On July 15th, we took a day trip to Oxford to visit two of the libraries on campus. We first went to the Bodleian Library, which is the most famous of the Oxford University libraries and the largest. It is a research library for all of the colleges at Oxford and it has world-renowned collections. It is also a legal deposit library for the United Kingdom and thus they have around 11 million volumes in their collection. However, we weren’t able to actually see any of the materials that the Bodleian has on our tour—we were just able to take the tour for the general public—this is probably so visitors don’t disturb those who are actually trying to work.
We had a very nice and informed tour guide and learned a lot about how Oxford operates and the history of the university. Oxford University was founded in the twelfth century after English scholars were expelled from the University of Paris. Oxford University is made up of thirty-eight colleges, all of which are autonomous and financially self-sufficient under the umbrella of the university; each college offers numerous subjects of study and each subject normally has 10-12 students studying at one time. Each student has to meet with a fellow within their subject once per week; they usually have to write a paper on a certain topic for the student and fellow to discuss that week; there are also lectures that students can attend to aid in their learning. The oldest colleges date back to the 13th century, and these include Balliol and Merton.
The first library at Oxford opened in about 1320, it was added to the University Church of Saint Mary the Virgin on the upper floor--this was because the risk of rising water from the river was too great. This library was used for about 100 years. In the 1430s, Duke Humfrey of Gloucester donated a large collection of books, and the library did not have the storage capacity for the collection, so they built a room above the Divinity School which is still known as Duke Humfrey's Library. The support for libraries was in decline in the 15th and 16th centuries, and much of the furniture and collections were sold or ruined; only three books from the original collection still remain in the library.
In the late 16th century, Thomas Bodley, a former fellow at Merton College, offered to reestablish the university library. Bodley paid to refurbish the Duke Humfrey's library and he donated some of his sizable collection to the library. Bodley also made an agreement with the Stationer's Company to have a copy of every book registered with them donated to the Bodleian, and due to this and other large donations, the library has expanded into multiple buildings with many off-site storage facilities.
The Bodleian library is primarily a reference library; no books can be lent from the library and there are closed stacks with several reading rooms. Each of the thirty-eight colleges has its own library and each department within the college also has a library from which books are lent. The books are arranged using a shelf-numbering system, with the bay and shelf number marked. All Oxford University students and faculty are able to use the Bodleian as are academic researchers who are either postgraduate students or affiliated with an institution. Undergraduate students and non-university researchers must prove that it is critical to their research to use the Bodleian. Undergraduates from other institutions can only use the library during university breaks. All non-Oxford researchers must pay a fee to use the library; one can choose to pay for one week to four years admission.
I thought that the tour was very interesting, and that we learned a lot about Oxford history and education within the university system in Britain. We also learned a lot about the architecture of the buildings and the history of the Bodleian; I wish we could have learned more about the current and special collections that the library owns, and their current preservation practices, so that we could have compared the Bodleian with the British Library, London Library, and other like institutions with very old books (which seems to be every library in the UK!) I wish we could have seen more, but its probably not often that they allow non-affiliated groups to tour the special collections and library.