- Richard Ovenden on the Bodleian Libraries
[The logos of the State Library of Victoria and the State Government of Victoria appear on a white screen. A man wearing a suit and glasses sits near a window. Text onscreen: Richard Ovenden, Associate Director, Bodleian Libraries.]
Clare Williamson: I'm here speaking with Richard Ovenden who is Keeper of Special Collections and Associate Director of the Bodleian Libraries at the University of Oxford. Welcome to Melbourne, Richard.
Richard Ovenden: Thank you very much. I'm very pleased to be here.
[A woman wearing glasses and a paisley shirt sits facing him. Text onscreen: Clare Williamson, Curator, State Library of Victoria.]
Clare: We might start, Richard, by ... if I could ask you a little bit about the Bodleian Libraries, their role within the university, their make-up and a little bit about their founding.
Richard: Yeah, well, the Bodleian is the main university library at Oxford and it was founded in 1602, and today is the second largest library in the UK. We have around 12-million printed volumes, thousands and thousands of linear metres of rare books and manuscripts and archives, all sorts of other kinds of collections, and we are now a kind of federation of libraries, which are centrally funded within the university. So the departmental libraries for English and modern languages and a whole host of subjects are all actually organised under the umbrella of the Bodleian, as well as the historic library that was founded in 1602.
And we were founded, really, or re-founded, in the early 17th century by a man called Sir Thomas Bodley, having had origins as a medieval library. And the medieval library was established in the early 13th century as just a few books that could be borrowed in return for depositing money in a book chest. And then the collection grew to the middle of the 15th century when a man called Humfrey, Duke of Gloucester, who was the brother of Henry V, gave the university about 400 manuscripts, and they were ransacked. Then, about a century later during the Reformation, and the university had built a special room to house Duke Humfrey's books, which was ransacked in the middle of the 16th century. And then Sir Thomas Bodley came along and refurbished the library, put a new roof on it, fitted it out with modern bookshelves, and persuaded his friends to stock it full of books, and it opened in 1602 as the public library of the University of Oxford.
Clare: Mmm, and Duke Humfrey's library now, obviously, occupies a really central position in those historic buildings at Oxford, doesn't it?
Richard: It does, yeah. It's one of those kind of iconic rooms where you just go in and kind of inhale centuries of learning, and it's still a wonderful... a wonderful place.
Clare: So you were mentioning just the whole complex of libraries that, in terms of your responsibility as Associate Director, you obviously have a very broad role in relation to all of those.
Richard: Yeah, so I'm now responsible for special collections – that's rare books, manuscripts, music, maps, and oriental collections – and then for IT, so our big digital library activities, also for conservation, kind of traditional book and paper conservation, and also for our kind of outward-facing activities, like exhibitions, our historic venues activities, our publishing office, and our retail operations, our shop and licensing activities.
Clare: Mmm, and part of your role, I know, is as Director for the Centre for the Study of the Book. Can you tell us a little bit about the Centre?
Richard: That's a kind of relatively new initiative. We started it in 2005 and it's really an attempt to find a place to bring scholars together with librarians, conservators, digital technologists, to bring different communities together to study the book as a kind of... an artefact, as an object. And we run colloquia, seminars, lectures, we have a visiting fellows program, and we also run kind of research projects in collaboration with the academic community. So it's been a great success. It's all actually funded philanthropically from private individuals and foundations and it's going from strength to strength.
Clare: As you know, the State Library of Victoria is delighted to be working in partnership with the Bodleian Libraries to present our next international exhibition, which will be in 2012, called Love and devotion:from Persia and beyond, and this will be based on the wonderful collections of Persian manuscripts at the Bodleian Libraries. Can you tell us a little bit about how you see a project such as that within the roles of the Bodleian?
Richard: Well, you know, we've been amassing collections in the university for almost 900 years, and for large chunks of that time, really, they've been exclusively the domain of scholars, and the international community of scholars who've visited... had to visit the library physically, and obviously through digitalisation of publications we can share those research materials and great kind of materials of world culture. But doing collaborative exhibitions of the kind that we're very excited to be working with the State Library of Victoria on gives a whole new layer of... of interpretation and curation, so that the public can see some of these materials in a very kind of well-thought out and creative context, and we can share it with so many more people than we could just by having them available in the reading rooms of the Bodleian in Oxford.
Clare: Well, it's certainly a wonderful and unique opportunity for people in Australia to have access to more than 60 of your Persian, Mughal Indian and Ottoman Turkish manuscripts, which are ranging from the 13th to the 18th centuries. It's such an important collection, and obviously there's a very long history of that material entering the collections of the Bodleian Libraries.
Richard: Yeah, I mean, I think it's one of the extraordinary things about the Bodleian is, it really was the first public library, in the sense that Sir Thomas Bodley always wanted his library to be open to the whole republic of 'the learned', as he called it, and so the collections actually reflected that sort of national and international scope of the library as an organisation. And so when we were founded in 1602, we had a Qurʾan, we had Persian and Turkish manuscripts in the collections, and it grew from that point onward. So William Laud, the Archbishop of Canterbury and the chancellor of the university, who was perhaps our first major benefactor of books, gave us, you know, over 1000 manuscripts, including several hundred Persian, Turkish and Arabic manuscripts.
And then there were whole generations in the 17th century – the Greaves brothers, who were both civilian professors of astronomy and geometry who had visited the Near East, Thomas Hyde, Narcissus Marsh – the Archbishop of Armagh – Edward Pococke, who was the first holder of the Laudian Professor of Arabic. They all gave hundreds of manuscripts. So by the early 18th century the Bodleian was really a very, very significant institution for the study of Near and Middle Eastern languages, and then it was probably another century or more before other serious acquisitions were made. The libraries of the brothers William, Sir William and Sir Gore Ouseley, who were great orientalists... Sir Gore Ouseley had been the first British ambassador to Persia since the 17th century, and those collections came in the middle of the 19th century, and then others came at that time as well. So we have, you know, pretty much a 400-plus-year history of collecting this kind of material and it's wonderful to be able to take it to the southern hemisphere for the first time.
Clare: Yeah, it's wonderful. And just thinking in terms of the lecture that you're here in Australia to give, the Foxcroft lecture, which you're giving about the role of the book arts in a 21st century research library. Just interested in your thoughts about how those kinds of manuscript collections continue to occupy their place within the Bodleian Libraries.
Richard: Well, I mean, first and foremost, for a library like ours they're research materials, so serious scholars come to use them as primary sources for research. But also they're used in teaching. So we can use them as, you know, a great comprehensive teaching collection, teaching palaeography, codicology, illumination, art history, the history of book binding, the history of ideas... So all of those things fit very, very easily within our kind of core academic mission. But then I think the arts of the book, and I think ranging from manuscript collections like the Mughal miniatures through to artists' books of the 20th and 21st centuries, they also serve a broader purpose, I think, which is actually preserving an important part of our heritage and that's the heritage of the print ... of the book, both printed and manuscript, as a...as a means of communicating cultural ideas across time.
And so you find collections, like our Persian manuscript collections, influencing other artists and writers. So, you know, Edward FitzGerald had access to the Bodleian's historic collection of Persian materials and they inspired him or were part of his inspiration to write the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, and then his work then inspires later generations of writers and artists in book form in the 20th and 21st century. So I think there's... You know, librarians have to take the long view, I think, and these collections, a bit like sort of collecting wine, you know, they get better with age and they continue to have an impact. They kind of release their power, their potency across time continually, and they get re-interpreted and they re-inspire new generations of writers and artists and thinkers, and I think that's why it's so wonderful to be in great research libraries like the State Library of Victoria or the Bodleian, who exist over long periods of time, because we know that the decisions we make today about collecting will influence people in hundreds of years time.
Clare: Mmm, and I think it's interesting as libraries such as ours move through the 21st century and there is increasing use of digitisation or access to information in different ways that those processes can help to make some of those original manuscripts and materials more accessible, but they don't replace the aura and the iconic nature and that experience of the original that you can get through a project such as an exhibition.
Richard: No. Absolutely. I mean, you know, the ... part of my role at the Bodleian is as head of our IT operations and, you know, we've been heavily digitising our collections, both sort of very ordinary printed books as well as great manuscript materials, and it's wonderful to be able to share those with, you know, millions of people online. You can search material so much easier through digital technologies, you can access it when the library is shut ... So there are all sorts of incredible benefits that you can gain from using the digital, but it won't replace the power, even the smell, the ... the feel of turning a page, the way gold glistens on an illumination as you turn a leaf of a medieval manuscript, the sound, even, of paper as ... as you flick through a book. I mean, these are things which are all part of the culture of the codex that we kind of have absorbed over 2000 years into our everyday beings, and, you know, it's not easy to replace that with the very kind of restrictive nature of ... of, you know, the digital screens that we consume electronic information on.
Clare: Mmm, and I was very privileged to spend time at the Bodleian Libraries in both 2009 and 2010 as part of the preparations for this exhibition, and it was a wonderful, unique opportunity, of course, to be able to just immerse myself in your fantastic collections and to work with all of your specialist staff in the preparation of that material, and walking through Oxford and in the historic buildings of the Bodleian Libraries you were so struck by that ... You know, you're steeped in that history and those unique historic collections. But I was also very conscious about how the library is always looking ahead and looking forward to those new challenges, those new opportunities and developments. And also, when I was there last year some of the staff were preparing to move collections. There were different spaces that were shifting. You're obviously embarking on a very exciting chapter of the future development of the libraries.
Richard: Yeah, absolutely, and, you know, I think one of the things about being in an institution that's lasted a long time, just as the State Library has here, is that nothing stays the same and, you know, libraries continue to evolve and adapt and, you know, learn from mistakes and prepare for the future, and that's just part of what it is to be an enduring institution, and the work that we're doing at the moment – building our first really significant off-site store with 8.5 million volumes, refurbishing one of our existing buildings to be a major centre for special collections, and a big new exhibition centre – these are all actually just part and parcel of the library's evolution over ... over centuries, and they are big changes, but I think in the grand scheme of things they'll just be another chapter in the Bodleian's long history.
Clare: Well, it sounds like with your plans to be opening up the new Bodleian building and having exhibition spaces and a shop and cafe and areas, it's interesting sort of... well, it's sort of showing, in a sense, I guess, how increasingly the university collections are really becoming so available to the broader community and the broader public.
Richard: Yeah. I mean, it's interesting. You know, when you, again, look through the library's archives you find that, you know, we bought our first exhibition case in 1834, and, you know, there is... even then, there's a long history of sharing collections with the public, and this is just taking it on to a new level and a new ... hopefully a new degree of professionalism about the way that we display and interpret the collections as well. But certainly we can do more of it and share it with more people and that's going to be very exciting.
Clare: And I think it's something that is happening worldwide, and certainly the State Library of Victoria has similarly been going through projects of making the collections available in a whole range of ways. So, yeah, we're very excited to be working together and see those futures, and we look forward to the exhibition in 2012, and thank you very much for your time today.
Richard: Well, thank you very much and we can't wait to bring it here and to share it with you.
Clare: Thank you.
[The logos of the State Library of Victoria and the State Government of Victoria appear on a white screen.]
Past readers at Oxford’s Bodleian library include five kings, 40 Nobel Prize winners, 25 British prime ministers, and writers such as Oscar Wilde, CS Lewis and JRR Tolkien.
About this video
Founded in 1602, the Bodleian Library is hallowed ground for academic researchers.
Join Oxford’s Richard Ovenden and learn about the history of the Bodleian’s collection of Arabic, Persian and Turkish manuscripts that today number over 5000 treasured items.
Hear about Sir Thomas Bodley, the library’s founder, and other individuals who gifted some of the world’s most sought-after manuscripts.
You’ll also discover how in 2012 the Bodleian lent a selection of its rarest manuscripts to the State Library of Victoria’s Love and devotion: from Persia and beyond exhibition.
Richard Ovenden FRSA FSA is keeper of special collections and director of the Centre for the Study of the Book at the Bodleian library.
Clare Williamson is an exhibitions curator at State Library Victoria.