Libraries by their very nature are keepers and extollers of the written word. They contain books, letters, and manuscripts, signifying unending possibilities and limitless stores of knowledge waiting to be explored. But aside from the texts and stories kept within libraries’ walls, they also have a long and fascinating story in their own right. In light of this contrast between the physical store of narratives, and the generally hidden life and narrative(s) of the library itself—what can letters about libraries tell us about the ways these spaces are used, and what makes them so special?
We’ve delved into private correspondence on our very own Bodleian Library here in Oxford, to find out why it’s inspired so many generations of academics, students, and writers. From the inspirational and the aspirational, with discussions of bequests, royalty, and scandals, to the mundane but ever-necessary issues of building work and heating—discover a library in letters…
First opened in 1602, the Bodleian is one of the oldest and most respected libraries in Europe. Reflecting the high esteem in which its collections were held, in 1703 John Locke (one of the most influential Enlightenment thinkers) wrote to John Hudson (librarian from 1701 to 1719) offering to donate his works in the hope that his texts would “have a place among their betters”:
Since the high opinion you express of my writings above what they deserve, and your demand of them for the Bodleian library will now authorise that vanity in me, it is my intention if the booksellers fail in sending them to make a present of them to the University myself and put them into your hands to that purpose since you are so favourable to them as to think them fit to have a place among their betters.
Not everyone was as enamoured with the Bodleian as John Locke, however. In 1766, Thomas Warton (an English poet and historian) wrote to Jackson’s Oxford Journal, complaining that his Oxfordian ancestors “seem to have had very little notion of elegance, convenience, and propriety” when it came to architectural beauty. The library did not escape his notice, suggesting that:
The pinnacles on the top of the schools, those superfluous and cumbersome remains of an ignorant age, were taken and down, and replaced by Roman urns: which, besides the effect they would have on the whole building, would add a more fashionable and airy appearance to that one side of the Radclivian area.
Aside from the architecture, Warton also complained in 1785 of being too cold to work: “The weather has been too severe for writing in the Bodleian Library, where no fire is allowed.”
Libraries were unheated in the eighteenth century because fires were so hazardous. Even today, the oath which all scholars have to take promises “not to bring into the Library, or kindle therein, any fire or flame, and not to smoke in the Library.” Despite the often chilly conditions, the Bodleian hosted the highest echelons of royalty, with Hester Lynch Piozzi (a diarist and patron of the arts) recalling a near-disastrous visit of King Louis XVIII:
Our Bishop Cleaver was the man appointed to show Oxford to Louis XVIII of France: he commends the King’s scholarship and good breeding extremely; but how odd it was, that when they opened a Virgil in the Bodleian, the first line presenting itself should be, ‘Quæ regio in terris, nostri non plena laboris’ (‘Is there a land in the world not steeped in our troubles and sorrow?’) ‘Ah! monseigneur,’ cried Louis Dixhuit, ‘fermons vite, j’ai eu assez de ça‘ (‘Close it now, I’ve had enough of that’). “Why, my lord,” said I, “were you seeking the Sortes Virgilianæ on purpose?” “No,” replied he, “nor ever thought of it.”
Piozzi herself was also “entertained” by the enormous stores within the library’s walls, writing to her daughter on the arrival of a shipment of one thousand pounds of “Modern Books” that: “I thought myself transported by Magic from the Bodleian Library where Mr Gray had entertained me for whole Hours and Days, and whence I came to my Maid all covered with Dust.”
Despite the seeming tranquility of the Bodleian’s books, the library was no stranger to scandals, with Charles Clairmont (a member of the Shelley-Byron circle) noting how he followed in the footsteps of Thomas Jefferson Hogg and Percy Bysshe Shelley, who were expelled from the University in 1811 for their role in printing and distributing Shelley’s pamphlet The Necessity of Atheism:
We visited the very rooms where the two noted Infidels Shelley and Hogg […] poured with the incessant and unwearied application of an Alchemyst over the artificial and natural boundaries of human knowledge; brooded over the perceptions which were the offspring of their villainous and impudent penetration and even dared to threaten the World with the horrid and diabolical project of telling mankind to open its eye.
Whether it’s outrage, scandal, passion, or down-right dissatisfaction, plainly evident in all these letters is the crucial importance of the library, its building, books, and opportunities, to all who used and continue to use it. Long live the library, and its letters!
Featured image credit: “Oxford University, Radcliffe Camera, a Reading room of Bodleian library” by Tejvan Pettinger, CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.