The Bodleian Library is the central research library of the University of Oxford and is one of the oldest and largest libraries in Europe. It’s used daily by students and researchers at the university, but visitors can explore its historic buildings on a unique guided tour.
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4 Tips for Visiting the Bodleian Library
The Radcliffe Camera, Oxford | Photo: Flickr, Alison Day - CC-BY-ND 2.0
Shhhh, silence in the library! The Bodleian is a working library, and in some locations, the guides will have to speak extremely quietly to avoid disturbing the readers. Visitors are reminded to be quiet where people are working.
Divinity School | Photo: Flickr, John Lord - CC-BY 2.0
Visitors will be asked to leave all bags (including ladies’ handbags) in lockers during the tours of the library. Make sure you have pocket-space for your camera or phone.
All of the guided tours include stairs and a moderate amount of walking. Unfortunately, this means that some areas of the tour aren’t wheelchair accessible.
Children under the age of 11 aren’t able to join the tours, but they might enjoy the audio tour or the history trail, where you can follow written instructions to discover the different buildings of the library from the outside.
Frequently Asked Questions
What’s so special about this library?
First of all, the Bodleian Library isn’t just one library. The Bodleian libraries are a group of 28 libraries, which together are home to nearly 13 million printed items, plus over 87,000 ft of archives and manuscripts, and other objects too! It’s the second largest library, after the British Library in London, and is one of the UK’s legal deposit libraries - which means it’s entitled to request a copy of any book or printed publication which is published in the UK and Ireland. The central Bodleian Library is made up of 5 buildings, the oldest of which dates to the 15th century, and the most modern is the Weston Library, parts of which were completed in the 21st century.Read more.
What will we see on a tour?
The tours are far more about the history of the library and the buildings that house it than they are about the books and manuscripts which are housed in the library. All tours stop in the Divinity School, which is the oldest part of the library and was built in the 15th century, It’s the oldest room used for teaching in the university, and was also where oral examinations used to take place. Guided tours also include Duke Humfrey’s library, which was built in 1488 and is the oldest reading room, and is named after the younger son of Henry IV who donated his collection of more than 280 books to the fledgling library. Duke Humfrey’s library was restored by Sir Thomas Bodley in 1598, and Bodley also financed an extension to the library and the Schools Quadrangle and donated books as well. His name was given to the library after his death to honor his generosity. Some tours also visit Convocation House, which used to be used by the university’s convocation to discuss university business and, during the English Civil War, was used for sittings of Parliament by the Royalist MPs. Other fun rooms include the Chancellor’s Court, where the university dealt with common law issues and debtors - Oscar Wilde was one prosecuted here for not paying money he owed to local businesses. Finally, there’s the Radcliffe Camera (also known as the ‘Rad Cam’), an iconic round building, beautifully designed inside and out, which was built to house the Radcliffe Science Library and today holds books from the English, history, and theology collections.Read more.
Can I borrow books?
Unfortunately, the rules about borrowing are strict - university members can borrow some books (but not all of them), and members of the Bodleian Libraries can use the library as readers - they can request material to be brought to them for their use inside the library. If you’re a member of another UK library you might be able to borrow books via an inter-library loan, but in general, the property of the Bodleian Library isn’t accessible to members of the public who haven’t applied for membership.Read more.
I feel like I recognize the buildings… why?
The Bodleian Library has featured in dozens of major films and TV series set in the UK (and in fantasy lands!). In the first two Harry Potter films, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone and Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, the Divinity School was used for the Hogwarts Hospital Wing and Duke Humfrey’s library was used as the set for the restricted section in the Hogwarts library. Parts of the library, and especially its exterior, also feature in many films which are set in Oxford, including The Favourite, The Golden Compass, Brideshead Revisited, and The Madness of King George III. So if you get a sense of déjà vu, it’s probably because you’ve just walked through the set of a movie you’ve watched!Read more.
Does the library have any fun traditions?
Before you get to access the library as a reader, you have to swear an oath not to damage or deface any of the library’s objects, which includes promising never to smoke or bring flames inside the library! The oath has existed for centuries (though it was originally taken in Latin and didn’t mention smoking), and today readers can swear it in over 100 different languages. Another fun thing to look out for is the gate of the Weston Library, which was salvaged after its original home was destroyed in 1662. It reads (in Latin) ‘If you are good, enter. If wicked, by no means’, so consider yourself warned!Read more.
Tours of the library are available daily at a range of times between 9 am and 5 pm.
Entrance to the Divinity School costs £2, and it can be visited without a guide. 30-minute guided tours visit the Divinity School and Duke Humfrey’s medieval library and cost £6. The 60-minute tour costs £9 and visits both of the aforementioned libraries, the Chancellor’s Court and Convocation House. Finally, the 90-minute tour costs £15 and visits all of the above locations plus the Radcliffe Camera and Gladstone link.
Bodleian Library Broad Street Oxford
How to get there:
The recommended entrance for visitors is via the Great Gate on Catte Street, which is also where you can buy tickets. There is very limited parking on Broad Street and Parks Road, so it’s recommended that you use the Oxford city Park & Ride services instead of trying to park in the city center. Park & Ride buses let you alight on the High Street, which is a 5-minute walk from the library. Other buses which stop nearby include the 275, NU5, U1 BROOKESbus, and Sapphire 280.