Everybody Needs Some Bodleian to Love

Or, “If I told you you had a nice Bodleian would you hold it against me?” – Nyan

When you visit Oxford, an important stop for any visitor is the Radcliffe Cam and the Bodleian Library.

The Cam is a cylinder with a dome that Nyan LOOOVed to study in. It takes a readers card to enter, so we saw a short view of it on tour, it was beautiful.

Around Oxford we’ve noticed coaster-sized glass tiles laid into the pavement outside shops and streets. In our tour of the Bodleian we learned that the glass tiles in the ground near the Bodleian and Cam are “Light Wells” to give students and librarians extra light in the underground book stores and tunnels.

The rest of the day after our tour Bean stopped at many light wells to see if he could see what’s underneath the pavement.

“I see just some old cans and dirt in this one.”

The Bodleian Library in 2019 is a massive collection of 28 libraries, as well as a warehouse 10 miles outside of Oxford. A copy of anything published on paper in the UK is automatically sent to it. The Bodleian is also a treasure trove of unpublished works: original drafts of books, forgotten (but not lost) scraps of musings by thinkers who helped shape society (for better or worse) with their ideals, ancient maps, documents, and more.

The library originated with the building of the Divinity School in Oxford in 1427 and completed in 1483. During the building of the Divinity school the 1st Duke of Gloucester donated 300 or so manuscripts so the divinity school could also have a library. The donation was early enough in construction that the building could be altered, so they lowered the Divinity School ceiling and built Duke Humpry’s Library above it. In an age that some individual manuscripts were as valuable as a new car today the name “Duke Humphry’s Library” (after the 1st Duke of Gloucester) seems an apt name for the beautiful room.

The Divinity School is full of windows to allow students plenty of light to study in pre-industrial days. The crests on the ceiling honor the families and organizations that donated to the library.

Examinations were oral, not written until the 20th century. They also could last from 3 hours to two days and were in Latin! Oxford is a prestitious university for a reason.

The school also doubled the hospital set in the first Harry Potter movie…

…and the dance practice hall in the fourth movie.


Upstairs, directly above the school, Duke Humphrey’s library is generally quiet, even when tours are passing through. Tour guides hand visitors audio head sets and speak quietly into a microphone, describing the library to prevent disrupting students at work.

In 1550, during the religious reformation of England, the crown had all of the Duke’s manuscripts removed; many were destroyed or sold (for uses not involving reading). The library was empty for some time until Thomas Bodley, an alumni of Oxford, restored the library by collecting manuscripts, purchasing them through the donations of his wealthy spouse, and also asking his friends for donations.

While the Duke’s library keeps its name, the library as a whole is now called The Bodleian Library every since, after Thomas Bodley. During our tour, our guide mentioned that, due to thievery or absent mindedness of the students before the reformation, 12 or so original manuscripts from Duke Humphry’s Library had been inadvertently saved from the burn pile. When Thomas Bodley restored the library, the students or their kin gave the books back to the library.

Despite of the accidental helpfulness of the thieves (or just absent minded scholars, it’s hard to say), books in Duke Humphrey’s library after Bodley’s restoration were chained by the front leather cover to rails near their shelves to prevent stealing. Due to the chains, the books had to be stored backwards and numbered on the page edges. The only way to “check out” a book during the era of chained books was to sit on the bench and read it.


No flame has ever been allowed allowed in the library, even today, for fear of fire; winter hours and cloudy days would mean texts were hard to see, especially for those with books chained far from windows. The rattle of chains couldn’t have improved students’ concentration either. The library was of course very cold as well, until the development of the radiator in the 20th century!


Bodley also established an oath of conduct in Latin for students to say before they could gain access to the library. Those entering today still must speak that same vow in English:

Bodleian readers today must also sign a form and have their picture taken. It took Nyan a bit of effort not to irreverently add “I solemnly swear I am up to no good” when he was at the finish line of obtaining his reader’s card.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s