For many years we have been coming to Oxford and wandered past the Bodleian Library, an not overly attractive building in my opinion, but had never been inside. I discovered that they ran guided tours around the library of 30, 60 and 90 minute durations and we had booked on the hour long tour.
There’s Less than Meets the Eye
Our tour was about a dozen people and started off in the Divinity School a grand building that was used as the infirmary in the Harry Potter films. We spent about half an hour in there listening to our informative guide (who Helen reckoned was as old as the Bodleian itself) take us through the history of the place.
I did wonder why 50% of the tour was spent in the first room being given a history lesson. It turned out that was because there were only three rooms to see: the Divinity School, Convocation House and Duke Humfrey’s Library. Two thirds of the tour wasn’t the library at all!
Just to prove that I was listening during the history lesson here are some facts and figures. There has been a library in Oxford since 1340. Originally it was in a room at St. Mary’s Church opposite, which held 200 books which was considered massive in those days. Now the library holds over 13 million printed items across three sites.
The library received a donation of 281 books from Humphrey of Lancaster, 1st Duke of Gloucester and got a room named after him as a reward.
Duke Humpheries library
Finally, we were taken up to the library itself, again another setting for a scene in Harry Potter, unsurprisingly as the library. It is a beautiful space and very photogenic and, fortunately, we were allowed to take pictures, much to the chagrin of our guide who was having a nervious breakdown trying to keep us all in check!
We heard about how when the books were first moved into the library they were chained to the shelves which seemed pretty ironic as we were told to whisper and keep our noise down given how loud all those rattling chains must have been then.
The library fell into a state of disrepair after the invention of the printing press and people had more immediate access to books. The printing press apparently arrived in Oxford within one year of its invention.
Enter Sir Thomas Bodley who after lecturing at Merton college and being an MP took on the challenge of restoring the Duke Humfrey’s Library. In recognition of his efforts the whole place was named after him.
One innovative thing that Bodley introduced was to ask publishers to provide a free copy of every book they published for the library a tradition that continues today and is now replicated the world over.
An interesting tour but woe betide anyone that steps out of line and pisses off the guide!