The University and its Library

In 1229 the King of England, Henry III, invited the scholars of Paris to England. He offered them a city, town or borough of their choosing, a place where they could stay and enjoy the ‘freedom and tranquillity’ to study. Perhaps some of these Parisian scholars joined the academic community that already existed in Oxford, a loose federation of colleges whose shared collection of books would eventually form the first University Library.

At the end of the sixteenth century Sir Thomas Bodley, seeing that this library had become a ‘ruin’, paid for its restoration, and the ‘Bodleian Library’ opened its doors in 1602.

What would this library have considered its greatest treasures? Not, in all probability, the copy of the first collected edition of Shakespeare’s plays which it received shortly after publication in 1623. Indeed, Sir Thomas would likely have dismissed this as one of the ‘idle books, and riffe raffes’ that had no place among the Library’s predominantly theological collections. By 1674, for reasons which are unclear, it had left the Library. But when it resurfaced in 1905 the Bodleian was prepared to pay the unheard-of sum of £3,000 to buy back ‘its original long-lost copy of the First Folio of Shakespeare’.

It is an example of how the value placed on a book or manuscript changes over time. One can only speculate on what the Bodleian’s future treasures, the First Folios of tomorrow, might be.