Starting with William of Wykham’s purpose-built library at New College, college libraries have been relied upon since long before those of the University. The exhibition brings together manuscripts and artefacts up until the early 20th century which have all been donated as gifts.
This exhibition also boasts what is believed to be the earliest surviving gift of a book to an Oxford college, a donation to Balliol in 1276 of Boethius’ De Institutione Musica (which remained as a set text until the 19th century). Clearly a useful text to look after. But many of these texts are far more dynamic.
The score of Purcell’s Indian Queen (donated to Oriel) was in common use in the house from which it was donated. Notebooks by Gerald Manley Hopkins and a handwritten copy of Browning’s Fifine at the Fair are covered with more crossing-outs than one of my practice essays. It’s comforting on some level to see even the greats needing to rewrite.
Certainly this exhibition has illuminated manuscripts which have been kept very carefully (among them a beautiful Canterbury Tales), but they also have items which have survived the ravages of the postal service. These include Edward Lear’s illustrated letters from Egypt which talk about his Nile Diaries, never published.

Looking internationally for a moment, there are texts in Dutch, German, French, Arabic and Latin, as well as English. Some texts have travelled an awfully long way to get here.

There are gorgeous Arabic and Persian texts, astounding in their delicacy, as well as a bold and cartoonish book of Mexican deities, mistakenly originally labelled as ‘Egyptian hieroglyphics’ by William Laud’s secretary. Tut tut.
Closer to home one can enjoy views of Oxford life in the early 20th century, including caricatures of dons and newspaper clippings about controversy at the Oxford Union. Some things never change.
Apart from celebrating Oxford’s college libraries, this exhibition also brings out some interesting donations in non-book form. Be impressed by William Warham’s red knitted silk gloves, or William Waynflete’s boots: red Italian velvet, and felt-lined for extra cosiness.
No doubt essential footwear for staying snug at Magdalen. But from keeping you warm on the outside to staying warm on the inside, Dr. Johnson’s gruel mug is something really rather fun to see. I ought to confess I had never thought of him as a particularly floral type, but the dainty patterning on this item suggests differently.
Donated to Pembroke in 1858, the mug is substantially bigger even than the really massive ones you can buy in Starbucks. That said, if I were up working all night in Trinity College Library, I’d probably need vast quantities of something a little stronger than gruel to keep me going!
So take caper down from the Upper Reading Room and take a break from that revision to pop into the Bodleian Exhibition Room. As well as the nice fuzzy feeling you get inside when you see something donated by your own college, you’ll also get to see a beautiful collection of illustrations, musical scores, psalters and letters.
College pride isn’t the only excuse to go – although Wykhamists and students at New might feel especially compelled to gaze at William of Wykham’s mitre (after all, seed purls, silver gilt and semi-precious stones make for heavy head-gear).
The exhibition is open until November 1st, so even if you don’t make it this term – whether it’s because of Finals, Pre-lims or Punting – when it starts to get chilly again why not spend an hour or so in a cosy room with beautiful things? And it’s free; what more could you want?
Four stars