According to John Cross, volunteer docent for Oxford's Bodleian Library, it is the main research library for the university. The university is comprised of many independently administered colleges, but the facilities are owned by the university. The library's collection is distributed amongst several rooms, in multiple buildings.
The first space we saw was the Duke Humfrey's Library, named after the younger brother of Henry V, who donated his own collection of almost 300 manuscripts to the university. The donation was too large to house in the space previously used as the library, so a new building was built to house the library.
In the mid-16th century, however, the library's collection was decimated by a local dean, in response to the king's desire to eliminate vestiges of the Roman church. The university being tied to the church from its inception, and the main subject taught being divinity, the library collection naturally included religious texts, as well as books written in Latin - all naturally suspect. The library was not replaced until almost 50 years later, when Sir Thomas Bodley offered money, expertise, and some of his own books to rebuild it. He designed the new library's furniture and shelving, created the first catalogue, solicited donations countrywide, and designed the first extension of the building that surrounds the quadrangle. Mr. Cross pointed out that Bodley's solicitations came at a time when the public was tired of the chaos and violence that occurred following the Reformation, and many with means were therefore very willing to donate to the establishment of something which would contribute to the rebuilding of stability and culture.
In the early days, books were not allowed to circulate, and were kept spine-in on the shelves to accomodate the metal plates and long chains which held them there, but still allowed for their use. A number was stamped on the page edges as a location mark. A section of shelf near the entrance is set up that way for visitors to see.
The first extension became necessary as a result of an agreement Bodley negotiated with the printing guilds, that they would send a free copy of everything they published to the library. This agreement established the Bodleian as the first official national repository, of which there are now five. Mr. Cross told us the story of how, upon receipt of Shakespeare's Third Folio (1663), the library sold their copy of the First (1623) for £24, it being less attractive. It took them over 200 years to get their hands on another copy, for quite a bit more money. Mr. Cross asked a critical question that can plague librarians, that of identifying which authors will become a Shakespeare in the future. Whose books should be kept, and whose weeded, especially in the face of limited space?
The library continued to expand over the centuries. A second building, the round, domed 'Camera' was built in the 1700s, and houses, among other things, the main undergraduate reading room. The upper rooms surrounding the Quadrangle became reading rooms, and space for book storage was created by digging down under the buildings. The New Bodleian Library was built in the 20th century, and is linked to the other buildings through tunnels connecting the book stores. One fascinating feature of these is the pneumatic tubes formerly used for sending book requests down to the basement for retrieval. Requests are, naturally, now sent electronically, but library staff still work in the basement to retrieve items, box them, and send them to the desired locations by way of conveyer belts.