In 1600 Thomas Bodley announced his intention to ‘busy my selfe and my friends about gathering in Books’. At that time Oxford University owned no books. The colleges had their libraries, but the University itself had nothing but an empty reading room. A comprehensive collection of books and manuscripts therefore had to be assembled from scratch, and this tabula rasa was filled according to contemporary – and more accurately Sir Thomas Bodley’s – ideas about what was suitable for a university library.
With funds donated by a number of wealthy benefactors, Thomas Bodley embarked on an energetic and comprehensive programme of book buying. His outlook was international and he took advice from leading London booksellers. His purchasing was guided by his preferences, and he disdained what he termed ‘idle books and riff raffs’. Occasionally, however, something which is valued today, but which would not necessarily have been appreciated by Bodley, slipped through.
As the Bodleian’s reputation grew, authors and publishers began to see it as a prestigious home for their books. Francis Bacon presented the newly formed Library with copies of his works, thereby including it in his scheme to advance learning. In 1610 the Stationers of London echoed Bacon’s public-spirited ambitions when it agreed to supply the Library with free books ‘out of their zeale to the advancement of good learning’. Johannes Hevelius sent the Library many of his books on publication. Portraits of the great were given to adorn the Bodleian’s walls, conferring fame and honour on those portrayed.
Purchases and gifts have since continued, and gaps filled, according to the constantly changing ideas of what genius is and how it should be represented in a library’s collections.