Q&A - Museums Association


Richard Ovenden, the Bodley's librarian, the director position of Bodleian Libraries in Oxford
The Bodleian Library is one of the oldest libraries in Europe, and in Britain is second in size only to the British Library.

First opened to scholars in 1602, the Bodleian Library has been a legal deposit for publications for 400 years.

In 2015 the New Bodleian Library building was renovated and reopened as the Weston Library to include refurbished academic spaces and a new space for the public that includes galleries, a café and shop.
Why was it important to transform the Weston Library into a public space?
The Bodleian Libraries hold more than 12 million printed items ranging from ancient fragments of papyrus, and four copies of Magna Carta, to 1.5 million maps and one of the largest concentrations of modern British political manuscripts and archives.

Sharing our collections with the public has long been part of the Bodleian’s mission, starting in the 17th century when founder Thomas Bodley recommended that a display cabinet in the library be reserved for items that were “most singular and rare”.
In recent years we’ve sought to explore new ways in which to engage with the public, and the historic spaces of the Old Bodleian Library can’t accommodate larger exhibitions or events, so when the New Bodleian Library on Broad Street needed refurbishing it was an ideal opportunity to create a 21st-century space in which to open up our collections to the public. The building, which had served as a research library and storage facility for almost 70 years, underwent a three-year transformation, opening to the public in March 2015.

Now called the Weston Library, it is a blend of world-class research library and immaculately designed visitor space that includes two exhibition galleries, a café and a shop, all accessible from an atrium that hosts displays, installations and events. We’ve received approximately 750,000 visitors in our first year, more than double our estimate.

The exhibition Bodleian Treasures: 24 pairs puts ancient, seminal and significant original documents from the collection on display.

Why is it important to view documents in their original form, rather than facsimile versions?

In an age where digital facsimiles can be easily made and posted online, there’s a growing appreciation of “the real thing”. Being in the same room as a document written by Elizabeth I that she gave to her stepmother Catherine Parr as a present sends shivers down people's spines in a way that seeing it on a screen just doesn’t: it's the talismanic quality of the original.
Seeing original documents reveals little details that might not be apparent in digital form, for example Percy Shelley’s revisions and corrections to his wife Mary Shelley’s draft of Frankenstein, which is on show in our new Treasures exhibition.

What does the future hold for Bodleian Libraries?

We are very excited about our new exhibition, Bodleian Treasures: 24 pairs, which showcases some of our most magnificent items, which include Tolkien’s illustrations for The Hobbit.

We’re looking forward to our next exhibition, Shakespeare’s Dead, opening on 22 April, which looks at death in Shakespeare’s literary works and during Elizabethan times, and forms part of the celebrations around the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death.
In terms of the future, we are developing exhibitions featuring popular writers including Jane Austen and Tolkien, or covering themes based on collection areas, such as early Victorian photography or our extensive collection of maps.
An increasing emphasis of our work is in preserving digital information, which is a huge task that includes archiving the internet as well as preserving “born digital” material that has never been written down on paper or parchment. 

In the past we have collected personal information such as the drafts of poems and novels and the correspondence of politicians and scientists, but increasingly this type of material is coming to us in digital form.

The preservation of purely digital information is much harder than their analogue equivalents so we are training the archivists of the future through our Graduate trainee digital archivist programme.

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