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University of Oxford
Director of University Library Services and Bodley's Librarian

The Bodleian Library:

Maintaining excellence into the new millennium


For the many tens of thousands of its regular readers, the Bodleian Library remains today what it has always been – a rich and seemingly inexhaustible treasure-trove of printed, manuscript and archival resources supporting every conceivable kind of study and research. Since the far-off day, in November 1602, when it first opened its doors to the ‘republic of letters’, (1) the Bodleian has been, not simply the principal library of the University of Oxford, but also an internationally renowned haven of learning for all-comers, available to any able to demonstrate their need to gain access to its remarkable resources.(2) Considered by many to be the first ‘public’ library in Europe (public, that is, in the sense of being open to all on the basis of scholarly need, by contrast with so many earlier libraries whose use was restricted to the members of a particular community), Sir Thomas Bodley’s Library was consciously founded as a beacon of universal learning at the height of England’s post-Reformation golden age, by a man of energy and vision who well understood the power of the printed word to educate and to transform the minds of men of every race and creed and class.

It had not, of course, always been so. Oxford University’s first library, locked away in the University Church of St Mary from its beginnings under Bishop Cobham in the 1320s, was essentially a private library for the masters and fellows of the medieval institution. It consisted of a few hundred Latin and Greek manuscript texts, and was almost as difficult of access as the University’s collection of plate. And even when, in 1488, after being under construction for more than 40 years, a splendid purpose-built library room was added to the upper floor of the 15th-century Divinity School, the considerably expanded manuscript collections of the University were still only available to the clerics and senior scholars of the institution. Named in honour of Duke Humfrey of Gloucester – the youngest son of King Henry IV, and a great patron of the Arts and benefactor of the University – the new library was essentially still a medieval foundation, housing the hundreds of choice manuscripts donated by the ‘Good Duke’. Sadly lacking endowment funds for its development and care, however, the collection atrophied at the very time when printed books were beginning, elsewhere, to transform the nature of scholarship itself. Careless administration of the Duke’s princely bequest over a sixty year period was finally compounded by the Commissioners of King Edward VI who, in the 1550s, removed from the library what volumes remained, in pursuit of Henry VIII’s policy of dispersal and destruction of the manuscript heritage of the religious communities of Catholic England. For forty years and more thereafter the University of Oxford’s library was an empty and derelict room. (3)

The momentous decision of Sir Thomas Bodley to re-found the Library at his own expense towards the end of the 16th century changed all that. A Protestant whose family had taken him as a child to the Continent during the Marian persecutions of the 1540s, Thomas Bodley chose to help the University in this way not simply because it was his alma mater, but also because he understood the importance of the new learning, which was itself being increasingly communicated by the printed word, and because he regarded it as part of his ‘dutie toward God’ to create a perpetual home for a public collection of books and manuscripts on as large a scale as he could possibly contrive. And succeed marvellously he did! For from 1598 until the (re)opening of the Library in 1602 and beyond, he lavished care, attention and no small fortune on the refurbishment and re-equipment of Duke Humfrey’s abandoned room, filling it with shelves and benches and, above all, with printed books and manuscripts – many of them cajoled and charmed as gifts from the wide circle of influential friends he had made during his career as a diplomat in the service of Elizabeth I. Concluding a far-sighted agreement with the Stationers’ Company in 1610 – which made the Bodleian Library a deposit library for all new books published under licence (4) – Sir Thomas rounded off his benefactions to the University at his death in 1613 by bequeathing for Library purposes the bulk of his considerable estate. Described by Bodley’s close friend Francis Bacon as ‘an ark to save learning from the deluge’, the Bodleian Library, propelled headlong by Bodley’s extraordinary generosity and energy into the systematic collection of the recorded wisdom of mankind, grew very quickly after his death. Today it has grown far beyond anything that its founder could possibly have envisaged, with dependent libraries and storage sites all over Oxford as well as beneath and outside the city. (5) And yet, throughout all those four centuries, the Library has remained staunchly faithful to its Founder’s wish that it should open its doors to any and all in pursuit of learning – a long and noble tradition which has served as an inspiration to many. (6)


The Library building restored by Sir Thomas Bodley at the turn of the 16th century was itself already a piece of English heritage (though it may not then have been perceived as such). It was, after all, a fine example of Gothic architecture which had survived into Elizabethan England. Four hundred years on from Sir Thomas, with a continuous working history in Duke Humfrey’s library and its various extensions, the Bodleian has inherited not only the architectural glories of the past but also the major maintenance problems which those glories bring with them. The stonework, the windows, the roof, the beams, the furniture, the painted ceiling panels, the environmental conditions – the heating, ventilating and lighting – all are in need of serious attention as the new millennium approaches. And with no Sir Thomas to fund the restoration works (and no special supplementation from government to meet the extra costs of occupying such an ‘ancient monument’), the Library has taken it upon itself to raise the necessary funds from charitable sources.

Thanks to the combined efforts of the Development Office of the Library and of the University, the £3.2m required to begin the four year programme of renovations in the Old Library was raised in time for the works to commence in late August of 1998, nicely echoing the 400th anniversary of Sir Thomas’s declaration of intent to restore Duke Humfrey’s library. By September 1998, everything moveable had been removed – including nearly 150,000 books – and both internal, and external scaffolding was beginning to be put in place, eventually wreathing the whole of the Divinity School and its immediately adjoining buildings with 32.5 kilometres of metal tubes, about a kilometre of prefabricated beams, and an acre of wooden platforms. By the Spring of 1999, the copper roof of Duke Humfrey’s had been replaced, and the extensive painted ceiling panels had been expertly restored, with this oldest part of the Bodleian due to re-open during the Summer.

The restoration work, however, cannot stop there. Instead, it will continue into 2002, with the Upper Reading Room of the 17th-century Old Library closing during the Long Vacation of 2000 and the Lower Reading Room during the same period in 2001. Together with a similar programme of revitalisation for the Bodleian's Radcliffe Camera (which celebrates its 250th anniversary this year), the whole of this ambitious, but vitally necessary, rebuilding project should be completed in time to mark the Bodleian's own quatercentenary in 2002.

By that particular ‘landmark’ date, therefore, the Old Library’s physical infrastructure should be in good shape. With the troublesome death-watch beetle eliminated (by modern, environmentally friendly, methods – including the raising of the roof to prevent condensation), with enhanced environmental conditions, and with the original desks wired and networked for portable computers, ‘Duke Humfrey’, together with other much-loved parts of the Old Library, will be well placed to serve their longsuffering but faithful readership into the 21st century.


In the brave new digital world of the late 20th century, however, the value of a world-class library is no longer measured simply by the size of its collections (whatever their range or quality), nor by the state of repair of its physical infrastructure. In an age when electronic information, rapid changes in scholarly communication, and even teaching and learning methods themselves, are bringing radical changes into the world of libraries and archives generally, a completely new paradigm of access is emerging, in which information technology is playing an increasingly crucial role. In this environment, the Bodleian Library, in common with all major research libraries throughout the world, has begun actively to address the management of its collections, both physical and virtual, in new and exciting ways. In this context, the Library sees itself developing as a ‘hybrid’ operation, with its worlds of ink-on-paper and of computers - providing access to vast collections of electronic materials - being managed together as an integrated whole. By this means, the Library envisages a greatly enhanced service, not only for those who continue to come to it, in ever growing numbers, for physical access, but also for that wider and increasingly global community of networked information users for whom a personal visit to Oxford represents an expensive and unnecessary luxury.

As a first step in the direction of opening its collections to the wired-up world, the Bodleian Library - thanks to a generous and visionary grant from Pearson plc - appointed in 1991 a New Media Librarian, whose task it has been, with other colleagues, to investigate and to implement the application of new technology to the Library’s provision of networked information resources.(7) Earlier experiments, too, to produce machine-readable versions of the Library’s extensive catalogue - which resulted first in the publication by Oxford University Press in 1993 of a CD-ROM edition of the pre-1920 catalogue of holdings - were built upon in the 1990s by a major investment in the retrospective conversion of the post-1920 holdings records and the establishment of a union catalogue of machine-readable catalogue records (OLIS) for the University as a whole. The spectacular growth of OLIS in the last few years now means that readers with access to a networked terminal anywhere in Oxford - and throughout the world via the Internet - can gain round-the-clock access to information about the Bodleian’s vast holdings, as well as those of more than 75 other libraries in the University. In the large-scale conversion process of the Bodleian’s records, the basic entries in the manual catalogue were matched against those in the OCLC database (containing over 40 million full machine- readable records), with the matched records being returned to the Library by electronic transfer. At its peak, the conversion programme reached the level of 44,000 records per month, with the full records making it possible for users of OLIS to search for items by author, title, keyword, or subject - a very much enhanced facility compared with the physically laborious searching of the old manual catalogue (almost 700 volumes, accessible in the Library only).

Allied to this radical modernisation of the catalogues, the new technology is also being used to enrich the catalogue database with other valuable information. Already, some printed book records direct readers electronically to a website containing associated material (for instance, current financial, business, or travel information); and readers should soon be able to click the website address and go directly to it via a live Internet connection. With very many millions of the Bodleian’s books being of necessity shelved in closed access storage, too, active attention is being given to installing an automated stack request system which will enable readers to request items simply by clicking on the catalogue entry. As a by-product of this system, it is envisaged that the routine scanning of usage data logged from the requests made will enable the Library to ensure that the most-used materials are transferred onto the open shelves

A promising start has been made also on the conversion to machine-readable form of the Library’s many manuscript finding-aids, with a number having already been converted into the international EAD (Electronic Archival Description) format, for accessible searching on the World Wide Web. Further developments in the electronic recording of special collections holdings are in the pipeline, too, with attention already being given to the conversion of the records of the Library’s outstanding collections of maps and music. As a matter of routine, more and more information resources are being made available by the Library in digital form and accessible by electronic means, including, increasingly, full text materials and large numbers of electronic journals. In common with other institutions within the University, the Bodleian has converted a wide range of its own holdings into digital form, including important manuscripts, rare books and unique ephemera, with spin-off benefits for the long-term preservation of the originals.(8) Digitised versions have been made also of backruns of a selection of older out-of-print journals, and plans are being laid for the establishment of a Library-based on-demand digitisation service, to meet the growing demand for digital copies and for remote desk-top delivery of key materials held by the Library. The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation has generously funded a scoping study which will help such digital activities to proceed on a planned and cost-effective basis, and the outcomes of the study, overseen by a Digital Library Resources Group which brings together a range of existing University initiatives and interests, are eagerly awaited because of their importance for the strategic development of electronic library services in Oxford.(9)

By such means, the Bodleian Library is systematically updating its services and, for the benefit of library users far and near, is planning to harness the new technology to the evermore sophisticated expectations and possibilities of the information age. Sir Thomas Bodley would no doubt be completely astounded at what goes on today in the Library almost four centuries after his death, but he would undoubtedly approve, since all of it is designed to maintain the relevance and value of the institution which he founded so long ago.


The appointment in 1997 of the University of Oxford’s first Director of University Library Services, who combines this new role with the post of Bodley’s Librarian (the 23rd in a continuous line since Sir Thomas Bodley’s own selection of Dr Thomas James in 1600), pointed the way forward towards the new organisational arrangements for library services in the University envisaged in the Thomas Report of 1995.(10) With the approval of the University Congregation, too, with effect from January 1997, the statutes governing the two principal library authorities in the University - the Libraries Board and the Curators of the Bodleian Library - were put into abeyance and a new unitary body - the Libraries Committee - was brought into existence as a joint committee of Hebdomadal Council and the General Board. The new Director and the newly formed Libraries Committee were given the task of bringing forward, by the year 2000, proposals for an integrated library system which will unite, in a single library service, the 22 libraries centrally-funded through the Libraries Committee. (11)

The Director’s personal remit neatly encapsulates the principal objectives of the major organisational changes which are being planned for the integration of so many of the University’s libraries:

  • Bringing forward within three years for consideration by the University proposals for an integrated library service that will facilitate the following major objectives:
    1. the distribution of resources within the service to meet users’ needs most effectively;
    2. the improvement of the capacity of the University’s libraries to respond to the needs of their users in the University;
    3. the maintenance and development of, and provision of access to, Oxford’s collections as an international research resource;
    4. the provision of University-wide services such as library automation and electronic media, preservation and library staff development;
    5. the fostering of the qualities of responsiveness, and of flexibility in provision.
  • The administration of the Bodleian Library and its maintenance and development, not only as a University library but also as an institution of national and international importance.
  • Consulting as appropriate, to draw up the budget for allocating to the relevant libraries and library services the recurrent block grant and any other central university funds that may be earmarked for library provision.
  • The overall management of automated library services for the University of Oxford as a single support operation. There are presently two major providers of support for automated library services: the Oxford University Libraries Automation Services and the Systems Section of the Bodleian Library.
  • Carrying forward programmes for the preservation of collections in the University’s libraries.
  • Training and professional development of library staff in the University.
  • In advance of any decisions about moves to a structurally integrated library system, to encourage collaboration, co-ordination and co-operation between the University’s libraries and to act as a focal point for strategic planning.

Since the early part of 1997, a great deal of planning effort has been put into the first bullet point above, and since all of this has implications for the Bodleian Library and for the nature, range and quality of its services, every care is being taken to ensure that both current and planned changes in the library system will serve to enhance what the Bodleian does and how it achieves it.

As an example, the committee structures which have been introduced in the interim before full integration have had to be carefully tuned, with a Sub-committee on the Bodleian Library advising the new Libraries Committee on the special needs and responsibilities of the Bodleian (which itself represents over 70% of the library resources in the Libraries Committee sector). Whilst a small University Library Services ‘Directorate’ has been established to support the Director with certain key elements of his University-wide remit,(12) the Bodleian Library’s own senior management team has been strengthened and enlarged, and much attention has been given to ways of preparing all the staff, in all the libraries, for working together on a more collaborative basis in the integrated system.

Within the Bodleian, for example, a number of changes have been introduced, or are being considered, in the ways in which library staff are organised. The former Department of Printed Books has been restructured into a number of separate departments, now known as Reader Services, Technical Services, and Collection Development, in order to emphasise the strategic importance of these three major aspects of library activity and to enable them to ‘map’ onto the organisational structures which are envisaged for the integrated library system. Again, an important element being built into the integrated approach is a subject-based emphasis in library provision, and discussions are already well-advanced within the Bodleian on ways in which the work of staff with subject-oriented duties can be effectively organised within an integrated staff structure which will incorporate subject staff from other libraries within the sector.(13)

This same subject-based approach is being taken, too, towards the formal committee structure which will ultimately support the integration of the 22 libraries in question, including the Bodleian itself. Agreement has already been reached with most of the Faculty Boards and other bodies which currently oversee the eleven Libraries Committee libraries outside the Bodleian to ‘reform’ their existing library committees by turning them into subject advisory committees of the main Libraries Committee, with responsibility for advising on library provision for particular disciplines across the whole of the integrated system. This model will serve the Bodleian Library as well, since it will provide the opportunity to turn the committees of its dependent libraries into subject advisory committees also, thus mirroring at the ‘governance’ level the refocusing of the Library’s staff working practices, and enabling a greater level of interaction between the Library and the subject-based interests and needs of so many of its users. The Libraries Committee, in the integrated structure, will sit at the centre of a web of advisory sub-committees with a heavy emphasis on representing to the ‘governing body’ the academic needs of the whole user community.(14)

In such ways, the work of the Bodleian Library will continue to be developed and enhanced. Set within a larger and more diverse staffing structure, its staff will be enabled to work even more effectively with library colleagues elsewhere in the University who share a common purpose. From the discipline of an integrated approach to budgeting and resource allocation within the 22 libraries, the Bodleian will gain a fuller understanding of service costs, of revenue streams and of funding needs. From an overview of reader needs across such a variety of libraries, the Bodleian’s role will be defined (and understood) with greater clarity. A University-wide approach to acquisitions policy and to other collection development matters (such as retention, preservation and storage) will strengthen the Bodleian’s role by embedding its activities even more firmly in the University’s governance, planning and resource allocation procedures (which themselves are currently undergoing a thorough review in the light of the Report of the North Commission of 1998). The Library’s electronic services will be greatly facilitated within an integrated IT strategy for the libraries sector as a whole, with support and development staff being pooled within the sector to greater effect, and with the particular needs of the Bodleian as a legal deposit and international research library being addressed in the larger context. From the challenge of confronting change, in these and other ways, the Bodleian Library will emerge, as it has always done throughout its long history, better equipped to meet not only the needs of the present but also the demands of the future.

The Bodleian Library is the centre of excellence it is today because it has always been able to recreate itself by assimilating the best of the modern world into the critical mass of its historical heritage. Sir Thomas Bodley himself was a man of great vision, an innovator who, precisely because he was not content with the status quo, used all his energy and invention (as well as his considerable resources) to bring the Library to what he described as a ‘state of singularitie’. It is in that same spirit of innovation and commitment that his successors will strive to maintain that excellence for the next four hundred years also.


(1) This phrase, which encapsulates Sir Thomas Bodley’s ambitious vision for the Bodleian as much more than simply a library for the University of Oxford, is memorialised in its Latin form on the tablet placed above the entrance to the Proscholium in the Old Bodleian quadrangle.

(2) More than 60% of Bodleian readers’ tickets in a typical year are issued to non-members of the University of Oxford. Of these 50% are readers from outside the UK.

(3) Thomas Bodley, in Oxford as a graduate of Magdalen and as a Fellow of Merton during many of those years, later remembered Duke Humfrey’s abandoned library room as a ‘place..... which in every part laye ruined and wast’.

(4) This agreement of 1610 is the origin of the Bodleian Library’s present status as one of the six legal deposit libraries of the British Isles – a status which it has enjoyed far longer than any of the other five.

(5) From its relatively small beginnings - a few thousand books and manuscripts in Duke Humfrey’s library and Arts End by the time of Bodley’s death in 1613 - the Library now contains well over 8 million items. These materials are housed in the Old Bodleian buildings, in the Radcliffe Camera, in the New Bodleian (with 11 floors and underground stacks), in ten dependent libraries, and in a large off-campus repository at Nuneham Courtenay. Each year the Library now adds over 2 miles of materials to its shelves.

(6) Bodleian visitors as disparate as King James I and Hilaire Belloc have sung the Library’s praises as a desirable and welcoming place of study. King James is recorded as saying: ‘Were I not King, I would be a University man; and if it were that I must be a prisoner, if I might have my wish, I would have no other prison than this library, and be chained together with these good authors’. Hilaire Belloc said, with untypical reverence: ‘There are few greater temptations on earth than to stay permanently at Oxford in meditation, and to read all the books in the Bodleian’.

(7) The remit for the post of the Pearson New Media Librarian was described in April 1990 in the following terms: ‘The role will be to research and monitor new and developing technologies in information storage and retrieval, and to plan and implement this provision alongside the traditional formats of printed books and manuscripts’. As early as 1992, when the Internet was still relatively unknown in the UK, the New Media Librarian was already introducing the first fully-fledged public Internet service provided for users by any library in the UK (the BARD service), and an article on the service in the Times Higher Educational Supplement on 13 November 1992 (‘Virtual libraries’), proved to be the first piece on the Internet ever published in that journal.

(8) As a library of legal deposit, the Bodleian has a particular interest in the technical, economic and management issues surrounding the question of digital archiving and the long- term preservation of electronic materials. These issues are likely to come into even sharper focus for the Library if and when the existing UK legal deposit legislation is extended to include the deposit of materials in electronic formats. For this reason, the Library was delighted last year to receive substantial funding from the Higher Education Funding Council’s Joint Information Systems Committee (JISC) to join with the libraries of the Universities of Cambridge and Leeds in a digital preservation research project under the umbrella of the Consortium of University Research Libraries (CURL) - the CEDARS Projects (see http://www.curl.ac.uk/).

(9) Many of the facilities are described in detail, and can be accessed, through the Bodleian’s extensive website at http://www.bodley.ox.ac.uk/. Even the Bodleian Shop can be accessed virtually by this means, bringing so-called e-commerce into the activities of the ancient institution.

(10) The Working Party on Senior Library Posts, under the chairmanship of Sir Keith Thomas (President of Corpus Christi College, Oxford), was established by the University Council, to which it reported, in 1995. Its principal recommendation, which built upon the basis of the 1987 Report of the Committee of Inquiry into the Future of Library Services (the Nicholas Report), was that ‘there should be a post of University Librarian with responsibilities extending over all of the University’s libraries, and a move towards a library organization with a more unified structure’.

(11) These 22 libraries are: the libraries of the Ashmolean Museum and of the Taylor Institution, the Classics Lending Library, the libraries of the Faculties of Economics, English, Clinical Medicine (Health Care Libraries Unit and Cairns Library), History, Modern Languages, Music, Social Studies and Theology, together with the 11 libraries of the Bodleian group (the Bodleian Japanese Library, the Bodleian Law Library, the Eastern Art Library, the Hooke Lending Library, the Indian Institute Library, the Institute for Chinese Studies Library, the Oriental Institute Library, the Philosophy Library, the Radcliffe Science Library, the Library of Rhodes House, and the Central Bodleian itself).

(12) The Directorate consists of the Director, a Deputy Director (a post filled by the successor to the recently retired Deputy Librarian of the Bodleian), the Director of the Libraries Automation Service (an existing post), and three new posts, responsible for the libraries-wide co-ordination of preservation, staff development and training, and service provision.

(13) What is envisaged is a broadly-based team approach to subject work, with groups of staff crossing the boundaries of the departments or libraries within which they are based. Already, even in the period prior to integration, a number of Subject Groups have been set up, within which agendas of common interests are being developed and discussed by library staff from across the whole University.

(14) See the two summary charts attached as appendices to this article. They illustrate, first, the present (interim) committee structure of the Libraries Committee and its libraries and, secondly, the committee structure envisaged for the integrated system.


  1. The Libraries Committee and its libraries: outline of the present (interim) structure.
  2. The Libraries Committee and its libraries: summary outline of the proposed integrated structure.
  3. Principal statistics of the Bodleian Library.


The Libraries Committee and its libraries: outline of the present (interim) structure.

Outline of the present (interim) structure


The Libraries Committee and its libraries: outline of the present (interim) structure.

Summary outline of the proposed integrated structure



1. Total number of items (including maps and microforms)*: 8,458,000
2. Number of volumes on open shelves*: 940,000
3. Length of occupied shelving*: 166km (101 miles)
4. Total occupied area*: 44,367m2
5. Number of books, pamphlets and periodical titles added 1997-8: 331,000
6. Number of current serial titles received 1997-8: 53,000
7. Number of reading rooms*: 29
8. Number of items fetched from closed access to reading rooms 1997-8: 507,250
9. Number of reader seats*: 2,459
10. Number of readers' tickets valid on an average day 1997-8: 32,000
11. Number of staff*: 460 (359 established posts + 101 non-established)
12. Number of academic-related staff*: 106 (66 + 40)
13. Expenditure 1997-8:
Staff costs: £7,246,682
Materials: £2,313,325+
Running costs: £1,857,389
Total: £11,417,396
+ Excludes value of legal deposit materials received

* As at 31 July 1998

Reg Carr

This article has appeared in Alexandria, 1999, pp.123-34