, then Bishop of Worcester, who bequeathed a considerable collection of books to the university. The books were housed in what became Oxford’s first library, north of the University Church of St Mary the Virgin on the High Street. 

The library expanded during the 15th century, following a second bequeathment of books; Humphrey, the Duke of Gloucester, brother of Henry V, provided a generous collection of manuscripts between 1435 and 1437. To accommodate the growing collection, all of the university’s books were moved to a new room built above the Divinity School in 1488. This room is still referred to as Duke Humfrey’s Library.

However, following 1488, the library’s funding was slashed. The library could no longer afford to grow its collection of books or keep an eye on its existing texts. Its furniture was sold and a huge chunk of its previously large collection had gone missing. 

By the 16th century, the library had fallen into such neglect and disrepair that its story might have ended were it not for a student who graduated from the university in 1588. His name was Thomas Bodley, and he would be the reason for the library’s modern nickname: “the Bod”.

Who was Sir Thomas Bodley?

Thomas Bodley's Initials
- ©James Clark

The Old Bodleian Library owes its name and continued existence to a man called Sir Thomas Bodley. But who exactly was he? 

Born in Exeter in 1545 to a well-off Protestant family, Bodley's formative years were spent in Geneva, Switzerland, hiding with his family to avoid the persecution of Protestants under Mary I’s rule. 

After Mary I’s death, the Bodley family returned to England and Thomas was sent almost immediately to Magdalen College, Oxford. He received a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1563 and went on to become a Fellow of Merton College.

Perhaps due to his upbringing on the continent, Bodley showed a talent for learning languages. He became a lecturer at his alma mater, specialising in Ancient Greek before returning to Europe to study abroad. 

With a few more languages under his belt, Bodley returned to England but was quickly sent back to Europe again - this time on behalf of Queen Elizabeth I. While working as a diplomat, Bodley visited France, The Netherlands and Denmark where he was able to put his aptitude for languages to good use. 

Bodley returned to England for the final time in 1598. After resigning from his post as a diplomat and MP, his attention moved back to his beloved university and its neglected library. 

To do this, he renovated the building, expanded the collection and secured funding to ensure the library’s long-term survival. Perhaps most importantly, Bodley negotiated the library’s right to own a copy of every book printed in England with the Stationers’ Company, a legally-binding contract which is still in place today.

The Bodleian Library Collection

Jane Austen Original Book-2

The Old Bodleian Library is just one of the university libraries under the collective name of Bodleian Libraries at the University of Oxford.

Interestingly, the Bodleian Library and iconic Radcliffe Camera building are linked by a series of underground corridors called The Gladstone Link. 

The Old Bodleian Library contains an estimated 13 million items, including 1.25 million map sheets, 20,000 atlases, manuscripts and archives as well as sheet music. Here is a brief taste of the kind of fascinating objects you can find in Old Bodleian Library:

  1. The Magna Carta: The Bodleian Library has four copies of the 1217 version of Magna Carta, a foundation of English common law and an influence for the U.S Constitution.
  2. Shakespeare’s First Folio: A copy of a collection of Shakespeare’s plays (including Macbeth and Julius Caesar) that were published in 1623, seven years after his death.
  3. Codex Mendoza: An Aztec manuscript that was created roughly 20 years after the Spanish conquest of Mexico, full of details about life in the Aztec empire. 
  4. Letters from J.R.R Tolkien: Some letters written by Tolkien to his children, where he disguises himself as “Father Christmas”. 
  5. A gift from an 11-year-old Elizabeth I: A tiny handmade book made by the preteen Elizabeth I for her stepmother, Katherine Parr in 1644. It is a handwritten translation of a French poem and has the Queen’s initials on the front.
  6. The Gutenberg Bible: One of the few surviving copies of the Gutenberg Bible, the first major book printed using the revolutionary printing press of the same name.
  7. Jane Austen’s Manuscripts: A collection of Jane Austen’s handwritten drafts, as well as her unfinished novel “The Watsons”. 
  8. A feminist petition from 1641: A 17th-century petition to parliament requesting equal voting rights for women. 
  9. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein: The original manuscript of Mary Shelley’s iconic gothic novel “Frankenstein” which has been annotated and corrected by her son, Percy Shelley. 
  10. A Ming map of China: A glimpse into Medieval China’s shipping routes, the Selden Map of China depicts China, the South China Sea and its surrounding areas and its shipping routes.

The Old Bodleian Library Oath

Old Bodleian Library-2

In some ways, the Old Bodleian Library is a bit of an unusual place. 

Most libraries across the world offer their members the opportunity to read their books at home. This is not the case in the Old Bodleian Library. In fact, since so many of the original manuscripts went missing between the 12th and 16th centuries, nobody has been allowed to remove any of the items from the library. 

Rumour has it that even King Charles I and Oliver Cromwell were denied the act of borrowing books from the Old Bodleian! 

Even more interestingly, before anyone gets access to the Old Bodleian Library, they are required to agree to a formal declaration stating that they will abide by the library’s rules. This oath used to be spoken aloud and witnessed by others, but these days one needs only sign a letter bearing the words of the oath. 

The oath was traditionally given in Latin and has subsequently been translated into over a hundred languages, meaning people from all over the world can make their declaration in their native language.

Here is the English translation:

'I hereby undertake not to remove from the Library, nor to mark, deface, or injure in any way, any volume, document or other object belonging to it or in its custody; not to bring into the Library, or kindle therein, any fire or flame, and not to smoke in the Library; and I promise to obey all rules of the Library.'

Old Bodleian Library Oath

How to Visit the Old Bodleian Library

Old Bodleian Library Divinity Hall-2

The Bodleian Libraries are open to visitors of all ages - regardless of whether you are a student or not. However, some restrictions do apply and you can only access certain parts of the building as part of a guided tour group.

For the latest tour information, head to the Bodleian Libraries website here

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Old Bodleian Library Questions