Many of the earliest gifts to the Bodleian came in the form of money, which Thomas Bodley often used to buy books. His initial stocking of the Library was in many ways remarkably far sighted. At a time when the intellectual community conducted its affairs largely in Latin he collected books in Hebrew (a language in which he was proficient), Arabic and even Chinese. If benefactors wished to give not money but ‘bookes of their owne stoare’, Bodley asked for the titles first, so he could pick out the ones he wanted.
Bodley was keen to avoid duplicate copies, and wanted to weed out anything he considered unsuitable. Parts of the Library’s holdings, however, would only acquire true breadth and coherence when it acquired whole collections skilfully assembled by others.
Sometimes books were acquired and valued by their collectors for reasons that would not be recognized today, and their acquisition may have been prompted by simple curiosity. More often, however, the collectors whose benevolence so enriched the Bodleian were highly learned. They both collected genius and had a genius for collecting, and with their specialist interests could assemble collections which comprised the finest achievements of a particular subject or culture.
Sir Henry Savile established a separate library in his own name. Intended for the University professors of astronomy and geometry, this constantly developing scientific collection would in time become part of the Bodleian. The magnificence of the Arabic and Chinese collections formed by Edward Pococke and Sir Edmund Backhouse owed much to linguistic skills, local knowledge, refined taste and sufficient quantities of time and money. The collection of printed ephemera formed by John Johnson captures an overlooked and unexpected niche in the history of genius. Mendelssohn collected autographs of his great forebears in albums passed down with his own papers through generations, and then reassembled and secured years later by a dedicated collector, Margaret Deneke. Marks of genius often owe their survival to the collector’s single-minded expertise.