Sir Thomas Bodley, a fellow of Oxford University’s Merton College and a prominent figure in the court of Elizabeth I, wanted to do something meaningful with his retirement.

Seeing that the library in the heart of his beloved Oxford had fallen into decline during the 16th century – with only three books of the original collection remaining – he decided to invest in its restoration. “I could not busy myself to better purpose,” he later claimed, “than by reducing that place (which then in every part lay ruined and waste) to the public use of students.”

The Bodleian Library was therefore opened on 8 November 1602, boasting a 2,500-strong book-and-manuscript collection, some provided by Bodley himself. Since then, the library has never stopped growing and currently holds over 12 million publications (only the British Library can boast more in Britain). Its numerous buildings help define the Oxford panorama, as well as offering those walking through the city a glimpse of a hallowed past.

Opening chapters

Before it became ‘the Bod’, the University’s first library was set up c1320. Bishop of Worcester Thomas Cobham compiled a collection of ‘chained books’ (which were literally chained to the shelves) in the University Church of St Mary the Virgin.

A single room was sufficient until Humfrey, the Duke of Gloucester and brother of King Henry V, presented his priceless collection of 300 manuscripts and the money for a larger library. In 1488, Duke Humfrey’s Library was opened.

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The Tower of the Five Orders, part of the Bodleian – so-named as it is made up of five styles of classical column © Getty Images
The Tower of the Five Orders, part of the Bodleian – so-named as it is made up of five styles of classical column © Getty Images

Although today it is the oldest reading room still in use, Duke Humfrey’s closed its doors after 60 years. Poverty, more college libraries and the Dean of Christ Church, who was on a mission to purge “superstitious books and images”, contributed to its decline. Many tomes were removed; some were even burnt. If it wasn’t for Bodley, this would have been the end of the library’s tale.

But the retiree refitted Duke Humfrey’s, acquired surrounding buildings and organised the construction of new ones. Even after his death in 1613, developments continued. All the while, the number of books rose – with texts coming from as far as the Ottoman Empire and China.

Hit the books

Yet perhaps Bodley’s most significant achievement was his 1610 agreement with the Stationers’ Company of London, entitling the library to a copy of every book published in England. This was the foundation of ‘legal deposit’ libraries, of which the Bod is one of only six in Britain and Ireland today.

In 1914, the collection passed the million mark, prompting further building work. The New Bodleian, designed by Sir Giles Gilbert Scott (of Battersea Power Station, Liverpool Cathedral and red telephone box fame), was finished in 1940. It is mostly underground, with a tunnel connecting it to older buildings.

The Bod remains a popular spot for visitors to Oxford, especially after some of its buildings were used as sets in the Harry Potter films. Duke Humfrey's was transformed into Hogwarts library and the Divinity School made a fitting setting for the hospital wing.

The Radcliffe Camera, an iconic feature of Oxford's skyline © Getty Images
The Radcliffe Camera, an iconic feature of Oxford's skyline © Getty Images

The most recognisable building connected to the Bodleian, if not all Oxford, is the Radcliffe Camera. The circular, domed masterpiece of classical style, paid for by wealthy doctor John Radcliffe and designed by influential architect James Gibbs, was constructed in the mid-18th century. On 23 October 1861, it was handed over to the Bod to become a splendid reading room. While walking around the Camera (meaning room in Latin), it is possible to get a whiff of that old-book smell.

If you’re hoping to pop in and borrow something, you’ll be disappointed as the Bod is a non-lending library. Not even Charles I could get permission to take a book away in 1645.

And those who wish to sit in and read have to sign a declaration, promising not to “mark, deface or injure” the books and “not to bring into the Library, or kindle therein, any fire or flame”.