All right, I know our last time travel trip to 1550 was a little discouraging (all the books had been robbed out of Oxford’s Bodleian library), but I promise you today’s trip will be full of the new and optimistic. We’re visiting the Bodleian in the year 1612, and by this time the library will be refurbished and reopened to students. The man responsible for the library’s turn of fortune is Thomas Bodley, the library’s namesake. I’ll tell you more about him when we get there. Are you ready to go? Good. Brace yourself…

Suhzapp!

Careful, we’ve landed on a bit of uneven ground. The paving in this area won’t be installed for another three years when it becomes the library’s quadrangle. But let’s take a look at the front of the library as it stands now. Does it look like the modern building? It does? That’s because it is the modern building. It never changes over the centuries, so what you see here in 1612, is what you’ll see in 2016. The door there leads into a foyer where you’ll find another door that leads you into the Divinity School. You remember the Divinity School, we rested our feet there a couple of trips ago. The large window looks into Art’s End, a recent extension to Duke Humphrey’s fifteenth century Library. Just above the door there’s an inscription that reads “That it might turn out happily, Oxonian academics, for you and for the republic of lettered men Thomas Bodley placed this Library.”

Thomas Bodley. He’s been all over Europe on diplomatic missions for Queen Elizabeth I. When he retired from serving his queen, he wanted to do something to serve his alma mater: Oxford University. The students there were still using whatever books and facilities the individual colleges could afford while Duke Humphrey’s library lay in ruins. So in 1598, he decided it was time to return this library to its former glory. But he didn’t want to merely refurbish; he wanted all things modern. He would start the upgrade by installing bookshelves. Yes, you heard me correctly. What? Don’t tell me you’ve been picturing the library filled with bookshelves this entire time. You have? Well, I suppose that’s my fault. I should’ve said something. Bookshelves are a recent invention in 1612; libraries were more likely to use lecterns with three to five chained books stacked underneath, because until then, students stood up to read. If you wanted a book at the bottom of the stack, you’d have to yank it out from underneath the others. Maybe with only a few books, this might be a tolerable process. Maybe. But when you have some 2,500 books, which is what the library had acquired from all of its patrons, book-stacking gets cumbersome, even dangerous. Bodley knew what this library needed: modern bookpresses—or what we would call bookshelves. Let’s go inside and see the newly refurbished Duke Humphrey’s, shall we? We’ll take the spiral staircase.

Bodleian Library (interior)

There now, everyone here? What do you think? I’m not sure what I love more, the bookshelves or the ceiling with its tie-beam roof trusses and panels of the university’s coat of arms. If you’re a student in 1612, however, what you’d be impressed with are the hundreds and hundreds of books standing up.

One last thing before we go. In 1612, Each book spine is pierced by a chain which is then connected to a rail running along each shelf. Don’t think that just because this is a library, you can check out the books. No one checks out the books. Even King Charles I in 1645 will be refused permission. Books are far too precious to be taken out of the care of the librarians.

 

We better be getting back. It’s never a good idea to stay too long in a year that isn’t your own. You can get into trouble fast. Everyone, gather around and prepare for the year 2016.

Suhzapp!

Wait, does this look right to you? Let’s see…okay, yes, it’s definitely 2016. I’m always afraid I’ll overshoot our destination by a year. Now, before you go, I should tell you that, going forward, I’ll be time traveling and hosting tours of the Library for Dragons on Mondays, not Wednesdays. It also occurs to me that I’ve never told you how I came to be a human librarian at the Library for Dragons. I’ll explain next week. Until then, enjoy your chain-less bookpresses!

So which describes your book situation better, shelves or uneven stacks all around the house?

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6 thoughts on “When Bookshelves Became a Thing

  • September 7, 2016 at 7:14 am
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    I love reading your story and the history in it. I am getting quite the education! Keep it coming! I really enjoy it all!

    Reply
    • September 9, 2016 at 6:44 pm
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      Your wish is my command!

      Reply
  • September 8, 2016 at 12:26 pm
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    I’m all about shelves until I run out of room. Then it’s stacks. Here, there, and everywhere! 😉

    Another great post. Love the mix of the inventive with the historical.

    Becky

    Reply
    • September 9, 2016 at 6:46 pm
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      I’m the same way, I start stacking after I run out of room. I kind of like that look, though. It feels like the stories are overflowing, like they can’t be contained 🙂

      Reply
  • September 9, 2016 at 6:03 am
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    I’m picking up a book I have on hold at the library today. I can’t imagine not having the privilege of taking it home with me! Standing there day after day to read my book! Who has time for that. I guess most of these books were non-fiction? I can’t imagine anyone spending hours standing, chained to a lectern, at a library to read about a assassin with magical transforming abilities! lol

    Reply
    • September 9, 2016 at 6:56 pm
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      Ha! I love the idea of a 17th century Oxford scholar reading a riveting fantasy about a magical assassin. There’d probably be a line of scholars behind him impatiently waiting to read next! Also, am I right to assume you’ve picked up a Sarah J. Maas novel?

      Reply

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