In defence of knowledge

Alexander Larman:

Richard Ovenden’s new book is a passionate defence of the sanctity of knowledge expressed through literature

Here is a custom that exists, today as it did four centuries ago, that anyone who wishes to enter the Bodleian Library in Oxford as a reader is obliged to make a formal declaration of how they will and will not behave. In addition to promising that they will not remove any book, or “mark, deface, or injure in any way, any volume, document or other object belonging to it or in its custody”, it is expressly forbidden to “bring into the Library, or kindle therein, any fire or flame”. The original impetus behind this was to prevent cold scholars (and dons) from creating makeshift pockets of warmth in the library’s draughty corridors, but the guiding principle has always been the preservation of its books.

Richard Ovenden has been the Bodleian’s librarian since 2014: he is in ultimate charge of the institution’s 13 million volumes and countless archives, manuscripts and printed material. He is only the twenty-fifth of Bodley’s librarians, as they are known, since 1599. Ovenden has been praised for his high-minded and forward-looking approach to the Bodleian, where he has worked since 2003; it was he, for instance, who was the recipient of Alan Bennett’s decision to donate his archive to the Bodleian in 2008.