Like curious schoolgirls, we sat under the armorial shields and dark oak bookcases of Duke Humfrey’s Library, and listened to our guide, a slim senior woman with shrewd blue eyes, as she revealed the bibliographical pilgrimages of the oldest collection in Oxford.
It all started very small. When Duke Humfrey died in 1447, he donated his collection of 281 manuscripts to the University of Oxford. They built a second storey in the Divinity School in order to house this collection of great value. The library survived in its original form for just over sixty years. Then the Reformers purged the library and burnt the books they thought superstitious in the Old Schools Quad. The library was rescued by Sir Thomas Bodley in the late 1580’s. He was a Fellow of Merton College who had travelled extensively in Europe and had married a rich widow. He refurnished the library to house a new collection of about 2,500 books, and appointed a librarian in 1602. Today we have over 100 miles of shelving…
While she continued to narrate the adventurous chronology of the library, our eyes wandered through the room, out of the dark corners, to the amazing glassworks, linking us to the flesh-and-blood of the English past.
The scent of beeswax and old, crisp paper was penetrant, as were the fragrances of dusty bookshelves. It was a familiar aroma, one we had inhaled many times before when we studied at the Sorbonne. This odour brought us back to a time when the past was as vivid as the present, and stirred up some classic nostalgia. But then we looked at each other, and then at our niece, and beyond the nostalgia, we felt a profound joy. Because there was a promise in the air. A promise of the future generations. So many scholars had sat there at the exact same place decades ago, and many more will continue to browse through these manuscripts when we will be both long gone. We felt privileged to be there.
And with delight, we tuned in to the guide’s story of the Thomas Bodley agreement with the Stationers’ Company in London to house a copy of every book they registered.
Today the Bodleian Library is one of six copyright libraries in the UK & Ireland entitled to a copy of each title that comes off the presses. The result is that its vast collection of above 11 million printed items is largely stored out of sight – much of it below ground.
By the incredulous look of one of the visitors, she felt compelled to underline this:
Yes, indeed. There is a tunnel that starts under the Radcliffe Camera and links the Old and New Bodleian libraries. We use a pneumatic tube system to ferry books from one side to the other. But since 2010, we also have a large warehouse near Swindon that replaces the New Bodleian as storing facility.
The visit ended at the Divinity School entrance, and we went back in to take a few pictures. The Divinity School is the only room in the Old Bodleian Library that visitors are allowed to photograph. Fans of the Harry Potter movies will certainly recognise this place, which served as Hogwart’s Sanatorium.
We then walked over to the amazing exhibition “Marks of Genius. Masterpieces from the Collection of the Bodleian Libraries”. The items in the exhibition range from magnificent illuminated manuscripts to quick handwritten notes, from the finest printed books to ephemeral publicity notices. And, most impressively, it features some of the world’s finest treasures:
One of four surviving copies of Magna Carta
A pristine copy of the Gutenberg Bible
A 14th century copy of Marco Polo’s Travels
The earliest almost complete copy of a poem by Sappho, rescued from a rubbish dump in Egypt during the 19th century.
The Codex Mendoza, an account made for the first Spanish viceroy of the Aztec kingdom
What about you? Have you ever been to Oxford, and visited the Bodleian Library?
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