A collection of curious facts and stories about the Bodleian Library from new book, Bodleianalia.

Home to more than 12 million books and a vast array of treasures including the Gutenberg bible, J.R.R. Tolkien’s hand-painted watercolours for The Hobbit, Shakespeare’s First Folio and four thirteenth-century copies of Magna CartaThe Bodleian is home to the Gutenberg bible, J.R.R. Tolkien’s watercolours for The Hobbit, Shakespeare’s First Folio, and four thirteenth-century copies of Magna Carta

By Dr Richard Lofthouse

1. Most shocking event 

Never mind the rule that forbids the lending of books to readers. In 1550 Edward VI ordered that Roman Catholic books be purged. Historian Anthony Wood noted, ‘some of those books so taken out by the Reformers were burnt, some sold away for Robin Hood’s pennyworths, either to Booksellers, or to Glovers to press their gloves, or Taylors to make measures, or to bookbinders to cover books bound by them, and some also kept by the Reformers for their own use.’ 

2. Extraordinary Growth 

Readers in 1602 numbered 248. 

In 1945 they numbered 700. 

In 2014 they numbered 64,242. 

Duke Humfrey (1390-1447) gifted 263 manuscripts and other printed items, which led to the library in his name at the heart of the Bodleian.

In the single year 2014/15 the Bodleian added 251,924 items to its printed stock.Bodleian  Duke Humfrey's is the oldest reading room in the Bodleian Library. It functions primarily as a reading room for maps, music, and pre-1641 rare books

3. Least known treasure

Probably the Codex Mendoza. The first Viceroy of Spanish-conquered Latin America, Don Antonio de Mendoza (1491-1552) commissioned the work for Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor. The book is full of pictograms detailing Aztec daily life, annotated in Spanish. It passed through many hands before reaching the Bodleian via John Selden, in c.1659.

Ancient Mexican codices are some of the most important artefacts of early Mexican culture and are particularly rare: less than 20 of them survived the colonisation of AmericCodices are some of early Mexican culture's most important artefacts and are particularly rare: fewer than 20 of them survived colonisation

4. Best known treasure

The Gutenberg Bible (c.1455). This was the first major book to be printed with movable type. An estimated 160-180 copies were printed, but only 21 complete copies survive, of which the Bodleian copy is one.

The Gutenberg Bible (also known as the 42-line Bible) was the first major book printed in the West using moveable typeThe Gutenberg Bible (also known as the 42-line Bible) was the first major book printed in the West using moveable type 

5. Slowest innovation

There was a silly (but predictable) row about hiring a woman, and whether she would be able to carry books and climb ladders. Frances Underhill prevailed and was taken on as the first permanent female member of staff in 1910.

6. Worst financial event

In 1642 the Library was forced to loan the king, Charles I, £500. This ‘loan’ was kept on the books for 140 years before finally being written off as ‘bad debts’.

7. Best selling shop item

A leather bookmark. In 2014-15 the Bodleian shop sold 9,366 of them.

8. Least known architectural quirk

Probably the ornamental Elizabethan arch in the atrium to the recently-opened Weston Library. A gate salvaged from Ascott Park in Oxfordshire, it was all that was left of the Dorner family estate, destroyed by a fire in 1662. It contains a Latin inscription, SI BONUS ES INTRES, SI NEQUAM NE QUAQUAM – ‘If you are good, enter. If wicked, by no means.’ It’s a brilliant but unexpected relic re-purposed to a new use.

9. Least known constellation library

The Bodleian comprises 30 dependent libraries but not all of them will be familiar. How about the Alexander Library of Ornithology, or the Sherardian Library of Plant Taxonomy?

10. Most broken statute

Sir Thomas Bodley wrote out a list of statutes when founding the library in 1602. One rule was that the Librarian be celibate. This was promptly ignored by the first librarian, Thomas James, who married in the same year, as did virtually all his successors. The rule was only formally removed in 1847.

Sir Thomas Bodley was an English diplomat and Oxford scholar, but his greatest achievement was the restoration of Duke Humfrey's library which was later renamed the Bodleian LibrarySir Thomas Bodley was a diplomat and Oxford scholar, but his greatest achievement was the restoration of Duke Humfrey's, which was later renamed the Bodleian Library 

11. Coolest object

Until the Ashmolean Museum took over, the Bodleian served as a repository for curiosities. These included Guy Fawkes’ lantern. It was presented to the library in 1641 by Robert Heywood of Brasenose College, whose father had arrested the infamous plotter in the cellars under the Houses of Parliament in 1605.

These items are taken from Bodleianalia, Curious Facts about Britain’s Oldest University Library, by Claire Cock-Starkey and Violet Moller, (Bodleian Library, 2016)

Images © Oxford University Images