This library opened to scholars in 1602. It had a slow start before opening and was not until 1545 that it was rescued by Thomas Bodley of Merton College. The first library at Oxford opened in 1320 and in 1439 Duke Humphrey donated a large number of books forcing the need to create a new library. Oxford did not have a lot of money, but Bodley who had married a rich widow provided funding for this library. He also brought some 2,500 books for a new collection from him and other donors. The first printed catalogue came in 1605. In 1610 an agreement was set up that the library would receive a copy of every book published in England and registered at Stationers' Hall. This would lead to an ever growing library and future needs of building growth. Three to four thousand items per week still come to the library. Books were never lent to the readers and even King Charles I was denied a request to borrow books. The library has continued to grow and expand, adding several buildings and underground book stacks.
In the early days of the library books were chained to the lecterns, and there were no chairs for sitting or candles to see and read. They were afraid of fire causing destruction. There were very limited hours to access the library due to lighting and the cold during the winter, as no heating was available. The books were chained on the front covers and not on the spines like in the Harry Potter movie, and were actually placed on the shelves backwards with the spines facing inward. For any Harry Potter fans out there this link is fun and shows many film sites (including the Bod): www.classbrain.com/artmovies/publish/article_74.shtml.
In the 19th century the chains were removed and are instead placed under an alarm system. For preservation purposes humidity and temperature are controlled and many items placed in boxes with acid free paper. Books are cleaned only every ten years. On our tour we were able to see the conveyer which currently transports books under Broad Street, this is to be permanently shut down as of August 2010. Famous manuscripts that are held at this library include the Magna Carta, a Gutenburg Bible, Shakespeare's first folio, and the Ashmole manuscripts.
(Image available at: http://www.hp-lexicon.org/)