Changing with the Times: Philosophy and Architecture of Oxford’s Bodleian Library

Libraries do more than house books. How do they reflect the culture of those who build, maintain and enjoy them?

One of the oldest libraries in Europe, the Bodleian consists of five buildings and several off-site storage facilities and serves as the main research library of Oxford University, Oxford, UK. It has a long, proud history, and has been bursting at the seams with manuscripts, printed material and knowledge for much of its more than five hundred years. Over time, the library has seen an incredible change in style, architecture and philosophy. It is now the cornerstone of the Bodleian Library System, which links approximately forty libraries serving the University of Oxford, containing eleven million printed items and numerous artworks and artifacts.

© photoverulam with CCLicense
Old Divinity School and Duke Humfrey’s Library
© photoverulam with CCLicense

The first building, finished in 1488, was actually a room attached to the old Divinity School, dubbed Duke Humfrey’s Library, after Henry V’s brother, Humfrey, Duke of Gloucester. The Duke donated his substantial collection of manuscripts to a small chained library operating out of the University Church of St Mary the Virgin on High Street, but his collection was too large for that space and the new library was required.

At the time, it was normal for libraries to be maintained by monasteries and religious institutions, and so the University of Oxford Divinity School oversaw Duke Humfrey’s Library. The Divinity school itself was built between 1427 and 1483, making it the oldest building designed specifically for University use. Its ribbed, vaulted ceilings, designed by William Orchard in the Gothic lierne style, are extremely impressive. Today, the old Divinity School building is maintained by the Bodleian Library, while Theology classes are taught at the Theology Faculty Centre.

Divinity School, University Of Oxford  © Lens_Flare with CCLicense
Old Divinity School, University Of Oxford
© Lens_Flare with CCLicense

Unfortunately, the University of Oxford experienced dark days during the 16th century. The University community stood with the Catholic church in denying Henry VIII’s divorce from Catherine of Aragon until he forced them to accept it. The Reformation saw the Anglican churchmen Thomas Cranmer, Hugh Latimer and Nicholas Ridley tried for heresy and burned at the stake in Oxford. In addition to the obvious loss of life, these controversies resulted in low enrollment, political intrigue and persecution, and property damage. Duke Humfrey’s Library suffered for its religious ties. The collection was pillaged, sold and defaced.

Duke Humfrey's Library © Fernando Vilarino with CCLicense
Duke Humfrey’s Library
© Fernando Vilarino with CCLicense

By the late 1500s, the library was in a sorry state: only three of the Duke’s manuscripts remained in the collection and the furniture had all either been sold or stolen. In 1598, Thomas Bodley financed the restoration and development of the library, which opened again in 1602 as the Bodleian Library, fitted with wooden shelves, new furniture, and newly collected books and manuscripts. Thanks to Bodley’s guidance, money and influence, it flourished. In an attempt to further knowledge and to bolster their own names, men of learning and means began leaving their collections for posterity at the Bodleian, where Bodley created a Benefactor’s Book to recognize his donors. Books and printed materials poured in, companioned by odds and ends that needed safekeeping. Space for all these items became an issue and has been an issue ever since.

Schools Quadrangle Building, Old Bodleian © Simon and His Camera with CCLicense
Schools Quadrangle Building, Old Bodleian
© Simon and His Camera with CCLicense

In the 17th century, the Bodleian began to expand. Along with two additions to the original building itself, the Schools Quadrangle building was built in three wings, each three stories high, around the Old Divinity School and Duke Humfrey Library. The main entrance to the library is through the Quadrangle tower known as the Tower of the Five Orders, ornamented with columns of each of the five orders of classical architecture: Tuscan, Doric, Ionic, Corinthian and Composite. Much like the library buildings themselves, this tower celebrates the fusion of a variety of styles. Originally containing lecture rooms and an art gallery, the entire building was eventually overtaken by the library proper. The Quadrangle and the Duke Humfrey Library are referred to as the Old Bodleian.

Radcliffe Camera, Bodleian Library © Roman Kirillov with CCLicense
Radcliffe Camera, Bodleian Library
© Roman Kirillov with CCLicense

In 1860 the Bodleian took over the Radcliffe Camera, which had been vacated by the Radcliffe Science Library. This attractive building was built by James Gibbs between 1737 and 1749 in the English Palladian style. After the Oxford University Press vacated the nearby Clarendon Building, designed by Nicholas Hawksmoor and built between 1711 and 1715, the University of Oxford took over that building and eventually handed it over to the Bodleian in 1975. It houses administrative offices and the admissions department.

Clarendon Building © Steve Daniels with CCLicense
Clarendon Building
© Steve Daniels with CCLicense
New Bodleian before renovation © Steve Cadman with CCLicense
New Bodleian before renovation
© Steve Cadman with CCLicense

The collection of the Bodleian surpassed one million items in 1914, prompting the design of the New Bodleian building by Sir Giles Gilbert Scott. Construction took place during World War II, from 1937 to 1940. Befitting the ideals of a nation at war, this structure, the least attractive of the group, is a stocky building with 60% of the bookstack below ground level. Currently, the New Bodleian is undergoing reconstruction that will create a technology friendly space for patrons and new housing for special collections, items that require special conditions, protection and limited circulation. The video below is a delightful overview of the project. The new New Bodleian will open a year from now, in October 2014, as the Weston Library.

Video via oxford on YouTube.

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