Two of the Western world’s oldest cultural institutions opened on this day: Oxford’s Bodleian Library in 1602 and the Louvre in 1793. Born of the French Revolution, the Louvre is attracting attention these days for its efforts to break down patron rather than political barricades. Through a partnership with the Parisian comics publisher Futuropolis, the museum has opened its collections to some of today’s best graphic novelists. The result has been a highly popular and well-reviewed series of “Nights at the Museum” books aimed at adult readers. Each book is narratively different, the most recent, Bernard Yslaire and Jean-Claude Carriere’s The Sky over the Louvre (2011), choosing the museum’s tumultuous early days as the setting for its art history tour.
The Bodleian has also embraced the new cultural forms, welcoming millions of new reader-viewers through its doors: those scenes from the Harry Potter movies depicting the library of the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry were shot in the Bodleian. The Harry Potter reader-viewers may not have known where they were, of course, and Sir Thomas Bodley surely would not have let them in.
A wealthy retired diplomat, Bodley made it his cause to restore what had been in ruin for a half century, spending four years and his own and his friends’ money to repair buildings and fill bookshelves — 2,000 volumes to start, over 80 miles of books now. Bodley’s letters explain that he had had enough of “the mediocrity of worldly living” and knew no better gift to himself, the students of Oxford, and posterity than building, as Francis Bacon praised it, “an ark to save learning from the deluge.” But not all publications were welcome aboard: When Bodley made an agreement with the Stationers’ Company to obtain a free copy of each book printed — the Bodleian is a reference library, the second largest in England after the British Museum Library — he made it clear that there would be no shelf space for “idle books and riffe raffes.” This was a loose and personal category into which Bodley tossed contemporary plays, ballads, romances, and the like. Having banished even the Bard (also Ben Jonson, Christopher Marlowe…), he would also have booted young Harry.
Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.