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Bodleian Libraries: The Story Behind Oxford’s Famous Library + Tips for Visiting

Bodleian Libraries: The Story Behind Oxford’s Famous Library + Tips for Visiting

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The Bodleian Library (or “the Bod” as it’s called by those in the know) is one of Oxford’s many gems… but how much do you really know about it?

Though it should technically be called the Bodleian Libraries as it’s a collection of 28 individual libraries rather than a single one, we’re not going to be pedantic here. 

However you cut it, the library plays an integral role in the University, with thousands of students and scholars across the world using the extensive catalogues daily to support their work and studies. Not to mention the sheer number of tourists who flock to see the many different parts of the dramatic Bodleian Library buildings.

Not only are Oxford’s libraries so famous because of their connection to the University and their gargantuan collection of books and documents, but they also bring in thousands of visitors from around the world because, simply put, they’re friggin’ beautiful.

This guide will explain everything you need to know about the Bodleian Library and how you can visit some of the library’s exquisite buildings – including those that are usually out of bounds to the public.

Ready to explore?

What are the Bodleian Libraries and Why are they So Famous?

Bodleian Library

Made up of 28 libraries as part of the University of Oxford, and containing more than 13 million items, it’s safe to say that the Bodleian Libraries have a reputation that precedes them. 

While some of the draw to this library has to be the famous scholars who have graced its halls – including Oscar Wilde, C.S. Lewis, and J.R.R. Tolkein – the building’s stunning examples of Medieval and Gothic architecture is another reason as to why the Bodleian Libraries are so highly revered. 

Add to that the fact that it’s one of six legal deposit libraries in the UK – and receives a copy of every published book in the UK and Ireland, and you’ll start to understand why it’s something special. 

The Buildings of the Bodleian Libraries 

With 28 libraries making up the Bodleian collection, it’s near impossible to visit all of them on a single trip. These are the parts of the Bodleian Library you can’t miss…

Old Bodleian

Old Bodleian Library

The Old Bodleian is one of the most recognisable buildings in Oxford’s roster of libraries, thanks to its Medieval-panelled frontage. 

Its three reading rooms are steeped in history: the Lower Reading Room, the Upper Reading Room, and Duke Humfrey’s Library. 

As the name suggests, it’s the oldest Bodleian building, and is actually connected to the Radcliffe Camera via an underground tunnel called the Gladstone Link.

The Divinity School

Bodleian

The Divinity School is perhaps the second most iconic part of the Bodleian Libraries – the building and room was built between 1427 and 1483 in a striking Perpendicular Gothic style, and was originally intended to be used for lectures, exams, and discussions on theology (which it still is today!).

Located directly underneath Duke Humfrey’s Library (more on this very important man and his library later), the ceiling is the standout feature at The Divinity School. 

Designed by William Orchard in the 15th century, it consists of ornate lierne vaulting and 455 bosses, resulting in a breathtaking design.

You can head inside the Divinity School, though there’s a £2 fee.

Radcliffe Camera

RAdcliffe Camera Oxford

It’s an iconic addition to any photograph of the historic heart of Oxford, but while many people recognise the Radcliffe Camera, only a few realise that it’s actually a part of the Bodleian Library (and connected to the Old Bodleian via that sneaky tunnel).

The neo-classical Radcliffe Camera was designed by James Gibbs in 1749 and its purpose was to contain the Radcliffe Science Library. 

You might be tempted, though you can’t actually go inside the Radcliffe, as it’s buzzing with real-life students. However, this famous building is well worth visiting just for the sheer impressiveness of its exterior.

Can You Visit the Bodleian Library? 

In short, yes. 

While some of the buildings are only open to Scholars or students of Oxford University, the majority of libraries can be accessed on tours and/or by paying a small fee. And, of course, there’s nothing stopping you from having a nose around outside.

If you want to learn more about how you can view the Bodleian Library treasures, make sure you stick around for more details.

Wait… This Looks Familiar – Was the Bodleian Library in Harry Potter?

Bodleian Library Divinity School

You guessed it! With its gorgeous gothic ceilings and magical courtyards, it’s no wonder that the Bodleian Library featured in the Harry Potter films – more precisely, the Divinity School and Duke Humfrey’s Library.

Take a peek at the walls of the Divinity School and you’ll likely recognise it as Hogwarts infirmary, where Madam Pomfrey often had to reset bones, treat mysterious ailments, and look after sick students throughout the franchise.

Upstairs, Duke Humfrey’s Library was used in the scenes where Harry and his pals were skirting around underneath the invisibility cloak, hunting out the restricted section of the library.

Read More: A Self Guided Tour of Harry Potter’s Oxford

The History of the Bodleian Library 

As one of the oldest libraries in Europe, the Bodleian Library has a long and eclectic history spanning over four centuries.

Bodleian

The University’s first library was built around 1320 in the University Church of St Mary the Virgin – a room that is still used today by those at the church. 

The building was handily located in Oxford’s ‘academic quarter’, nearby to the schools in which lectures were held.

Religion was the root cause of a tumultuous time in the UK during the medieval period, and in 1550 the Dean of Christ Church demanded that all the library’s books be removed and burnt, in order to purge the English church of any remaining traces of Catholicism.

At this time the University was far from wealthy and lacked the resources to rebuild its book collection. Though, it didn’t take long for Sir Thomas Bodley to rescue the building, stating that he would:

‘Set up my staff at the library door in Oxon; being thoroughly persuaded, that in my solitude, and surcease from the Commonwealth affairs, I could not busy myself to better purpose, than by reducing that place (which then in every part lay ruined and waste) to the public use of students’.

What we consider the Bodleian Library today was first opened in 1602, incorporating an older library that was built in the 15th-century to keep books that were donated by Humfrey, the Duke of Gloucester. 

A Much-Needed Expansion

By the turn of the 20th century, the library was becoming overwhelmingly popular and the need for extra space was more apparent than ever. 

In order to tackle this, an underground book store was created beneath Radcliffe Square in 1909 – at the time, this was the largest in the world.

Radcliffe Camera

Whilst this placated things for a while, in 1931 it was decided that a new library would need to be built to accommodate reading rooms and 5 million books. 

This swanky New Bodleian was designed by Sir Giles Gilbert Scott and opened to the public in 1940. 

Ever since then, The Bodleian Library has expanded into the famous (and rather large) institution that it is today.

How to Visit: Bodleian Library Tours & Tickets  

There are so many guided tours of Oxford that take you to different parts of the Bodleian Library.

We love this 90-minute walking tour that involves seeing some of the most historic colleges with the help of a university-educated guide. Along the way you’ll also get to dip into The Divinity School of the Bodleian Library.

If you’re looking for a tour that’s a little more all-encompassing, this one is a great choice. Not only will you be taken for a stroll through Radcliffe Square to see the Camera, but you’ll then be able to view the Bodleian Library from the Old Schools Quadrangle – and live out your wildest Hogwarts dreams. 

If you would rather skip on a walking tour and instead head to the Bodleian Library on your own, you can book tickets to certain areas here, including The Divinity School.

The Library also offers guided tours of certain areas that would otherwise not allow the general public to enter (such as Duke Humfrey’s Library).

You’ll need to pay a fee but it means you can wander the very same halls as literary greats and important Oxford scholars (and Daniel Radcliffe, which is waaaay more exciting in our humble opinions).

Speaking of the famous boy wizard – Potterheads will want to embark on this tour. It takes you around some of the Harry Potter hot spots in Oxford, including some of the Bodleian Library, and you’ll get to nerd out with a HP pop quiz at the end.

Key Bodleian Libraries: Map

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