In 2015 the New Bodleian Library reopened to the public after a four year make-over. Redesigned, reshaped, and renamed, it is now known as The Weston Library in honour of its major benefactor.

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The metamorphosis (by architects Wilkinson Eyre) has been spectacular. In the words of one ecstatic reviewer the dreary old blockhouse has become ‘the Mod Bod’, its ‘sociopathic façade’ no longer oppressive and intimidating, its ‘constipated core’ transformed into a spacious, inviting atrium, filled with natural light. It boasts a café which has become a popular meeting ground (where, mercifully, laptops are banned) and two exhibition rooms, built to display some of the thirteen million manuscripts, books, maps, papyri, music, and printed items which make up the Bodleian collections.

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The latest exhibition, Alphabets Alive! celebrates alphabet books of all kinds. (There are, as it happens, 26 libraries in the Bodleian libraries group.) It has inspired us to think alphabetically; so we’ve come up with an A-Z of some of the treasures held here.

A is for Austen
A picture of Jane Austen, aged about 35 – from a pencil and watercolour portrait by her sister Cassandra, sketched c.1810. It’s the the only authenticated image of the nation’s favourite novelist.

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C is for Caxton
The Fables of Aesop
, published in 1484 by William Caxton – one of the first books to be printed in English. (As a ‘Legal Deposit Library’ the Bodleian now automatically receives a copy of all books published in the UK and Ireland: roughly a thousand volumes every day.)

D is for Dante
A fourteenth-century manuscript of Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy – widely considered to be one of the most important poems of the Middle Ages and arguably the greatest literary work ever composed in the Italian language.

E is for Euclid
Euclid’s Elements of Geometry – the definitive textbook on the subject for over two thousand years. Hand-written/hand-drawn with Greek text and diagrams, it is one of the library’s oldest surviving manuscripts, dating from the year 888.

F is for First Folio
The first collected edition of William Shakespeare’s plays – published in 1623, seven years after his death, then sold when a later edition was acquired, only to be repurchased in 1905 after a public appeal (an epic tale in itself – See Oxford and Stratford.)

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G is for Gutenberg Bible
The Latin Bible produced by Johannes Gutenburg and Johann Furst, c. 1455 – the first volume to be printed using movable type, thereby heralding the age of mechanised book production in Europe: the so-called ‘Gutenberg Revolution’.

H is for Hooke
Robert Hooke’s Micrographia (1665) – the first work in English to publish observations made under a microscope, together with some astonishing illustrative engravings, most famously a spectacularly detailed close-up of a flea.

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I is for Iris Germanica
A stunning watercolour of an Iris Germanica by Ferdinand Bauer – as featured in John Sibthorp’s ten-volume Flora Graeca (1806-40) one of the earliest and most beautifully illustrated works of horticultural history.

J is for Jami
A Mughal court painting, ‘The vain dervish rebuked’ (1595) by the artist Basawan – illustrating a scene from the Baharistan (Garden of Spring) by the Persian writer and mystic, Jami.

K is for Kafka
Franz Kafka’s notebook – containing the world-famous opening line of his story Die Verwandlung (Metamorphosis) in which, depending on which translation you read, Gregor Samsa finds himself transformed into a ‘gigantic insect’, ‘enormous bedbug’ or ’monstrous cockroach’ (ungeheuren Ungeziefer).

L is for le Carré
The entire literary archive of John le Carré (real name David Cornwell) is accessible here. It is one of several collections bequeathed by contemporary writers, the most recent being Alan Bennett.

M is for Magna Carta
The Bodleian boasts four (of only seventeen original) engrossments of the Great Charter of Liberties – the earliest of them issued in the name of the boy King Henry III in 1217, just two years after Runnymede.

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N is for Nassau Hours
No Book of Hours contains more exquisite late-medieval Flemish miniatures than that made for Engelbert of Nassau by the famous anonymous illuminator known as ‘The Master of Mary of Burgundy’.

O is for Owen
With pitiful synchronicity, Wilfred Owen died on the Western Front in the last week of the Great War. His is one of several major twentieth-century poetry holdings. Also featured are the archives of Edmund Blunden, Louis MacNeice, John Masefield, and Stephen Spender.

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P is for Purcell
Henry Purcell composed Hail Bright Cecilia in 1692 to mark the feast day of the patron saint of music (22 November). A hand-scribed version can be consulted here. Also available is the most important manuscript source for Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas.

Q is for Queen Lozikeyi
A rare photograph of the Queen Regent of what was then known as Matabeleland, taken c. 1910. Photographs are increasingly (and surprisingly belatedly) recognized as of importance and value. Of outstanding interest is the personal archive of William Henry Fox Talbot, Britain’s pioneer photographer, who loved to photograph Oxford. See: Henry Taunt 100

R is for Ragamala
Illustrations to a Ragamala cycle, depicting the moods and sentiments behind traditional forms of Indian music. The library holds nearly nine thousand Sanskrit manuscripts, the largest such collection outside India.

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S is for Mary Shelley
A miniature portrait of the author of Frankenstein (1818) painted after her death in 1851. Letters to Mary’s drowned husband Percy Bysshe also feature, together with notebooks and relics of them both.

T is for Tolkien
‘Conversation with Smaug’ was one of several watercolours painted by J.R.R. Tolkien to illustrate his first, most famous, and best-selling book, The Hobbit (1936). This, the largest collection of original Tolkien manuscripts and drawings in the world, also includes a rare map of Middle Earth annotated by the author.

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U is for Urashima
Part of a Japanese picture scroll narrating the fairy tale of the fisherman Urashima, dating from the Keicho Period (1596-1615).

V is for Vesalius
An engraving, dated 1543, from the De Humana Corporis Fabrica of Andreas Vesalius, physician and pioneer of the study of anatomy.

W is for William Morris
The Works of Geoffrey Chaucer
, with illustrations by Edward Burne-Jones, printed by the Pre-Raphaelite polymath William Morris at his Kelmscott Press in 1896. The Weston plans to hold a Chaucer exhibition later this year.

X is for X-Ray
A photograph of Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkin, Fellow of Somerville College for over forty years and winner of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry (1964) for her work using X-ray crystallography in the study of bio-molecular structures.

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Y is for Yarn
Beautifully illustrated poems, composed in 1696 by the Kangxi Emperor of China to celebrate the intricate process of silk production, from the cultivation of mulberry bushes through to the spinning, weaving, and dyeing of the final material.

Z is for ‘Zodiac Man’
A late fourteenth-century document depicting the human body as a microcosm of twelve regions, each governed by one of the signs of the zodiac – the idea, being that every part of the human anatomy is related to a corresponding celestial body.

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And finally …

B is for Bodley
Sir Thomas Bodley (1545-1613), bibliophile, sometime fellow of Merton College, ambassador, Gentleman-Usher to Queen Elizabeth I, MP for Portsmouth, restorer of Duke Humfrey’s Room above the Divinity School, and founder in 1602 of the library which bears his name.

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It is Bodley we have to thank for what one historian has called ‘the greatest single contribution made in Oxford to seventeenth century culture’ and in due course one of the greatest institutions in the world. Had the alphabet contained twice as many letters there would have been a treasure to exemplify it: such is the splendour of the place.

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We are grateful to Ian Wallman for his images of the Weston, and to Sophie Durand (on behalf of Bodleian Libraries) who designed the original hoarding which encircled the building while it was being transformed.

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Feedback

Andrew Robinson, polymathic author of books on art and science, writes:

The words of the philosopher Sir Francis Bacon still resonate. Presenting a copy of his newly published The Advancement of Learning (1605) to the recently established library, he wrote to praise Bodley for having built “an Ark to save learning from deluge”.

Great minds etc. Our thanks to Miff Crockford from the Weston Shop for this piece of product placement.

Are you aware that the Bodleian shop at the Weston stocks a pack of 26 postcards from the Collections: an A-Z Bodleian Libraries? Included in the set are images of a handwritten page from Kafka’s notebook and an original score of Handel’s Messiah. There’s also a Qur’an and a Life of the Buddha, both dating from the eighteenth century.

‘Y for Yarn’ features the so-called Sheldon Map of Oxfordshire, one of four large tapestry maps, woven c.1590 in wool and silk for Ralph Sheldon to hang in his home in Warwickshire. The real thing can now be seen adorning the wall of the Weston as you approach the exhibition spaces.

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Robert Bolick curated the Alphabets Alive! collection. He also contributed all of the works on display. After the exhibition closes later this month, he has undertaken to donate all the exhibits to the University, together with other books from his rare collection. He is the author of a remarkable, beautiful website: Books on Books. He writes:

Thanks for the reference to Alphabets Alive! I’m glad to see it contributed to the impetus for this abecedary of Oxford library treasures. While I suspect that there are treasures enough to complete another 25 alphabets, your choice of representative for the notoriously challenging Zed sets a high bar for all the others. Bodleian Library Publishing ought to use this A-Z to initiate a competition for a new series of alphabet books!

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We then set Robert his own challenge! He replied:

The images below come from the Richard J. Hoffman’s book Don’T Nobody Care About Zeds (1987). Hoffman was a California fine-press printer. The intriguing title is explained in his Introduction.

‘Zeds is what the English folk call the magnificent twenty-sixth character of our alphabet. This I learned while shopping at Covent Gardens in London some years ago. There I happened upon a flea market where, from a pair of old wood typecases, an ‘uckster was peddling electrotyped initial letters. With a blob of sealing wax, he assured me, I could personalize my correspondence by stamping my initial in the soft wax. When I asked if he had any Zs, he looked at me questioningly, then he beamed as I picked one up, very brightly responded that he still had some unsold, and then solemnly observed: “Don’t nobody care about Zeds.”‘

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Zed features as a spectral presence in this alphabet to mark the Russian invasion of Ukraine – nicknamed ‘Operation Z’ – where the letter was suborned as a pro-war propaganda motif by the Putin regime and painted on the side of many invading tanks.
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