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

The Bodleian Library: communication to the Symposium celebrating the 400th anniversary of the Biblioteca Ambrosiana

Milan, 27 November 2004

The Bodleian Library, which itself celebrated its 400th anniversary only two years ago, is very pleased to be associated with this Round Table, at which some of the most historic libraries of Europe are represented, and it offers sincere congratulations to the Biblioteca Ambrosiana on its quatercentenary. In a world full of change and uncertainty, this is a major landmark for any institution, and the Biblioteca Ambrosiana has every reason to be proud of its achievement.

Ancient libraries like our own have a great deal that is important and relevant to bring to the cultural life of the 21st century. Over the passing centuries, such historic institutions have seen, experienced, and survived many changes and upheavals - cultural, social, and technological. But they have not simply 'survived': they have also persisted and prospered. And they have achieved their longevity, and demonstrated their durability, by means of their deep-seated confidence in the value of their enduring mission.

The challenges of the 21st century are nothing new for the great libraries of the world. The precise forms of the challenges which they face may change from time to time; but the ever-recurring need to 'integrate the new with the old' is a time-honoured task which exercises great institutions whenever new forms of challenge emerge to test their continuing viability. And the key to their continuing success - however they may adapt to the forces of contemporary change, or innovate to take advantage of it - lies always in their ability to remain faithful to their founders' vision.

For the many tens of thousands of its regular readers, the Bodleian Library of the University of Oxford is still today what it has been for over four centuries: a rich and inexhaustible treasure-store of printed, manuscript and archival resources which support every possible kind of academic study and research. Since 1602, when it first opened its doors to what the Library's Founder, Sir Thomas Bodley, called the rei publicae literatorum (the 'republic of letters'), the Bodleian Library has been, not simply the main library of the University of Oxford, but also a beacon of learning for the wider world of scholarship. Considered by many to be the first 'public' library in Europe (public, that is, in the sense of not being restricted simply to the members of the University), Sir Thomas Bodley's library was consciously founded as a contribution to universal knowledge, by a man of energy and vision who well understood the power of the written (and especially the printed) word to educate and to illuminate the minds of men of every race, and every creed.

But it was not always so in Oxford. The University's first library - stored in the crypt of the University Church from its beginnings under Bishop Cobham in the 1320s - had been a private library for the masters and fellows of the medieval institution. The Latin and Greek manuscript texts of which the Library then consisted were almost as narrowly restricted in their use as the University's collection of silver plate. And even in 1488, when the first purpose-built library room was constructed above the 15th-century Divinity School, the expanded library collections were still only available to the clerics and senior scholars of the institution. The new library room was named in honour of Duke Humfrey of Gloucester - a younger brother of King Henry V (the victor of Agincourt), and a great benefactor of the University. But the library remained essentially a medieval foundation, both in its physical structure and in its attitudes to its collection and its users. Sadly lacking the funds necessary for its further development, wider exploitation, and appropriate care, the collection atrophied at the very time when printed books were beginning, elsewhere, to transform the very nature of scholarship itself. The library lacked a vision and a wider purpose. And sixty years of careless administration, compounded by the misguided zeal of King Edward VI's 'reforming' Commissioners, led in the 1550s to the dispersal and destruction of the manuscript heritage of the hapless Duke's ill-fated books. For the next forty years or more, the University of Oxford's library building was to remain an empty room.

But the momentous decision of Sir Thomas Bodley to re-found the university library at his own expense towards the end of the 16th century changed everything, by bringing new purpose, and new direction, into the picture. Thomas Bodley was a Protestant whose family had taken him as a child to the Continent during the religious upheavals of the 1540s. He chose to help the University of Oxford 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. But he succeeded in his aims only by virtue of strong determination, and because he had a clear and guiding sense of what he wanted to achieve.

From 1598 until the opening of his new library in 1602, and beyond, Sir Thomas lavished care, attention and his large fortune on the refurbishment and re-equipment of Duke Humfrey's abandoned library room. He filled it with shelves and benches and, above all, with printed books and manuscripts - many of which he attracted as gifts from the wide circle of contacts he had made during his career as a diplomat in the service of Elizabeth I. He appointed, paid, and directed the library's first librarian - his librarian - and in 1610 he established a far-sighted arrangement with the Stationers' Company, which made the Bodleian Library the first official national depository for all new books published in Britain under royal licence. And, not content with all these great gifts, he rounded off his benefactions to the University at his death in 1613 by bequeathing for library purposes the bulk of his considerable estate. Like all great institutional founders, Sir Thomas took great care to ensure that his new foundation was provided with both the purpose and the means to persist long after death had removed him from the scene.

The Bodleian Library, named in Bodley's perpetual honour, was soon described by Francis Bacon as 'an ark to save learning from the deluge'. Energised by its Founder's extraordinary generosity and vision into the systematic collection of the recorded wisdom of mankind, the Bodleian grew very quickly after Bodley's death, and became a magnet for European scholarship. Sustained by that founding impetus, it has continued to grow far beyond anything that Sir Thomas could possibly have envisaged. Today, it sits at the heart of the largest academic library system in the world, with dependent libraries and storage sites all over Oxford as well as beneath and outside the city, and its collections of rare books and munscripts are second only in the United Kingdom to those of the national library itself. And, throughout the four centuries of its existence, the Bodleian has remained staunchly faithful to its Founder's wish that it should open its doors to any and all in pursuit of learning - and this is a long and noble tradition which has served as an inspiration ever since.

But if the vitality of the Bodleian Library is still consciously drawn from its Founder's guiding principles, it is only because the library has been able to adapt to the changing times, and to innovate, that it has prospered, and enhanced its role. The library building restored by Sir Thomas Bodley at the turn of the 16th century was itself already a piece of ancient English architectural heritage. Duke Humfrey's original library, and the Gothic, cathedral-like, Divinity School below it, were late-medieval survivals from an earlier age. 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 - they have all required major attention over the passing years. And without a Sir Thomas Bodley to fund the restoration works (and with no special supplementation from government to meet the extra costs of occupying such an 'ancient monument'), the Bodleian Library has been obliged to take upon itself the enormous challenge of raising the necessary funds to bring its historic buildings up to modern standards.

Yet such was the iconic status of the Bodleian that it proved relatively easy, in less than two years, to raise £4 million to undertake a four-year programme of renovations of the Bodleian's ancient buildings, designed to put the Old Bodleian into excellent condition by the time of the library's 400th anniversary in 2002. By September 1998, everything moveable had been removed - including nearly 150,000 books - and both internal, and external scaffolding had soon enveloped the whole of the Divinity School and its immediately adjoining buildings with 32.5 kilometres of metal tubes, almost a kilometre of prefabricated beams, and an acre of wooden platforms. By the Summer of 1999, the copper roof of Duke Humfrey's library had been replaced, the extensive painted ceiling panels had been expertly restored, and this oldest part of the Bodleian had been re-opened. The 17th-century extensions to the library were renovated in 2000 and 2001, and the whole of this vitally necessary rebuilding project was completed in time to mark the Bodleian's quatercentenary in 2002. By that important 'landmark' date, therefore, the Old Library's physical infrastructure was once again in good shape: the troublesome death-watch beetle had been eliminated (by modern, environmentally friendly, methods - including the raising of the roof to prevent condensation), the environmental conditions had been enhanced, and the original desks had been wired and networked for portable computers. Historic tradition and the need to modernise had been successfully blended, and Duke Humfrey's ancient library, together with other much-loved parts of the Old Bodleian, was well placed for revitalised service into the 21st century.

Yet in the brave new digital world of the 21st century, the continuing relevance of a historic library is not measured simply by the quality of its collections, nor by the physical condition of its buildings. 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 has emerged, in which information technology is playing an increasingly crucial role. Against this background, 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 changing context, the Bodleian Library has begun to develop its operations as a 'hybrid library', in which access to its physical collections and services is being provided increasingly by electronic means, and in which the library's physical and the virtual collections are being managed as a progressively integrated whole. In this way, the library is seeking to offer a greatly enhanced service, not only for those who continue to come to it, in ever growing numbers, for direct personal access, but also for that wider and increasingly global community of networked information users for whom a personal visit to Oxford represents an expensive luxury.

Over the last decade and more, the Bodleian has invested a growing proportion of its resources in the application of new technology to its basic routines and to its provision of electronic information resources. Early experiments to produce a machine-readable version of the library's principal catalogue resulted, first, in 1993, in the publication by the Oxford University Press of a CD-ROM edition of the pre-1920 catalogue of holdings. This was followed by the large-scale retrospective conversion of the post-1920 holdings records and the establishment of a union catalogue of machine-readable catalogue records (OLIS), not simply for the Bodleian Library, but also 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. By this means, the 700 physical volumes of the Bodleian Library's printed catalogue, which were available only in the library during its normal opening hours, have been replaced by a much more sophisticated searching tool, by which universal access has now been opened up to detailed information about the library's printed holdings.

Allied to this radical modernisation of the printed book catalogues, the new technology is also being used to enrich the catalogue database with other valuable information and facilities. Already, a number of printed book records are pointing readers electronically to websites containing associated material; many millions of the library's closed access volumes can now be pre-ordered direct from the electronic catalogue, by means of an automated stack request system which is available 24 hours each day; and a good start has been made on the conversion to machine-readable form of the library's many manuscript finding-aids, for convenient 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 many other research libraries, too, the Bodleian is actively converting 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. Digitised versions have also been made 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 need for digital copies and for remote desk-top delivery of requested materials. The establishment of the Oxford Digital Library several years ago is enabling the library to build an appropriate technical infrastructure for all of these important electronic information initiatives, and there are plans to proceed in the near future to the mass-digitisation of large quantities of the library's out-of-copyright printed books. By such means, the Bodleian Library is systematically updating its services and, for the benefit of library users far and near, the library will continue to harness the new technology to meet the evermore sophisticated expectations of users.

Sir Thomas Bodley undoubtedly had posterity in his mind when he took it upon himself to found a new library according to his own very deliberate designs. He would, perhaps, be quite astounded at what goes on today in the Bodleian Library almost four centuries after his death; but we believe that he would most certainly approve of our present work, since all of our efforts are designed to make his library accessible to the world. We continue to honour our Founder by re-interpreting and renewing his vision as the centuries pass, and we regard it as our historic privilege to try to maintain the continuing relevance and value of the institution which he founded so successfully, and in such a determined fashion, so many years ago.

Dr Reg Carr
Bodley's Librarian
University of Oxford
Milan, 27 November 2004