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The UK library that's the oldest in Europe with more than 13 million books inside

Claimed to be one of the oldest libraries in Europe and ranked as the top library in England by Tripadvisor 2023, the Bodleian Library in Oxford opened to scholars in 1602.

Since opening it has expanded, slowly at first but with increasing momentum over the last 150 years, to keep pace with the ever-growing accumulation of books, manuscripts and other materials.

After the British Library, the Bodleian Library is the second largest library in Britain containing a 400-year record of British literature. 

Its present state is largely due to the efforts of Sir Thomas Bodley. He was a 16th-century fellow of Merton College who rescued the library in 1602 from a parlous state and decline. In 1610 he came to the agreement with the Stationers’ Company of London that the Bodleian was entitled to receive a free copy of every single book published in England – an agreement that still stands today.

There are 12 million items, 117 miles of shelving and 2,500 seating spaces. A tradition that makes the library so unique is that no books can be borrowed, but only read on the premises. 

Much of the library’s impressive storage space is in underground tunnels built in the early 1900s. Conveyor belts deliver volumes through the tunnels to 29 reading rooms in the various library buildings. 

Each book must be requested in advance and retrieved by a librarian to ensure that the library knows the exact location of every volume at all times.

An unusual fact is that the library had no heating until 1845. This situation changed in 1845 when Victorian engineers installed channels in the floor to carry hot water into the building after being heated in boilers outside.

There was also no artificial light in the library until 1929. Reliance on the sun for light and heat kept the library’s opening hours incredibly short.

A Bodleian spokesperson said: “The Bodleian Libraries at the University of Oxford is the largest university library system in the United Kingdom. It includes the principal University library – the Bodleian Library – which has been a legal deposit library for 400 years; as well as 26 libraries across Oxford including major research libraries and faculty, department, and institute libraries. Together, the Libraries hold more than 13 million printed items, over 80,000 e-journals and outstanding special collections including rare books and manuscripts, classical papyri, maps, music, art, and printed ephemera.”

The collections are not just for students, as members of the public can explore the collections via the Bodleian’s online image portal.

Visitors have taken to TripAdvisor to comment on their experience visiting the historic library in the heart of Oxford.

User Rene, wrote: “Amazingly beautiful, sights and smells of history.” Whereas Geraint wrote: “Amazing to see the old books and shelves, to hear the stories and to admire the architecture. A great way to spend a few hours and sense the history close by.”

Graham was impressed with the architecture, realising he had seen it before on the big screen: “Spectacular building, fascinating history, and a very important part of a wonderful real-world, massive, working library. The intriguing architecture is visually fabulous and holds secrets that reveal clues to the historical stories of its past. And for Harry Potter fans, it’s a ‘must see’ because of its roles in the film series.”

The Bodleian Library has also won numerous awards and was recently commended in the 2022-2023 Beautiful South Tourism Awards for Large Visitor Attraction of the Year.



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