The Radcliffe Camera is perhaps the building that is iconic Oxford, England. You see that circular neo-classical building in an Inspector Lewis or Inspector Morse mystery program, and you know you’re in Oxford (with dead bodies piling up). While it began as a separate library, the Radcliffe is part of the Bodleian Library, the second-most important library in the United Kingdom (after the British Library in London) and one of the most important libraries in the world.
In A Brief History of the Bodleian Library, Mary Clapinson, former Keeper of Western Manuscripts at the Bodleian and Emeritus Fellow of St. Hugh’s College at Oxford, has written a succinct account of the Bodleian and how it became the world-class library it is today.
Sir Thomas Bodley (1545-1613) envisioned and endowed what would become the Bodleian. An academic and then a diplomat, he wanted to rectify the lack of a serious library for Oxford University. The library opened in 1602, and Bodley took at active interest in its day-to-day operations (the first librarian, Thomas James, likely felt micro-managed). But Bodley had a vision for a great library that would house writings, manuscripts and books from all over the world, and his vision has endured through today.
Including James, the Bodleian has had 25 librarians, and Clapinson travels through the appointments of each, noting significant accomplishments, expansions of the physical facilities, and notable acquisitions and events during each appointment. This may sound tedious, but it’s not; significant happenings in British and world history have had a way of having an impact on the great library.
A few examples:
Oxford was the headquarters for royalist forces four years during the English Civil War in the 1640s, and King Charles I occupied Christ Church College (you may know its dining hall from the Harry Potter movies) while Queen Henrietta stayed at Merton College. The library was used to store munitions and army supplies, and it is a credit to the librarian of those years that its collection survived intact. To demonstrate the regard for the library even in these early years, when the royalists surrendered, the Cromwell forces put a guard at the entrance to keep the library from being looted.
When the Rockefeller Foundation restored Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia in the 1920s, it was to the Bodleian it turned to obtain the original drawings and maps of the city. Visitors to Williamsburg see what they see today largely because of the manuscripts kept by the Bodelian.
During World War II, the Bodleian provided a safe (or safer) haven for the book, records and manuscript collections from London, including the Victoria & Albert Museum, the Natural History Museum, the British Museum, the London School of Economics, the Royal Geographic Society, both houses of Parliament, the General Register Office at Somerset House and several other groups. Like St. Paul’s Cathedral, the Bodleian had a trained fire-watching and firefighting corps of volunteers on the event of a bombing (Oxford was spared).
Clapinson is also the author of Victorian and Edwardian Oxfordshire from Old Photographs (1978) and the co-author of Summary Catalogue of Post-Medieval Western Manuscripts in the Bodleian Library, Oxford: Acquisitions 1916-1975 (1992). She is also a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries and the Royal History Society and a member and past chairman of the Society of Archivists.
A Brief History of the Bodleian Library is filled with details, anecdotes, and history, with a focus on the people who contributed to creating what the library is today.
Top photograph: Duke Humfrey’s Library at the Bodleian, by Diliff via Wikimedia Commons.