A library founder to be proud of…

It is the 400th anniversary of the death in 1613 of Sir Thomas Bodley. The story of his gift of a library to the University of Oxford, following on from the great 16th century libraries that were established or enlarged in Europe, is an uplifting reminder to us all in times of shrinking budgets, reduced space, merging publishers, and increased demands, that libraries were, and still are, marvellous institutions with an ongoing role in the lives of lawyers and legal scholars everywhere.

Whilst we celebrate Bodley in the UK, it is important to remember that many great public libraries were considerably enlarged during the sixteenth century throughout Europe. These included the public – or university – libraries of Rome, Florence, Ferrara, Heidelberg and Vienna, which stood out from others. Pope Sixtus V created the splendid Vatican Library. Philip II of Spain founded the Escorial in the 1580s and collected books for its library at great expense and effort, encouraging his supporters to contribute gifts of rarities. Salamanca’s University Library is even older than the Escorial. The Royal Library of Paris, originally housed at Fontainebleau, before being transferred to Paris in 1595, was added to by every King of France. By an ordinance of 1556, a copy of every book printed with privilege was to be deposited in this library, a forerunner of the scheme adopted in England by Bodley in 1610. The first Prince of Orange founded the public library of Leyden, and it soon became one of the best in Europe, with its catalogue being published in 1597. Archbishop Parker, the Archbishop of Canterbury, greatly enlarged the library of Cambridge, (now the Parker Library at Corpus Christi) with his collection of medieval manuscripts which had been dispersed at the dissolution of the monasteries.

The library bequeathed by Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester, to the University of Oxford, was dispersed under Edward VI in the mid 16th century, when all materials suspected of being ‘popish’ were destroyed. At the close of the 16th century, the University had no public library. But Sir Thomas Bodley had already, in 1597, made the generous offer of presenting his own library.

Bodley had studied at Oxford, and been a fellow at Merton College; he became a member of Parliament, and then, in part because of his knowledge of half a dozen languages, a diplomat on behalf of Queen Elizabeth 1, travelling in Europe (having grown up in France and Switzerland), and living in The Hague for over a decade. However the intrigue of the Court, and the politics involved, led to him resign all public posts, and, as he wrote in his autobiography:

 ‘I concluded at the last to set up my Staffe at the Library doore in Oxford; being throughly perswaded, that in my solitude and surcease from the Common-wealth affaires, I could not busy my selfe to better purpose, then by reducing that place (which then in every part lay ruined and wast) to the publique use of Students.’ (Life, 14–15)[1]

He felt qualified to carry out this task because of his linguistic and scholarly background, wealth, and influential connections. He wrote on 23 February 1598 to Thomas Singleton, the Vice Chancellor, announcing his momentous offer to restore the library at his own expense and:

‘to stirre up other mens benevolence, to helpe to furnish it with bookes’ (Letters … to the University, 4).[2]

Once the University voted to accept his gift, he set about collecting together about 2,000 volumes for the opening of the Library, which took place in November, 1602. Named the Bibliotheca Bodleiana in 1604, it rapidly became internationally renowned. In the first two years of the Library’s existence twenty-two foreign readers were admitted.[3]

It was important to Bodley that the collection be of high quality, and that books not be loaned out, so that any scholar visiting from anywhere would be assured of finding required books on the shelves. His innovation included the establishment of donations by benefactors as a means of ensuring ongoing funding for the library, and also his arrangement, with the agreement of King James, that one copy of every volume published by the Stationers’ Company should be deposited in the library.

The Stationers’ Company, founded in 1565, obtained its monopoly at the price of strict restrictions. By the regulations issued in 1585, no press was allowed to be used outside of London, except one at Oxford, and another at Cambridge. Nothing was to be printed without permission of the Stationers’ Council; extensive powers both of seizing books and of breaking any illegal presses were given to the Officers of the Crown.

The foresight that Sir Thomas Bodley showed in re-establishing this university library can only be admired. He had travelled abroad, he understood what was taking place in the European cities and universities, and he understood the vital role of books for research, for education, for diplomacy. The technology of book printing was already over a century old, but books were still precious and expensive, and his well endowed library enhanced the reputation of Oxford throughout the academic world. He worked closely with his first librarian, Thomas James, who was also the first librarian to attempt the organisation of knowledge in books and manuscripts into the printed and published catalogues of a large library.

Whilst the extent of collection itself, and the modes of access to it today, would be unrecognisable to Sir Thomas Bodley, the legacy he left, and his belief in the importance of having a great library for worthwhile scholarship and research is still relevant in the twenty first century, and, hopefully, well into the future.

Ruth Bird