The Bod – Where it began with a book, a witch, and a vampire.

James North (production designer)

The Bodleian Library – University of Oxford

The leather-bound volume was nothing remarkable.  To the ordinary historian, it would have looked no different from the hundreds of other manuscripts in the Oxford Bodleian Library, ancient and worn – A Discovery of Witches p.1

Oxford’s libraries are among the most celebrated in the world, not only for their incomparable collections of books and manuscripts, but also for their buildings, some of which have remained in continuous use since the Middle Ages. The principal University library – the Bodleian Library – has been a library of legal deposit for 400 years.

The University’s first purpose-built library was begun in approximately 1320 in the University Church of St Mary the Virgin, in a room which still exists as a vestry and a meeting room for the church.

Building the Bodleian | cabinet

The upper shelves of the of the section of Duke Humfrey’s known as the Seldon End were reachable by means of a worn set of stairs to a gallery that looked over the reading desks. I climbed the twisted treads to where the old buckram-covered books sat in neat chronological rows on wooden shelves … I located the volume and swore softly under my breath. It was on the top shelf, just out of reach – Diana – A Discovery of Witches p.16

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The Bodleian Library (known to many Oxford scholars simply as ‘the Bod’), is one of the oldest libraries in Europe, and in Britain is second in size only to the British Library. Together, the Bodleian Libraries hold over 13 million printed items. First opened to scholars in 1602, it incorporates an earlier library built by the University in the 15th century to house books donated by Humfrey, Duke of Gloucester. Humfrey, Duke of Gloucester and younger brother of King Henry V, gave the University his priceless collection of more than 281 manuscripts, including several important classical texts. The library built to house the collection was completed in 1488, but lasted only 60 years; in 1550, the Dean of Christ Church, hoping to purge the English church of all traces of Catholicism including ‘superstitious books and images’, removed all the library’s books – some to be burnt.

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Suddenly two icy patches bloomed between my shoulder bladesI had been seen, but not by an ordinary human observer … I mentally shuffled through the readers in Duke Humfrey’s…but vampires aren’t often found in the rare-book room …

My eyes swept over him, his own were fixed on me. From across the room they seemed black as night …But the most unnerving thing about him was not his physical perfection. It was his feral combination of strength, agility, and keen intelligence that was palpable across the room. In his black trousers and soft gray sweater, with a shock of black hair swept back from his forehead and cropped close to the nape of his neck, he looked like a panther that could strike at any moment but was in no rush to do so. – A Discovery of Witches p.18

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The staircase seemed farther away than the four steps it took to reach it. I raced down to the floor below, stumbled on the last step, and pitched straight into the vampire’s waiting arms…

His fingers were cool, and his arms felt steelier than flesh and bone. The scent of cloves, cinnamon, and something that reminded me of incense filled the air. He set me on my feet, picked up Notes and Queries off the floor, and handed it to me with a small bow. “Dr. Bishop, I presume?” – A Discovery of Witches p.19

The library was rescued by Sir Thomas Bodley (1545–1613), a Fellow of Merton College and a diplomat in Queen Elizabeth I’s court.

In 1598, the old library was refurnished to house a new collection of some 2,500 books, some of them given by Bodley himself. A librarian, Thomas James, was appointed, and the library finally opened to scholars on 8 November 1602.

In 1610 Bodley entered into an agreement with the Stationers’ Company of London under which a copy of every book published in England and registered at Stationers’ Hall would be deposited in the new library. Then in 1610–12 Bodley planned and financed the first extension to the medieval building, known as Arts End, to house the expanding collection.

Bodley died in 1613. In his will Bodley left money to add a third floor designed to serve as ‘a very large supplement for stowage of books’, which also became a public museum and picture gallery, the first in England. The quadrangle was structurally complete by 1619, though work continued until at least 1624.

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The last addition to Bodley’s buildings came in 1634–7, when another extension to Duke Humfrey’s Library was built; it is still known as Selden End, after the lawyer John Selden (1584–1654) who made a gift of 8,000 books.

Bodleian Library | British History Online

Another tradition, still zealously guarded, is that no books were to be lent to readers; even King Charles I was refused permission to borrow a book in 1645.

The finest of all the new libraries was the brainchild of John Radcliffe (1650–1714). He left his trustees a large sum of money with which to purchase both the land for the new building and an endowment to pay a librarian and purchase books. The monumental circular domed building – Oxford’s most impressive piece of classical architecture – was built between 1737 and 1748 based on the designs of James Gibbs, and it was finally opened in 1749. For many years the Radcliffe Library, as it was called until 1860, was completely independent of the Bodleian.

Radcliffe Camera Bodleian Library Oxford University Stock Photo ...

By 1849, there were estimated to be 220,000 books and some 21,000 manuscripts in the library’s collection.

By 1788, the rooms on the first floor were given over to library use, and by 1859 the whole of the Schools Quadrangle was in library hands. In 1860, the Radcliffe Library was taken over by the Bodleian and renamed the Radcliffe Camera (the word camera means room in Latin).

The library reached the million mark by 1914. To provide extra storage space an underground book store was excavated beneath Radcliffe Square in 1909–12; it was the largest such store in the world

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In 1931 the decision was taken to build a new library, with space for five million books, library departments and reading rooms, on a site occupied by a row of old timber houses on the north side of Broad Street. The New Bodleian, as it was known then, was designed by Sir Giles Gilbert Scott and went up in 1937–40. 

In 1975 new office space was acquired in the Clarendon Building, built for the University Press in 1712–13, and occupying the crucial site between the Old and New Libraries. Thus the whole area between the Radcliffe Camera and the New Library – the historic core of the University – came into the hands of the Bodleian.

Most recently, the New Bodleian building was completely renovated and reopened with large public and new academic spaces as the Weston Library in 2015.

Sources: Bodleian Libraries University of Oxford – History of the Bodleian and A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness and A Discovery of Witches TV/Sundance Now

2 comments

  1. Once again you posted something great! Thank you. Sure wish that behind the scene look was part of the dvd….

    • Thank you for reading! I’m hoping as we get closer to season 2, we’ll get more of season 1 BTS

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