Mary Clapinson. A Brief History of the Bodleian Library (revised edition). Julia Walworth. Merton College Library.

Mary Clapinson.  A Brief History of the Bodleian Library
merton college library cover

Julia Walworth. Merton College Library. Oxford: Bodleian Library, 2020. Pp. 144.  Illustrated.  ISBN 978-1-85124-539-0.  ₤15.00 / $25.00 (softcover).

Mary Clapinson.  A Brief History of the Bodleian Library (revised edition).  Oxford: Bodleian Library, 2020.  Pp. 264.  Illustrated.  ISBN 978-1-85124-544-4.   ₤25.00 / $40.00 (hardcover).

Taken together, these two recent books provide a succinct – but very satisfying – description of two of the most famous libraries in the world.  In both, the text is accompanied by many appropriate illustrations, virtually all of them in color. In what follows, I emphasize the earliest and most formative years of each institution.

Julia Walworth – a Merton librarian herself – opens her book with a two-page timeline, which takes us from the establishment of the college in 1264 to the marking, in 2014, of its 750th anniversary. While she points out that “no library has been in continuous use in a university for as long as the Merton College Library” (p. 8), a library was not outlined in Walter de Merton’s original plans for a community of scholars.  By 1276, however, scholars were required to leave their own books (or a financial equivalent) to the college at their death or resignation. Other donations were also made, and a gift of books was as pious an act as giving vestments for the chapel.   Early benefactors, notably the physician Simon Bredon and the theologian William Reed, helped the college collection to reach about 330 volumes by the end of its first century.   Theological works were prominent, of course, but there was also a growing number of scientific and mathematical books.

In light of current practice, it is interesting to note that, from the beginning, the college could sell unwanted books, and that a distinction was made between those that could be borrowed and those that could not.  Those in the latter category, a forerunner of the modern reference collection, were sometimes chained or kept in triple-locked chests.  Those in the former could only be taken out at set times: no browsing in the stacks.  Fellows were restricted in the number of books they could borrow, and generally had to leave some sort of surety (called a “caution”).  It was acceptable for scholars to add commentaries and annotations in the margins of borrowed books, and margins were often made wide enough to make this easy. By the first quarter of the fourteenth century, rudimentary catalogues began to appear. 

In order to move from some rooms serving as a library, construction of new quarters began in the early 1370s.  In addition to books, there were astrolabes and other astronomical instruments, as well as a mappa mundi that had been part of the holdings for about a century. Bursars oversaw the collection; there was no designated librarian, and such a post would not appear until the seventeenth century.  Nonetheless, books were kept in good repair, and regulations for the use of the chained library were formalized by the end of the fifteenth century. These instructed borrowers not to damage or try to remove books, and to ensure that visitors were closely monitored.  As Walworth says, it is interesting that non-Mertonians were allowed access here, especially since fellows required keys – valuable items which had to be left with the college during any absences of more than a week, and whose loss had to be promptly reported. Later regulations required that keys be produced for annual inspection; substantial fines (perhaps the equivalent of about ₤300 today) could be levied. There were also fines for lost books, although the money could be returned if the missing volume turned up.  Still, repeated losses meant that, by the sixteenth century, books were no longer available for loan.  About that time, too, regular funding for the purchase of books was agreed upon. 

A list of 457 titles produced in the middle of the sixteenth century shows that manuscripts were still more numerous than printed books: 45%  as opposed to 33% (the remaining 22% were not clearly identified).  An innovation, in which Merton led the way, was the positioning of folio books upright, on shelves above desks.  They remained chained, with their fore-edges outward, each having its own assigned space; abbreviated titles were sometimes inked onto the fore-edges.  

The post of librarian, first held by Robert Huntington, emerged only in 1660 – rather later than in other Oxford and Cambridge colleges. He was elected by senior fellows, paid ₤10 a year, and subject to clearly-described duties. (I was glad to learn that the third librarian was John Edwardes, whose tenure was from 1687 to 1694.) More systematic cataloguing emerged then, too, although Merton made use of the printed catalogue of the larger Bodleian Library, noting which books were held in both and which were only in the college.  Up until 1994, the post of librarian was still filled by a college fellow.  In that year, the first woman librarian – and the first professional – was appointed. 

By the end of the eighteenth century, the chains were taken off the books and the Merton Library had become a lending institution once again, open to fellows and other “educated gentlemen”. Ideas about library provision for undergraduates were mooted (although it was only in 1827 that the collection was open to them, and then only for an hour a week). Physically, however, the library suffered in comparison with the grander libraries at All Souls and Christ Church.  It was “small and dark” and “the original medieval features were not yet thought to be charming or atmospheric” (p. 113).  Renewal, repair and altogether new construction began in 1870, by which time opinions and references had changed: what was once dingy and cramped was now a “rare survival … not just a Gothicization”.  Soon it was described as the most interesting medieval library in the country: “some of the old fittings with their chained books are still preserved” (p. 123).  Beatrix Potter was much taken with it when she was shown around in 1884.  So were others.  A doppelgänger was created at Princeton University with – as they say – no expense spared.  

Professionalism and more focused curatorship were the marks of the twentieth century, together with some notable donations (including sizeable gifts from Basil Blackwell and Max Beerbhohm).  Despite the vicissitudes that are to be expected over a very long life, the story of the Merton College Library is one of more or less steady progress. Its developments have mirrored those in the university at large and, latterly, those in the wider society.  The oldest academic library in Europe, its “atmospheric” connection to a distant past will only grow – but, as Walworth notes, it also remains a “focal point of intellectual community life” (p. 138).

Like Julia Walworth, Mary Clapinson is an eminently qualified author. An antiquarian and a specialist in manuscripts, her account of the fortunes of the Bodleian Library reveals another venerable institution that is both “atmospheric” and a center of international research. It has been in the hands of twenty-five librarians since its establishment in 1602 – although the first was actually in post three years earlier.  Clapinson begins her first chapter, however, in 1320, when money was donated for an Oxford university library, to be housed in St Mary’s Church.  Fifty years later, a small collection was open to scholars “at convenient times” and, by a statute of 1412, a librarian’s yearly salary was set at ₤5.  That same statute noted the generosity of Humfrey, duke of Gloucester, and when the library was moved to quarters above the Divinity School (in 1488) he was named as the founder of this, the second university library.  The reformation led to the destruction of “popish” material in the library, after which the furnishings were sold – so when Thomas Bodley, aged fourteen, came to Magdalen College there was no central library at all.  Four years later (in 1563) he graduated, and became a fellow at Merton College – and, by the end of the century, this scholar-diplomat was offering to help with the renovation of a university library.

His plans were based on alterations that had been made in the Merton College Library, and he sought advice on fitting out his new library “aswell for shewe, and statly forme, as for capacitie and strength and commoditie of Students” (p. 25).  The library officially opened in November 1602, with 2,000 volumes.  Welcomed by luminaries like Francis Bacon, and endowed with gifts from the earl of Essex, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Sir Walter Ralegh, Lord Mountjoy, Henry Percy and many others, the library was off to a very good start.  (The status of the early benefactors attests to the many important connections Bodley had made during his career – relationships not scorned in similar undertakings today.)  It was generally referred to simply as the public library of the university, where “public” signified availability to all members of the university, unlike the college collections meant only for their fellows.  In fact, Bodley meant his library to be for all scholars, once they had taken a “library oath”.  (He would not have been pleased to learn of a later rule that restricted the admittance of non-university scholars.) Such an oath is still required of those who are admitted to the Bodleian, but it is short and sensible (no damage, no flame, no smoking), whereas Bodley’s original ran to about 160 words: it begins “you shall promise and sweare in the presence of almightie God” and ends with “so helpe you God by Christes merites, according to the doctrine of his holy Evangelistes” (p. 47). 

In 1604 Bodley was knighted and the library was formally named after him.  The library was enlarged between 1610 and 1612, with the innovation that shelves were wall-to-ceiling, with an upper gallery for access.  He remained intensely concerned with his library until his death in 1613, by which time the collection had grown to 15,000 works in 7,000 volumes – and the finances were in more than adequate order.  The first catalogue to list books alphabetically by author appeared shortly after his death.  Gabriel Naudé, the librarian who published the very influential Advis pour dresser une bibliothèque in 1627, praised both the catalogue and the physical arrangements of the library.[1] 

The first catalogue, in 1605, reveals an extraordinary range of material in many European and Oriental languages.  The paucity of works in English reflects both the continuing scholarly reliance on classical languages and Bodley’s (shared) view that English literature was “too frivolous” to warrant a place in an academic library.  He made some room for plays, but “hardly one in fortie” was worth preserving, and he told his librarian “to take no riffe raffe books” (p. 38).  At the same time, he entered into an agreement with the Stationers’ Company which foreshadowed the Copyright Act (1709), in which the Bodleian Library became one of the nine institutions entitled to receive a copy of every printed book; it remains one of the six such “copyright libraries” of today (which includes Trinity College in Ireland).  Bodley’s library prohibited borrowing, and even Oliver Cromwell’s request for a loan was denied in 1654.  In anticipation of a large bequest, however, an exception was made for the lawyer John Selden, whose very extensive library of  books and manuscripts did indeed come to the Bodleian.  Elias Ashmole’s collections, of books, but also of “natural curiosities”, were so important that the university provided a building for them – hence the establishment in 1683 of the famous Ashmolean Museum.  In fact, the Bodleian had always been a home for more than books: scientific instruments, works of art, coins and medals were all part of its holdings. Another important development was the establishment of the university press (in 1686) and a printing house, designed by Hawksmoor and named for the earl of Clarendon, was completed by 1715.  In 1749, the circular Radcliffe Camera was opened, a library that came to focus on scientific and medical works; it became part of the Bodleian a century later.

As the Bodleian Library grew, so it attracted more donors and patrons.  One famous addition was a copy of the Bay Psalm Book, the first to be printed in North America, which was given in 1735. Such bequests were necessary, particularly in the early eighteenth century; in some years, no books were bought at all, and for many the average annual outlay did not exceed ₤9.  At the dawn of the nineteenth century, about ₤500 was the annual outlay, but this actually decreased over the first decade. Maps and prints began to be collected in the early nineteenth century, the prize among them being the oldest surviving map of Great Britain, a fourteenth-century work given by the antiquary Richard Gough.  A copy of the First Folio came from Edward Malone in 1821, and Francis Douce’s huge collection of prints, books and manuscripts (some 66,000 items) arrived in 1834.   The expansion of the library’s holdings meant a new catalogue: entries were now written on printed slips which were pasted into a book and which could be lifted and re-arranged as new insertions became necessary. The catalogue was completed in 1879 and remained in use for a century.  (I remember consulting a similar catalogue in the National Library of Ireland in the late 1970s.)

The ever-present financial stringencies led to a 1914 public appeal that hoped to raise ₤50,000 – but the timing was hardly auspicious and the campaign was abandoned.  In 1920, however, precisely that amount was given by a wealthy graduate, and finances gradually improved (though not without the elimination of deficits).  In 1937 the foundation stone was laid for what would become the New Bodleian Library.  The need was considerable: besides the simple requirement for greater storage and access, existing quarters were often very cold, and lacked electric light and adequate ventilation; climbing tall and heavy ladders in the dark was a further discomfort, to say the least.  Renovations and modernization of all sorts continued throughout the century, and the collections steadily increased: from two million printed works in 1950, to seven million in 2000, to about double that number today.  The New Bodleian itself was enlarged and reconfigured by 2014, and renamed the Weston Library in honor of a large donation from a Canadian philanthropist.  Today, the catalogue of the Bodleian Library is searched 14 million times a year, 300,000 people come to the reading rooms, and – from every country in the world (bar North Korea) – millions more download digital material.  These last figures are taken from a recent book by Richard Ovenden, the current (and twenty-fifth) Bodleian Librarian.[2]  In many parts of his book, and in a chapter devoted to the matter, he discusses the growth and influence of his library; his personal assessment nicely complements Clapinson’s treatment. He repeats her citation of Francis Bacon’s description of the Bodleian as “an ark to save learning from the deluge [the Reformation]” (p. 34), and his praise of Bodley’s foresight in building an ark that would be well-found and watertight makes for a very appropriate envoi here.

John Edwards, St. Francis Xavier University

[1] Gabriel Naudé. Advis pour dresser une bibliothèque.  Paris: Targa, 1627. This little book was first translated into English by John Evelyn, as Instructions Concerning Erection of a Library.  London: Bedle, Collins & Crook, 1661.

[2] Richard Ovenden. Burning the Books: A History of Knowledge Under Attack. London: John Murray, 2020.