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.
The Fellows’ Library in Jesus College is a gorgeously galleried affair that was built in 1676-77 s an independent building of the college, and then incorporated into the second quad later on. The library is absolutely stunning in its combination of dark wood wainscoting and in antique bookshelves, some of the strapwork of which dates to 1628, and were 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 being channelled towards restoring the library to its former glory.
Jesus College, Turl Street, Oxford, OX1 3DW, +44 1865 279700
Once the 18th Century Church of All Saints, the Lincoln College Library is one of the more striking features about the college itself, and it possibly of the entire city itself. 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 in the 1700s.
Lincoln College, Turl Street, Oxford, OX1 3DR, +44 1865 279800
Established in 1373, the Merton College Library is one of the oldest libraries in England, and is the oldest academic library in the world 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, and 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 (he who claimed he was an ‘Oxford Man’), the library itself remains an object of great architectural, academic, historical, and even literary interest internationally.
Merton College, Merton Street, Oxford, OX1 4JD, +44 1865 276310
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 is also has a well-earned reputation for having incredible collection of rare books, a 100,000 volume-strong collection which boasts of an astonishing array and diversity of subject.
The Queen’s College, The High Street, OX1 4AW, +44 1865 279120
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 equally attracted delight and horror. A perfect example of mediaeval 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 mediaeval well and quadrangles. The library itself is very much representative of the entire college as a whole: simultaneously quirky and aesthetically pleasing.
St Edmund Hall, Queen’s Lane, Oxford, OX1 4AR, +44 1865 279000