Nov. 8, 1602: Oxford University’s Bodleian Library first opens to the public

Christy Karras
Bodleian Library Humphreys room
Duke Humphrey’s Library is one of the Bodleian Library’s oldest rooms. (Photo: James Whitaker, courtesy Oxford University)

The Bodleian Library is one of Oxford University’s most iconic institutions. The university’s biggest library, its vast holdings are second in the UK only to the British Library. But while it’s a renowned academic research library, architecture and history are the draw for the many tourists who visit while they’re in Oxford.

The Bodleian wasn’t the university’s first library; Oxford had small book collections available to students starting in the 1300s, housed after 1488 in a room called Duke Humphrey’s Library. But the library had been in decline, with most of the books and furniture sold off, when Thomas Bodley argued that it should once again be a useful working institution and donated many of his own volumes to the cause. On Nov. 8, 1602, Bodley’s library opened to the public for the first time.

Since then, the Bodleian has expanded dramatically and continues to grow. The library now occupies five buildings — many of them with beautiful golden stone architecture — as well as underground storage areas. Visitors can enter the library’s Exhibition Room to see parts of its collection and wander old quadrangles, or courtyards, free of charge. Other parts of the library are accessible via guided tours, including the beautiful Gothic-style Divinity School, the university’s oldest teaching and examination hall.