Thomas Bodley and the development of the modern library

January 25, 2022 | By Jim Stovall | Filed in: books, history, journalism.

How many times in your childhood (or adulthood, for that matter) have you been “shushed” in a library?

Probably more than you can remember, right? Everybody knows that you’re supposed to be quiet in a library. It’s just a natural thing.

Except it isn’t. The idea of being quiet in a library comes from Thomas Bodley, the man who in 1597 took over the moribund library at Oxford University and started it on its road to becoming a world-class institution.

A recent review by James Waddell in the Times Literary Supplement of the book The Library: A Fragile History by Andrew Pettegree and Arthur der Weduwen says of Bodley:

Over the course of fifteen years until his death in 1613, Thomas Bodley transformed the dilapidated Oxford University library into the relatively plush, well-stocked Bodleian, quadrupling the size of its collection to 23,000 volumes. Equally lasting, though, were his diktats for future librarians and readers: the library would be open six hours a day, as opposed to the more usual four a week; no book would be lent out (a rule upheld “even in the face of requests from both King Charles I and the Lord Protector, Oliver Cromwell”); silence would be compulsory. His ban – impressed on readers to this day – on kindling “any fire or flame” at times made working conditions in the winter so gruelling that it “probably contributed to the deaths of some of the more determined readers”.

Bodley was born in 1545, the son of a Protestant who had to flee to Switzerland during the reign of the Catholic Queen Mary. The family returned to England when Mary died and Elizabeth became queen. Bodley went to Oxford for his university degree and also achieved a master’s degree in Greek.

He became a member of the court of Queen Elizabeth and married Ann Bell, a widow with considerable wealth. He was sent on various diplomatic missions for the Queen but occasionally felt undermined by the palace intrigues back home.

In 1596 he retired from public life and the next year volunteered to use his wealth to restore the library at Oxford, an institution now known as the Bodleian Library. Bodley aggressively sought donations from well-heeled patrons who had not only money but private libraries to contribute. He turned a failing institution into the first public library in Europe.

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