from Owen McKnight, Jesus College Library
The Bodleian Libraries are currently celebrating their long history of collecting with an exhibition of ‘Treasures’. Venerable as it is, the Bodleian was not the first library in Oxford: at least a quarter of the 44 colleges and halls had established libraries by the time the Bodleian opened in November 1602.
The college libraries have a continuous tradition of serving their members. They provide textbooks for today’s undergraduates at the same time as preserving and interpreting the historic books and manuscripts which have now become ‘special’ collections. The Committee of College Librarians has now published a new guide to the special collections in the care of Oxford’s colleges. [8 pages, PDF format].
Previously, the only guide to such material in college libraries was the late Paul Morgan’s compilation Oxford libraries outside the Bodleian. This has long been out of print, but it remains a valuable reference for its detailed survey of early printed books, manuscripts, and archives. The new document is intended as an accessible and up-to-date complement.
Among many diverse holdings, the guide reveals collections of Civil War tracts across Oxford, in Christ Church, Lady Margaret Hall, Lincoln, and Worcester. Somerville has the library of John Stuart Mill – and St John’s has the papers of Spike Milligan. Many Old Members have presented their literary papers, and other donations have created collections of books and manuscripts predating colleges’ foundations.
Each of the colleges and halls remains independent, both of the University and of one another. There is, nonetheless, close collaboration, notably in 2008 when the Bodleian mounted an exhibition under the title Beyond the Work of One: Oxford College Libraries and Their Benefactors , still available to visit online.
Researchers who wish to explore these collections are welcome on application in advance.