10 Most Beautiful Libraries in Oxford

Tara Heuzé

Famous for being the “City of Dreaming Spires” (a term coined by Balliol man Matthew Arnold), Oxford is the perfect exhibition ground for a range of architectural delights across the century, with examples from every single architectural period in England since the Saxon Era. We explore the ten most beautiful libraries found in this bustling, vibrant, and aesthetically eclectic city.

Oxford – Bodleian Library

1. The Codrington Library (All Souls College)

Library, University

Duke Humfreys Library, the oldest part of the Bodleian Library, Oxford
© annetgent/Wikicommons
Despite All Souls being founded in 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 (worth £6000 in that time), and a legacy of £10,000 on the college, a fortune that unfortunately had its origins in the slave trade. Despite the nebulous 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 contribution to the college itself, both in academic and aesthetic value.

2. Duke Humfrey's Library (The Bodleian Libraries)

Library, University, Building, School

Best known for being the oldest reading room in the Bodleian Library, the Duke Humfrey Reading Room was named after Humphrey of Lancaster, 1st Duke of Gloucester (the son of Henry IV; the brother of Henry V; and the uncle of Henry VI), who bequeathed his (then) extensive collection of thirty 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).

3. The Old Library (Oxford Union)


interior of Queens Library
© The Queen's College
Though the Oxford Union itself is not affiliated in any way to Oxford University itself, 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 in 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 last of 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.

4. The Radcliffe Camera (The Bodleian Libraries)


St Edmund Hall, Oxford
© simononly/WIkicommons
Known affectionately as the ‘Rad Cam’, the Radcliffe Camera has long been the symbol of Oxford, and 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 to be constructed, the mid-eighteenth 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.

5. 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 skilful blend of dark wood, detailed ceiling work, and soft lighting, to create an incredible ambience and beauty within the reading room itself.

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