New Bodleian closes its doors after 70 years

8 August 2011

Closure ceremony at the New Bodleian LibraryAt the end of July, the New Bodleian in its present guise was closed permanently following more than 70 years of service to the University. Over the next three years the building will undergo major renovation and redevelopment and will be reopen as the Weston Library in 2015. 

Known to readers, scholars, visitors and to the Oxford community as a book fortress housing more than 3 million books, 1 million maps, 1.5 million items in the ephemera collection and 10,000 medieval manuscripts, the New Bodleian has been in major need of transformation and upgrading. 

The closing down was marked by a celebration in the New Bodleian Reading Room, the same room were the opening ceremony attended by King George VI took place. The event was attended by over 150 staff members new and old, including Roy Beesley who began working at the Bodleian in 1934, before the New Library was built. 

Dr Sarah Thomas, Bodley’s Librarian, quoted in her speech from a report written by one of her predecessors, Sir Edmund Craster, who had developed the detailed plans for a new library building, and had commissioned the architect  Giles Gilbert Scott to design it: ‘To replace an old library by an entirely new one is a comparatively simple matter. But to retain and transform the old and add to it a great new library building is much more complex’. These words are still true today, as the library management have spent the last six years planning for the transformation of the New Bodleian. 

Dr Thomas went on to thank the donors and supporters who have contributed to the renovation project, the large number of University staff who have been involved in preparing the building for renovation and the library staff who helped empty the building and ‘endured disruption of their workplaces, work processes, and the materials they work with, whether print, manuscript, or electronic’.

The event ended with a piper escorting Bodley’s Librarian, Sarah Thomas and our newly-acquired Austen manuscript as the final item to leave the building. A selection of pictures from the ceremony can be viewed in the picture gallery below. 

To mark the event, the Bodleian has also launched a public appeal (see the Oxford Times) for people who were associated with the New Bodleian to come forward with their memories. Here is an excerpt from a letter we have recently received:

‘My husband's aunt was in the WRENs during World War 2. Sadly she has now died but when she visited us in Oxford and I drove her along the Broad she reminisced about sorting people's holiday photos in the Bodleian. It was fascinating especially as she said that what she remembered was how many interesting people passed through. "I met Vaughan Williams one day!" was one remark that has stuck in my memory.’

It may come as a surprise to many that the New Bodleian had a different beginning than intended. Although the building was finished in 1939, because of the outbreak of the Second World War among the first occupants were not readers and librarians but staff from Naval Intelligence. One of their tasks was the planning and strategy for D-Day . In the safe underground stacks of the New Bodleian, they were sorting postcards from France collected from the general public, an activity which helped them to map the French coastline more accurately. 

The New Bodleian also played a part in the breaking of the Enigma Code.  The building’s eleven storeys were named using the alphabet letters with the exception of the letter ‘I’ to avoid confusion. When hearing this fact, a Bletchley Park archivist wondered if the Germans had used the same technique. It proved they did.  

Extra preventive measures were taken to protect the building from the Nazi bombing. A concrete roof which had been newly laid made the New Bodleian a  safe haven for the pictures of Christ Church, the stained glass of New College, the wood carvings of Trinity, the manuscripts of Balliol and Merton, as well as books from the British Museum, Natural History Museum, the V&A, and the Royal Society. Also the Bletchley Park archive was catalogued in the New Bodleian. 

If you or someone you know recalls other memories of the New Bodleian, we would like to hear from you. Please send us an email to or call us on 01865 277627.

Pictures sourced from our archives featuring the history of the New Bodleian from its construction to the days before it closed its doors in 2011 can be viewed here.

Over the next three years, we will post regular updates on the renovation project. Don’t forget to come back and check the news on this page.

All images protected by copyright. Please do not use without permission.

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