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Five facts about Thomas Bodley

By Liz McCarthy


This week marks the 400th anniversary of the death of Sir Thomas Bodley, diplomat and founder of the Bodleian Library. After retiring from public life in 1597, Bodley decided to “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.” Thanks to his work, the Bodleian Library opened to readers in 1602.

On the anniversary of his death, we thought we’d share five facts about the Bodley and the Bodleian that you may not have known:

  • Thomas Bodley was not a fan of “almanackes, plaies, & an infinit number” of other “unworthy matters” — what he called “baggage bookes.” Fortunately, these still made it in to the Library, and included items such as Shakespeare’s First Folio.
  • In 1610, Bodley set up the precursor to today’s legal deposit agreements when he arranged for the Stationers’ Company in London to send the Bodleian a copy of every new book printed.
  • Bodley’s effort to restore the University library in Oxford saw him send agents all over Europe as well as appeal to the generosity of friends around the nation. He insisted upon acquiring books in non-European languages, including Hebrew and Asian languages. Hundreds of years later, the Libraries’ collections of Hebrew, Islamic, South Asian and Far Eastern studies are some of the best in the world.
  • The Bodleian Libraries hold more than just books. Over the years, they have acquired everything from popular ephemera to objects such as Percy Bysshe Shelley’s baby rattle. As more and more material is ‘born digital’, the Libraries’ e-resources and e-journals have expanded to include the digital archives of authors and politicians — such as Barbara Castle and Isaiah Berlin — as well as web archives.
  • A far cry from the Bodley’s restoration of Duke Humfrey’s Library, our Book Storage Facility in Swindon holds over 153 miles of shelving — that’s shelving space equivalent to over 16 football pitches.


For more information on the life of Thomas Bodley, read the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography article. For information on the Bodleian Libraries, see www.bodleian.ox.ac.uk.

Liz McCarthy is the Communications & Social Media Officer for the Bodleian Libraries, as well as an assistant in the Library’s Conservative Party Archive. When not tweeting or writing about archives, she can be found researching digital humanities & 17th-century bookbindings, working on the Journal of Information Literacy or teaching Irish dance. Follow her on Twitter at @mccarthy_liz.

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Image credit: Thomas Bodley, public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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