Duke Humfrey's Library, above the Divinity School, was completed in 1488, to house the collection given by him to the University 40 years earlier.
Only a century later the collection had already dispersed and the buildings fallen into disrepair. Sir Thomas Bodley not only restored the library, which reopened in 1602, but also saw the need for expansion, requiring "better built scholes ... than those ruinous little rooms" then used for the purpose. The Schools Quadrangle was accordingly begun in 1613.
By this time, again thanks to Sir Thomas, an agreement had been reached with the Company of Stationers for the library to receive a copy of each book published in Britain – it became what was later called a Copyright Library. More recently, the implications of this have not gone unnoticed, and it used to be considered an act of intellectual daring to require the librarians to produce a copy of, for example, Enid Blyton's 'Noddy' and peruse it in the reading room.
The library now stretches south to the Radcliffe Camera, and north under Broad Street to the New Bodleian, and contains almost 5 million books, requiring a mile and a half of new shelving a year.
The Curators are understandably nervous about the possibility of fire. All readers have to take a solemn oath not only to obey the regulations of the library but also 'not to bring into the Library or kindle therein any fire or flame.' Before the days of electric lighting, this of course meant that no light could be kindled, and limited the working day considerably – especially in winter. And still books may only be consulted in the library. Charles I had his request to borrow refused. So did Cromwell.
The facade is a lavish display of Jacobean architecture, incorporating five classical orders: starting from the ground, Tuscan, Roman Doric, Ionic, Corinthian and Composite.
The text above was written in 1987, and a number of things have changed, even in such a stable and robust institution as the Bodleian. For a start, there is no longer a conveyor belt under Broad St, though the Bod now runs tours so you can go down there. They've moved a lot of the stores to Osney Island, and the enticing smell of dried paper (surely the smell of knowledge itself) no longer wafts up through the grating outside the Rad Cam. More positively, the old and faded New Bodleian has been replaced with the beautiful spacious new Weston Library, home to interesting displays and exhibitions, a cafe in the foyer and a tantalising shop. What would Thomas Bodley have made of such frivolity and comfort?
TThere are more books these days too, over 12 million printed items and 80,000 eJournals, plus special collections. The Bodleian holds (sadly perhaps) a number of Aztec codices. They were recently able to prove by xray that the manuscript was drawn onto jaguar hide. The special collections can be explored digitally, to the delight of scholars far afield.