Legendary Bodleian Library and Its Founder
Being the second biggest after the British Book Depository, the Bodleian Library in Oxford is one of the most world-famous book collections. Along with the Vatican Library this reading room of Oxford University has the title of the oldest library in Europe. It is currently situated in five large-scale buildings and has many branches and offices. The library was founded by Sir Thomas Bodley, who played a greater role in the establishment and development of the Oxford University in general and the library in particular.
It was Sir Bodley, who offered his own money for the library renovation back in 1598. And it was him the poets and writers of the Oxford University, praising in their works for his contribution. So, who was the man called the Mycenas and Ptolemy of his age?
Thomas Bodley was the son of an Exeter merchant and Protestant. When Mary I ascends the throne of England, he preferred to leave the country and move to the house of Calvinism and Reformation – Geneva. Thomas Bodley has received the primary education from legendary John Calvin, and after that, Thomas moved to Oxford to continue his studies. As the Fellow of Merton, he lectured in Greek and promoted Hebrew.
In virtue of traveling on the Continent Boldey has improved his knowledge of Italian, French and Spanish, the great part of his four-year traveling remains in the Bodleian library — his Spanish copy of the Girolamo Franzini’s guidebook to Rome. His fellowship at Merton was over in 1586 on his marriage, and two years later he went to the United Provinces as envoy. Anglo-Dutch relationships were strained at that time, and Sir Bodley resigned from all the State employments in 1597. Yet his personal inclination and public expectation were the reason he kept seeking for other ways to be the profitable part of the community. After some time Thomas Bodley threw his forces and enthusiasm for the neglected Oxford library.
What about the history of the library before Sir Thomas? It was Thomas Cobham, Bishop of Worcester, who founded the first Oxford library, and for quite a while it was housed in a small room next to church St Mary the Virgin. After the generous donation from Humfrey, Duke of Gloucester that resulted in 279 rare manuscripts being added to the library between 1439 and 1444 the library was moved to a bigger library room. It was built over the Divinity School, and the building was over in 1488. In 60 years, when Sir Bodley has come to Magdalen College, the library room was already neglected.
In 1598 as Bodley left his diplomatic service, he started working on the renovation and reviving of the library. In his letter to the Vice-Chancellor he promised to take all the costs and efforts on his own – Bodley believed his leisure, education, friends and money would bring him success. And it seems like he really succeeded in his noble mission.
He started from the very beginning – there was a group of six people to inspect the renovated library room. The changes in the interior were inspired by the library of Bodley’s friend Henry Savile, Warden of Merton. Craving for the truly university-based library, he repaired the roof, paneled the ceiling of the new library room with the arms of the University and filled it with bookcases and tables. In 1600 when all the building was done, Sir Bodley switched from constructing the great place for those seeking knowledge to actually fill the shelves of the library with books.
In five years, due to Bodley’s talent to encourage the benefactions he had about £1,700 – the money donated by both famous people of that age and smaller ones. The library had a nice register book where all the contributors were listed. Kept on the display, it was the best way to remember the tiniest gift and to please those who contributed to the library – simple psychology, but it worked. The money received in this way Bodley spent on hiring two London booksellers, John Norton and John Bill, and on buying some of the new books.
The wide range of book procurement for the library was based on numerous donations from friends and contacts of the Mycenas of his time. Several hundreds of priceless medieval manuscripts transferred to the Bodleian Library were one of the most notable gifts. In fact, Bodley went far beyond the needs of the Oxford University curriculum – he encouraged the addition of books in other languages such as Persian, Arab, Turkish and Syrian. While there was no one in Oxford to read them, Bodley was sure they would be useful in future.
On 8 November 1602 the library was open to public, and soon scholars were traveling all over the Europe just to study here. Thomas James, young scholar with the same background as Bodley, was chosen to be the first bookkeeper at the Bodleian Library and sort of the right hand for the famous executant. In fact, James helped to realize his vision of the library as the ornament of the University and great source of knowledge for people from all over the world. The extensive correspondence between these two shows all kinds of directions concerning the library and all the administrative issues James received from Bodley. Covering the time period between 1599 and 1613, these letters tell us about the production of their first catalogue, Bodley’s endowment of the library in 1608 and a lot more – it is an epistolary reflection of the majesty and significance the Bodleian Library earned with years.
After Sir Thomas Bodley died the library was governed by the Curators and administered by the Oxford University. James continued as the Librarian – he kept buying more books and working on new catalogue until 1620. After that the library expanded the second time – this was the beginning of the continuous growth of this science center at the heart of the University.