The Most Beautiful Libraries of Oxford University

Books | Photo by Chris Lawton on Unsplash
Tara Heuzé

Famous for being the ‘City of Dreaming Spires’ (a term coined by a Balliol man), Oxford is the perfect exhibition ground for a range of architectural delights across the century. This mediaeval city showcases examples from every single significant period in English history dating all the way back to the Saxon Era. We explore the ten most beautiful libraries in this bustling, vibrant, and aesthetically eclectic city.

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The Codrington Library | All Souls College

Despite All Souls being founded in the aftermath of the Hundred Years’ War in 1438, the Codrington Library in its current form was only completed in 1751, when Christopher Codrington (a Christ Church man) bequeathed his collection of books and a legacy of £10,000 on the college; the fortune, unfortunately, had its origins in the slave trade. Despite the dubious start, the library is now renowned for its impressive collection of books and for its beautifully structured architecture, which was designed and built by Nicholas Hawksmoor. Housing books that span Military History and European Law, the library is a significant part of the college itself, both in academic and aesthetic value.

Duke Humfrey’s Library | The Bodleian Libraries

Famous for being the oldest reading room in the Bodleian Library, the Duke Humfrey’s Reading Room was named after Humphrey of Lancaster, 1st Duke of Gloucester, who bequeathed his (then) extensive collection of 30 books to Oxford. Though it was mainly used for researchers in codicology, bibliography and local history, much of the material has been moved to the newly opened Weston Library and is now considered an object of great architectural and historical interest, especially as it displays large-scale portraits of some of the founders of individual colleges, including Lady Dervorguilla (Balliol College), Elizabeth I (Jesus College), and Dorothy Wadham (Wadham College).

The Fellows’ Library | Jesus College

The Fellows’ Library in Jesus College is a gorgeously galleried affair that was built in 1676-77 as an independent building of the college, before being incorporated into the second quad further down the line. The library is absolutely stunning in its combination of dark wood wainscoting and antique bookshelves, and some of the strapwork dates back to 1628 and was allegedly sourced from other libraries. It is also the home of several incredibly valuable first editions, such as Harvey’s Circulation of Blood (1628) and Newton’s Principia Mathematica (1687). Unfortunately, the wear and tear of time has resulted in the library falling into severe disrepair, though considerable efforts and funding is currently being channelled towards restoring the library to its former glory.

Lincoln College Library

Once the 18th Century Church of All Saints, the Lincoln College Library is one of the more striking features about the college itself and possibly of the entire city. Converted and opened for students as a college library in 1975, the church tower itself helps to form the skyline of Oxford’s ‘Dreaming Spires’, though the original spire collapsed in 1700. There has been much dispute concerning who presided over the restoration of the spire, with some theorists believing that the aforementioned Baroque architect Nicholas Hawksmoor added details to the earlier design of the amateur architect Henry Aldrich. Either way, the library is a beautiful example of incredibly elaborate and detailed architectural design from the 1700s.

The Upper Library | Merton College

Established in 1373, the Merton College Library is one of the oldest libraries in England and is the oldest academic library in the world to be still in continual use. Originally built in the 14th century, the library was improved and upgraded by Thomas Bodley himself (founder of the Bodleian Library) in the 16th century, replacing the lecterns with bookshelves and benches, reorganising the entire library in what was then the ‘revolutionary’ continental style. Traces of these refurbishments still remain to this day. Even mentioned by the enigmatic Jay Gatsby in Fitzgerald’s classic The Great Gatsby (who claimed he was an ‘Oxford Man’), the library itself remains an object of great architectural, academic, historical, and even literary interest internationally.

The Old Library | Oxford Union

Though the Oxford Union itself is not affiliated in any way to Oxford University, the Old Library has become one of the most popular lending libraries, with students flocking towards it for its beautiful décor and its comprehensive range. Though the entire library itself is a triumph of Pre-Raphaelite design, the library is most famous for its murals, which were created by a group of young artists from 1857 to 1859. This group included the famous Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Edward Burne-Jones and William Morris, the latter whom was also responsible for the modified designs to the ceiling in 1875. These murals depict stories from Arthurian Legend, and have been admired far and wide by tourists and students alike.

The Upper Library | The Queen’s College

So beautiful that it has been included on many international lists for the most beautiful reading rooms in the world – and a great source of pride for the college itself – the Upper Library in The Queen’s College is a splendid example of 18th century fin-de-siècle architecture. Interestingly enough, the open cloister beneath the library itself was converted into what is now the Lower Library and in the present day, most of the lending library is now housed there. As well as being a library of superior beauty, the Upper Library also has a well-earned reputation for possessing an incredible collection of rare books, a 100,000 volume-strong selection which boasts an astonishing array of subjects.

The Radcliffe Camera | The Bodleian Libraries

Known affectionately as the ‘Rad Cam’, the Radcliffe Camera has long been the symbol of Oxford. Many a travel pamphlet has seen the contours of the Camera artfully splashed across its glossy pages. A triumph of architectural design – as it is the first rotund building ever to be constructed – the mid-18th century building was named after the famous doctor John Radcliffe, who bequeathed £40,000 to its construction and maintenance upon his death. Positively received in its day as an architectural masterpiece – and still the object of much admiration and wonder – the Radcliffe Camera has been mentioned by many popular novelists (such as J.R.R. Tolkien) and featured in many famous television series, such as Inspector Morse.

St Edmund Hall’s Library

Housed inside the 12th Century church of St Peter-in-the-East, the quaint library of St Edmund Hall can boast the claim of being situated in one of the oldest churches in the city of Oxford. Despite the fact that the church itself is now deconsecrated, the library possesses the questionably enviable feature of neighbouring a consecrated crypt, a feature which has attracted equal delight and horror. A perfect example of medieval design and architecture, the St Edmund Hall Library is complemented by the other elements of medievalism that can be found surrounding it, such as the well and quadrangles. The library itself is very much representative of the entire college as a whole – simultaneously quirky and aesthetically pleasing.

Taylor Institution | The Bodleian Libraries

Also known as the ‘Taylorian’, the Taylor Institution is mainly dedicated towards the Western European Modern Languages, with an extensive collection of books in French, German, Italian, Portuguese, Spanish and theoretical grammar and linguistics, just to name a few. Established in 1845 and funded by a bequest on the estate of the notable architect Sir Robert Taylor, it was housed inside the east-wing of the modern day Ashmolean Museum, whose exterior was built in the neo-classical design. Named after Taylor himself, the interior of the reading room is impressive and majestic, with a skillful blend of dark wood, detailed ceiling work and soft lighting, creating an incredible ambience and beauty within the reading room itself.

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