The (revised) article below, on the EFL's first 100 years, was first published in Oxford English, the Faculty's alumni magazine, for 2012.

English Faculty Library

In 2014/15, the English Faculty Library celebrates two anniversaries: the centenary of its foundation in 1914 and 50 years since it moved into the iconic St Cross Building with the Faculty in 1964/65. And, although much has changed in this '150' years, the Library's original mission ""to serve all those reading and teaching English at Oxford"" is still at the heart of our daily activities.

History, 1914-1965

The drive to establish a library for the English School came initially from Sir Walter Raleigh, who was elected Merton Professor in 1904 and who wanted a centre like the one he was used to at Liverpool University with rooms for teaching and administration and, most importantly, a library with ""the ordinary books of reference, the standard authors which a student of literature or language requires, and tables large enough to accommodate more than a notebook and an inkpot."" Desks now need to accommodate laptops rather than inkpots, but it's still as important as in 1914 that students should be able to make use of the library ""in the intervals between lectures"". Its first home was in Acland House on Broad Street (where the Weston Library now stands) and its first librarian was Percy Simpson, the editor of Ben Jonson. 12 men and 25 Registered Women Students took English Honour Schools in 1914, but the library only began to admit women students in 1916 when its opening hours were Monday, Wednesday and Friday afternoons for men and Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday afternoons for women.

The Library's move to the attic of the Examination Schools in 1920 coincided with C S Lewis's time in Oxford. In his journal for 16th October 1922, Lewis wrote, ""After lunch I bicycled again to Schools to seek out the library […]. I found it at the top of many stories, inhabited by a strange old gentleman [Simpson] who seems to regard it as his private property.""

A desperate lack of space in the Exam Schools, dead pigeons in the loft, and an infestation of biscuit beetle in 1959 (recommended treatment: DDT), made a new library a priority for the Faculty: ""…first, and most urgently, accommodation for its present library"". Sir Leslie Martin and Colin St John Wilson (who later designed the British Library) produced plans in 1960 for a building which would house English, Law and Economics: ""Although the individual Faculty buildings vary considerably in size, their plans follow one general principle. The entrance to each building leads directly to the main reading room."" It took a while, and some interesting concerns such as the need for ""adequate cloakroom space for 100 duffle coats"" were expressed, but eventually in March 1965 over 35,000 books were moved from the High Street to the purpose-built St Cross Building on the corner of Manor Road. The English Faculty Library was officially opened in May by Professor Herbert Davis, with space for 150 readers and 90,000 books as well as stacks and four seminar rooms on the ground floor. A year later the Report of the Committee on University Libraries (the Shackleton Report) recommended among other things that the EFL should be given an additional grant for the purchase of duplicate copies of the most needed books in order to encourage undergraduates to work there instead of writing their essays and meeting their friends in the Upper Reading Room. And, indeed, the EFL is still a busy undergraduate lending library, but thanks to the additional contribution of Faculty and trust funds it has been possible over the years to build a collection which supports (and can rapidly respond to developments in) not only the broad sweep of the undergraduate syllabus but also postgraduate teaching and at least some of the research needs of the Faculty.


Percy Simpson's early efforts encouraged many generous gifts and benefactions, and indeed his own 1616 editions of Jonson's Works are held in the EFL's Rare Book Room. Most of the 342 volumes which constituted the library's original stock were donated by the Delegates of the Clarendon Press and in 1916 an appeal was organised for funds to purchase the library of A.S. Napier (the first Merton Professor in 1885), which formed the core of the EFL's Old and Middle English sections. Napier's relatives also set up a memorial fund for the continued purchase of learned journals, which is partly why the EFL has such a strong collection of 18th- and 19th-century titles.

Many early editions of seventeenth-century authors were bought from the Raleigh Memorial Fund, Herbert Davis bequeathed his early editions of Swift, and since 1957 the Library has received a substantial annual grant from the E.H.W. Meyerstein Bequest. Gabriel Turville-Petre's extensive library provided the basis of the teaching collection for Old Icelandic and the York Powell and W.P. Ker collections (on permanent loan from Christ Church and All Souls respectively) support research in that field. In 1975 Mrs Harold Owen presented the Wilfred Owen archive, including Owen's own small library still arranged as it was in his room when he died. The manuscripts, letters and an almost complete set of The Hydra were digitised about 15 years ago for the virtual seminars project which eventually developed into the First World War Poetry Digital Archive.

History, 1965-2012

Many of the Library's staff have been inspired by the sort of proprietorial affection described by C S Lewis, and I confess I am no exception! Nor was Margaret Weedon, who was appointed as the first professionally-qualified librarian in 1959, or Eileen Davies, Deputy Librarian from 1963 until her retirement in 1987 - Miss Weedon left the library part of her collection of children's books (others were purchased at auction for the Bodleian) and Miss Davies remembered the EFL very generously in her will. Readers send kind thoughts too: I remember the actress Rosamund Pike, for example, sitting on the steps outside the library writing a card on the day she returned her books after finals.

The friendly working atmosphere of the library remains the same despite massive changes. When I arrived in 1990, the EFL seemed slightly old-fashioned to someone who had come from a dynamic polytechnic library, but at least it was easy to see what needed to be done! The opening hours were extended, circulation was automated (fines for academic staff were introduced!), and rolling stacks and security gates (almost 10% of the general literature section was missing) were installed. (Percy Simpson had written to his readers in 1929 describing ""some ugly gaps on the shelves"" and also put up a notice asking for books to be returned. The library authorities, he said, do not engage in detective work but ""prefer to deal with readers on the assumption that they are ladies and gentlemen."") A new Issue/Enquiry Desk was installed later on and bids were submitted to national projects like the Research Libraries Support Programme, for example, which enabled Napier's important pamphlet collection to be catalogued and the York Powell collection to be conserved.

The EFL now has over 112,000 volumes and lends to almost 2500 'active borrowers' every year. Its original beechwood and black furnishings still look good despite building works over the years (metal trays for network cables, complete replacement of the heating system) and the comfortable, light space is still a pleasure for its readers and admired by visiting architects. It is now one of the Bodleian Libraries and part of a considerably more co-ordinated library service. Being the English librarian in Oxford is particularly exciting thanks to the rapid changes in our organisation and in the profession more widely, the fantastic collections for English and the knowledge and expertise of colleagues at all levels.

The challenges the EFL faces as we approach our '150th' anniversary are, as ever, to do with finance and space, but also involve developing the skills both we and the readers need to make the most of the online resources we now have access to. Pressure on space is becoming acute: the Library's special collections will go to the Weston, lower use material can now go to the new Book Storage Facility at Swindon and the heavily-used lending collection will be supplemented by increasing numbers of electronic journals and e-books. Humanities scholars will always want to get their hands on original primary source material, of course, but full-text digitised resources allow research to get started much more quickly and suggest lots of new approaches, and, for students, the possibility of having texts, journal articles and e-books easily available online during the vacations or when libraries are closed makes a huge difference to their studies. The volume of new electronic content, including digitised MSS collections, is amazing. I am pleased to say that the EFL is well set up and looking forward to its next '150' years.

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