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A: Oxford, England, United Kingdom

Thomas Bodley Founds The Bodleian, the First "Public" Library in England, & the First British National Library

11/8/1602 to 1605
Bodleian Library, Oxford; bird's eye view with key and coat Wellcome V0014205

Bird's eye view of the Bodleian Libary, Oxford

On November 8, 1602 the Bodleian Library at Oxford opened to the "public" with a collection of 2000 books assembled by Thomas Bodley. It was intended to replace the library that had been donated to the Divinity School at Oxford by Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester (brother of Henry V), but which had been dispersed in the 16th century at the orders of young Edward VI, successor to Henry VIII.

Between 1598 and 1605, when the first catalogue of the Bodleian was published, Bodley and his circle secured sufficient donations of books and cash to create a library of about 8,700 volumes, making it effectively the British national library. From the start the Bodleian was the first "public" rather than "private" library in England, and one of the first "public" libraries in Europe. On May 26, 2015 I had the opportunity to visit the spectacular new facilities of the Bodleian at Clarendon House in Oxford during a Grolier Club gathering in England, and I was able to ask Richard Ovenden, the director of the Bodleian Library, to explain what the concept of a 'public" library meant at the beginning of the seventeenth century. Mr. Ovenden, whose official title is "Bodley's Librarian," explained that public in this context meant that the library was open to qualified scholars, but not to the general public in the way that we define a public library today. The concept of providing a library for the use of qualified scholars at a university was new, as other libraries at the time were essentially private.

The first catalogue of the Bodleian, compiled by its first librarian, Thomas James, indicated its public nature in its title: Catalogus librorum bibliothecae publicae quam vir ornatissimus Thomas Bodleius Eques. . . . When I revised this entry in May 2015 I did not find a digital edition of the 1605 catalogue available; however the catalogue had been reproduced in facsimile as The first printed Catalogue of the Bodleian Library 1605 (Oxford, 1986). From that facsimile one could "read the shelves" in the organizational arrangement by subject favored by Bodley. Most entries listed author, title, place and date of publication. The catalogue concluded with a lengthy author index across all subjects.

"Although the University of Oxford must yield priority at least to the University of Leiden in publishing a general catalogue of its books, it remains true that the Bodleian in 1605 was the first institutional library to produce a substantial and widely distributed record of a collection which had, from its foundation, world-wide fame" (Introduction to the 1986 facsimile, vii.)

Together with its mission of providing service to qualified scholars, the Bodleian required an oath to be sworn by all readers before admission:

"You promise and solemnly engage before God. . . that whenever you shall enter the public library of the University, you will frame your mind to study in modesty and silence, and will use the books and other furniture in such manner that they may last as long as possible. Also that you will neither yourself in your own person steal, change, make erasures, deform, tear, cut, write notes in, interline, wilfully spoil, obliterate, defile, or in any other way retrench, ill-use, wear away or deteriorate any book or books nor authorise anyother person to do the like" (quoted by Pettegree, The Book in the Renaissance [2010] 230). 

Alexander Marr, "Learned Benefaction: Science, Civility and Donations of Books and Instruments to the Bodleian Library Before 1605," Documenting the Early Modern Book World. Inventories and Catalogues in Manuscript and Print, ed. Walsby & Constantinidou (2013) 27-50.

(This entry was last revised on 05-27-2015.)

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