The University Library Emerges

Britain’s two oldest universities prove good examples of the first university libraries. The University of Oxford’s first library emerged in 1320 as part of the University Church of St. Mary the Virgin (Bodleian Libraries, 2016). This continues to represent the link between early academic libraries and religion as discussed above. It was not until 1488 that this was replaced with the Duke Humfrey’s  Library and even then, it was housed in the second storey of the Divinity School (Pugh, 2000). This library was named after the Duke for his generous donation of 281 manuscripts (Summit, 2008; Bodleian Libraries, 2016). This early academic library was not the most hospitable place. The room was poorly lit, functionally furnished and all of the books were secured with chains (Pugh, 2000). What follows is a reflection on such spaces and what they would be like to study in.

The lone scholar sat on a hard bench in the poorly lit room. He was using one of the lecterns which were all set at a right angle to the windows. The light this provided varied with the sun and once again he found himself straining to see the hand-written pages in the dim light. The library was not heated so the cold had begun to sink into his aching bones. The uncomfortable furniture of the library was not helping the matter.

He was studying from a large manuscript that was, like all other materials firmly chained to the desk. This was of course to ensure the books were kept save but would not allow him to move the volume to somewhere with more light. He should not complain. No, he would not complain. Access to these precious leather-bound volumes was a real privilege, a luxury courtesy of his membership of the university. Still, it was with some surprise that he realised he was still the only student in the room. The same as the previous day.

While the library presented a valuable resource, it was not the most welcoming place. In fact to anyone not interested in the collection this library was awful. No natural light. No heating. The constant vigilance from the scholars charged with the protection of the books. Everything was make of hard, dark wood and nothing was comfortable. This was not a space that was used by many.

Based on (Pugh, 2000; Bodleian Libraries, 2016)

Duke Humfrey’s Library only lasted 60 years and was purged in 1550 as part of the attempt to clear the English church of all references to Catholicism, it was rescued in 1598 by and offer from Thomas Bodley (Bodleian Libraries, 2016). He pledged to refurbish the university library and procure books for it (Philip, 1983; Pugh, 2000). This was amid the rise of libraries across Europe, with some scholars arguing that this was the “age of the libraries” as it was at this point the focus moved form library as collection to the library as a specific space (Summit, 2008:11). Unsurprisingly Bodley’s offer was quickly accepted by the Vice-Chancellor of the university (Philip, 1983).

Roman Kirillov (CC BY-SA 3.0) – WikiCommons

Bodley’s refurbishments made to the library included the installation of new shelves, chains and locks, with the work completed by mid-1600 (Philip, 1983), enabling Bodley to focus on procurement of books. Much of the initial collection resulted from donations of money and books, demonstrating the importance of philanthropy in the development of such libraries.  The new library opened in 1602 (Bodleian Libraries, 2016; Taylor et al., 2016). To assert the importance of preservation, this new library required readers to take the following ‘Bodleian oath’ before being allowed access:

“You promise and solemnly engage before God… that whenever you shall enter the public library of the University, you will frame your mind to study in modesty and silent, you will use the books and other furniture in such manner that they may last as long as possible. Also that you will [not] steal, change, make erasures, deform, tear, cut, write notes in, interline, wilfully spoilt, obliterate, defile, or in any other way retrench, ill-use, wear away or deteriorate and book or books, nor authorised any other person to do the like.”  (Clapinson, 2006 reproduced in Pettegree, 2015:80-81)

This oath is an interesting insight into the importance of preservation. Over twelve words are used to identify every possible form of damage a book could undertake to ensure the reader swears against it and a version of this oath is still in use today (Goodall & Britten, 2012).  Pettegree (2015) notes that previously, libraries had been places for discussion and it was this oath that introduced the new emphasis on silence. According to Pettegree (2015: 81) it is here that the “long decent into silence” began.

Since then the library has developed over subsequent years, spanning several buildings/libraries, becoming a library of legal deposit and an internationally regarded institution (Bodleian Libraries, 2016). Gained in 1610, the status of legal deposit allowed the library to receive any published volume in the United Kingdom that it requests and this status remains today (Bodleian Libraries, 2016; British Library, 2017).

There is a similar story at the University of Cambridge University of Cambridge (2016), where in the 1300s the university stored its books in chests within the university treasury, with the university building its first library around 1410. Similar to Oxford, Cambridge suffered book purges, but later grew from strength to strength, becoming a library of legal deposit and world renowned library (University of Cambridge, 2016). For both libraries, this growth was slow, especially as heating and artificial lighting were not widely available until 1800-1900.

The problems and purges of the sixteenth century were more troublesome than the brief history above suggests. First, the growth of printed books allowed scholars to easily create their own up-to-date collections of books, often more relevant that the books donated to the university libraries (Pettegree, 2015). The greater challenge perhaps was reflected in the purges hinted at above. As the conflicts between Catholicism and Evangelicals grew, library spaces found the themselves subject to the will of whichever faction was in power (Pettegree, 2015). This led to regular searches for anything deemed heretical or forbidden so such materials could be destroyed. This led to the eventual closures of both libraries in the middle of the sixteenth century, even including the disposal of the books and furniture at Oxford.

Academic libraries have a 700-year history due to these universities and this very brief history has demonstrated that crisis, redevelopment and reconceptualization is something libraries have had to deal with for hundreds of years. It is important however to reflect on what these libraries were like as spaces. There is some evidence that suggests the library customs of Oxford and Cambridge Universities directly followed monastic customs (Mullinger, 1907-21). This would in particular regard the preservation of books and their protections. As suggested in the histories above, as spaces they were not particular hospitable. The early libraries of these two universities defined the very first academic libraries.



Bodleian Libraries (2016) History of the Bodleian. Available online: [Accessed 14/04/2016].

British Library (2017) Introduction to Legal Deposit. Available online: [Accessed.

Goodall, H. & Britten, N. (2012) Bodleian Library considers lending books after 410 years, Telegraph.2012 [Online]. Available online:, [Accessed 15/06/2017].

Mullinger, J. B. (1907-21) The Foundation of Libraries, in Ward, A. W. & Waller, A. R. (eds), English Prose And Poetry Sir Thomas North To Michael Drayton. The Cambridge History Of English And American Literature. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Pettegree, A. (2015) The Renaissance Library and the Challenge of Print, in Crawford, A. (ed), The Meaning of the Library: A Cultural History. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 72-90.

Philip, I. (1983) The Bodleian Library in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Pugh, S. (2000) The Problem of Light in Duke Humfrey’s Library. The Paper Conservator, 24(1), 13-25.

Summit, J. (2008) Memory`s Library: Medieval Books in Early Modern EnglandUniversity Of Chicago Press.

Taylor, S., Whitfield, M. & Barson, S. (2016) The English Public Library 1850-1939. Available online: [Accessed 14/04/2017].

University of Cambridge (2016) History of Cambridge University Library. Available online: [Accessed 14/04/2017].

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