Radcliffe Camera celebrates its 275th anniversary

17 May 2012

Radcliffe CameraOn 17 May 1737, the foundation stone of the Radcliffe Camera was laid. Designed by James Gibbs, the building, which has become an essential part of the University Libraries and a symbol of Oxford, took twelve years to build. It was officially opened on April 1749. 

The Radcliffe Library was the brainchild of, Dr John Radcliffe (1650–1714), perhaps the most successful English physician of his day. He left his trustees a large sum of money with which to purchase both the land for the new building and an endowment to pay a librarian and purchase books.

The site eventually chosen for the Library was to the south of the Schools Quadrangle, in the middle of a new square (Radcliffe Square) formed by the demolition of old houses in School Street and Catte Street and bounded by All Souls and Brasenose Colleges and the University Church. Here, between 1737 and 1748, the monumental circular domed building – Oxford’s most impressive piece of classical architecture – went up to the designs of James Gibbs and was finally opened in 1749.

For many years the Radcliffe Library, as it was known until 1860, was completely independent of the Bodleian, readers were few in number, the heterogeneous collection of books were rarely used. Matters improved in the early nineteenth century, when a collection of books on medicine and natural history was gradually amassed,  something that was celebrated by the publication of the first printed catalogue in 1835.

In 1860, the Radcliffe Library was taken over by the Bodleian and renamed the Radcliffe Camera (the word camera means room in Latin). The upper-floor library became a reading room, primarily used by undergraduates, and the ground floor was turned into a book-stack which was later converted into a second reading room in 1941. 

The medical and scientific books formerly kept in the Radcliffe Camera were moved to new premises in the University Museum in South Parks Road; they were later transferred to the adjacent but much larger Radcliffe Science Library, built to the designs of Thomas Graham Jackson, architect of the Examination Schools, in 1897–1901.

Today the Radcliffe Camera with its two levels, offers the main undergraduate reading rooms of the central Bodleian.  The Lower Camera Reading Room holds the Theology and English Literature collections while in the Upper Camera Reading Room readers can find the History collections, including material on the History of Art and on Archaeology, as well as a smaller collection of Anthropology books.

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