History of the Weston Library

Sketch of New Bodleian Library

From New Bodleian to the Weston Library

The Weston Library began its life as the New Bodleian Library, designed by Sir Giles Gilbert Scott and constructed in the 1930s. Its recent renovation has brought it in line with the modern standards and requirements for a 21st century library by creating high quality storage for its valuable special collections at a level that conforms to the British Standard for these materials; developing the Library's facilities for the support of advanced scholarship; and expanding access for the public to national and international treasures through new exhibition galleries and other facilities.

The history of the old building, however, is worth preserving. In 1925, Sir Arthur Ernest Cowley (then Bodley's Librarian) informed the University that the Library would run out of space in ten years' time and that 'chaos would reign.'[1] He immediately began to investigate options. After heated debate, it was decided that the construction of a new building within the city centre, combined with some renovation of the Old Bodleian and the extension of the Radcliffe Science Library, was the best course of action.

In 1926, the Rockefeller Foundation agreed to provide three-fifths of the cost of a new library, and a commission was formed to visit modern university libraries in Europe and America and advise the University on innovations there. It was decided that the new building on the Broad Street site would be a book store flanked by outer work rooms and capable of holding approximately five million books. It would also provide a large reading room and space for staff. The building would be connected to the Old Bodleian via an underground conveyor belt and a pneumatic tube system. Sir Giles Gilbert Scott was appointed as architect in June 1934, and building work commenced in December 1936; Queen Mary laid the foundation stone in June 1937. Despite the outbreak of the Second World War, the building was nearly finished by the summer of 1940.

Sir Edmund Craster, Bodley's Librarian from 193145, described the new building as 'an experiment in working a new library building into an old historic framework.'[2] The architecture represented Scott's unique take on Art Deco/Moderne and Classical Revivalism a contemporary building touched by the inspiration of surrounding buildings. The building's provisions were considered extremely modern; it offered stack access and workspace to readers, the library's first purpose-built exhibition space and even a fumigation room 'that deal[t] destruction to bookworms.'[3] Eleven floors housed both the Library's overflowing book collection and its growing staff.

Although the building was finished by 1940, its formal opening was delayed; instead, the building was commandeered for a variety of wartime purposes. The building was principally used by the Inter-Service Topographical Department (under the auspices of the Admiralty), and their work was of considerable importance to the planning of D-Day. The Royal Observer Corps and agencies such as the Blood Transfusion Service and the Red Cross Prisoners of War postal book service filled the remaining rooms. The bottom floor was fitted out as a large air-raid shelter for the City.

Despite many staff members being away with the forces, the protective stack was steadily filled with books from the Old Library and special collections store, the Old Ashmolean, the Sheldonian, Duke Humfrey and the University Archives. The New Library also took in priceless collections from libraries and institutions around the UK, including the King's Library (British Museum) and the herbarium collection of the Royal Botanic Garden at Kew. Treasures from fifteen Oxford colleges were also received from Christ Church pictures to Merton's manuscripts and chapel glass.

The building was finally opened by King George VI on 24 October, 1946. The occasion did not go entirely smoothly, however; the ceremonial silver key broke in the lock, and it was only after much pushing and pulling that the King and Queen were able to enter. The key, cased and still in its broken state, is now numbered among the Library's Treasures.

Since that time the only major alteration to the building has been the addition of the Indian Institute as a south-facing roof extension in 1966-69 by architect Robert Potter. Otherwise, the New Bodleian remained relatively unchanged until 2010, with only relatively minor alterations such as subdivision of some of the offices and the updating of some of the fixtures and fittings. The New Bodleian Library became a Grade II listed building in 2003 and remained a recognisable feature of the Oxford cityscape as well as an integral part of library operations.

The design set forward by Wilkinson Eyre Architects for the building's renovation, which commenced in 2011, aimed to respect the building's heritage while modernising its infrastructure and providing better facilities for students and researchers, as well as greater opportunities for collaboration and outreach with the wider community.

To learn more about the history of the Bodleian Library since the 14th century, please visit our history of the Bodleian.

[1] Sir Edmund Craster, History of the Bodleian Library, 1845-1945 (Oxford 1981), pp. 322.

[2] Sir Edmund Craster, The Bodleian Library Extension Scheme (1941).

[3] Craster, History, pp. 336.

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