Today, the first day of class began with a trip to Oxford to tour the Bodleian Library, one of the oldest and largest libraries in Europe. The continuously growing library still operates in some of the same medieval buildings and serves as the main central library for the University of Oxford. While the library houses a staggering collection of rare manuscripts and folios, one of the most interesting aspects to me was learning about the institution’s revolutionary book security problem solving procedures which helped transform the layout, categorization and running of the library. Patrons do not typically think about book security when utilizing the library but this practice is essential for operation. The Bodleian implemented early medieval tactics to keep books safe by housing the materials on the second floor. The safety of the second floor meant the library’s collections were less likely to be harmed by flooding, thieves, and other dangers. The Bodleian’s Duke Humfrey’s Library, the oldest portion of the institution dating from 1488, still operates on the second floor.
During the 16th century the Bodleian was a chained library in which each book was attached to the bookshelf with an iron link chain to prevent misuse or theft. Several issues materialized out of the chained library strategy, most pressing was that because the chains were attached to the top corner of the book each item had to be shelved with the spine hidden from the patrons. Without information on the spine, finding a specific item was impossible. The Bodleian developed a special cataloging and numbering method to identify the chained books on the shelves. Numbers were written onto the bookblock or textblock, which was visible from the shelves.
Under the guidance of Sir Thomas Bodley, who was responsible for the refurbishment of the Bodleian in 1598, library shelves became floor to ceiling. This allowed for upstairs galleries where readers could ascend locked staircases to access smaller books. Books housed on the gallery level of the bookcase were not chained because these areas could only be accessed with a key kept by a Bodleian librarian. Readers utilizing the gallery would essentially be locked into the area until they were finished with the library’s items. A study of the Bodleian’s archives reveled that readers complained about the noise caused by the heavy book chains leading to the decision to adopt other methods to ensure book security but the galleries remained intact.