Little Bits of History

The Bod

Posted in History by patriciahysell on November 8, 2013
Thomas Bodley

Thomas Bodley

November 8, 1602: The main research library at the University of Oxford opens. The first Oxford collection of books and manuscripts was kept in a library built by Thomas Cobham in the 1300s. The collection was available for use only in the building as the books were chained to the bookcases. The precious manuscripts were safe and only the select were permitted entrance. Between 1435 and 1437 Duke Humphrey (King Henry V’s brother) donated a great number of manuscripts and a larger space was needed. A special room for the collection was built above the Divinity School. The library declined. The furniture was sold off and by the end of the 1500s only three of Humphrey’s manuscripts remained.

In 1598 Thomas Bodley wrote to the Vice Chancellor of Oxford and offered to support the development of a library. Bodley has been a Fellow at Merton College and their first Lecturer in Ancient Greek. Merton College is one of the constituent colleges of the University of Oxford. He went abroad to continue his studies and to help with diplomatic relations between England and several European countries. He tired of the political intrigue and resigned from public service. He had married a wealthy widow and as a result was compelled to resign his fellowship at Merton. Regardless, he was feted at Oxford upon his return to England and took up the quest of restoring the library.

Bodley was able to donate his own considerable personal library as a starting point. He instituted the creation of the “Benefactors’ Book” in 1602 whereby donations were publically proclaimed. The book was bound and put on display in 1604. The concept was not original but for over 400 years the practice has helped to assure a steady stream of support from friends of the library. The Duke’s library grew and officially re-opened on this date renamed the Bodleian Library.

The library is one of the oldest in Europe and in Britain it is the second largest with only the British Library larger. Affectionately called “Bodley” or “the Bod” by Oxford scholars, it is one of the six legal deposit libraries in the United Kingdom. All books published in Great Britain and Ireland may receive a request for a copy to be placed in the stacks. There are over 11 million volumes held at the over 100 libraries at Oxford. Sarah Thomas is Bodley’s Librarian and Director. She is the first woman and first American to hold the post which she took on in February 2007.

“What is more important in a library than anything else – than everything else – is the fact that it exists.” – Archibald MacLeish

“Libraries: The medicine chest of the soul.” – Library at Thebes, inscription over the door

“We may sit in our library and yet be in all quarters of the earth.” – John Lubbock

“A great library contains the diary of the human race.” – George Mercer Dawson

This article first appeared at in 2009. Editor’s update: The Bodleian Library of today is located in five buildings which range in dates of construction from the earliest medieval building of Duke Humfrey’s Library to the New Bodleian built in the late 1930s. For two hundred years, many underground stores have been built beneath these five buildings and there are also many off-site storage areas to house the more than 11 million pieces to their collection. These consist of books, journals, newspapers, magazines, sound recordings of both voice and music, maps, prints, drawings, and manuscripts. The library can be accessed by students and non-students alike. However, before being given access the new reader must agree to a formal declaration. This was usually oral but today, there are often written attestations required. The reader promises not to remove books from the library not to deface them in any way. They also promise not to bring any fire of any sort into the buildings, promising not to smoke. They must agree to follow all rules of the Library. Originally written in Latin, it has been translated into many different languages for the modern user.

Also on this day: Aerial Warfare – In 1950, the first jet-to-jet dogfight took place.
173rd Airborne – In 1965, Lawrence Joel attended to wounded soldiers on the ground.
Four – In 1971, Led Zeppelin released another album.


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