The Old Cloisters – Expanding and Improving our Library for the Future

Liz Kay, College Librarian

image002It is 14 years since I fell in love with Brasenose College Library and some 335 years earlier that books were first placed in this “new” College Library. These books were chained to the bookcases and remained so until the interior was remodelled to designs of James Wyatt in the 1780s.

The changes were prompted by the death of Principal Yarborough in 1770. College was faced with a conundrum: where to shelve the 1710 books he bequeathed to the library. Wyatt blocked the West windows with book shelves, sufficient to meet the needs at the time, and inserted the vaulted plaster ceiling of segmented panels.

The library as it is today showing Wyatt's vaulted plaster ceiling dating from the 1770's and the shelving added in 1891.

The library as it is today showing Wyatt’s vaulted plaster ceiling dating from the 1770’s and the shelving added in 1891.

 The library flourished, to the extent that Wyatt’s shelving was not sufficient to cope with the volume of books. 1891 saw the addition of the bookcases that are still in use today. (Prior to this there were no protruding tables or shelves and it is believed that Fellows used to play badminton in the room).Undergraduates were admitted to the library for the first time in 1897; presumably the heating and lighting were installed at this time in order to make the library a more comfortable workplace (a recurring theme…).

In 1950 an otherwise unfortunate incident – a fire – was a happy one for the library. The burned out offices were renovated into more library space; Tudor Chimneys were uncovered, and left exposed when the area was renovated. They remain a feature of the library. In 1951, at a time when more space was needed, the Hulme (history) Library was opened.


Hulme Library – More desks and bookshelves have since been added.

Today the Main library is no longer darkened by the austere grey bookcases that some alumni may remember.

It is a distinctly lighter and brighter place, much loved by students, the shelving having been painted in magnolia. More recently tables were fashioned to fit the spaces between the bookcases.

In 2010 the worn out chairs that would not last another term were replaced by robust bespoke chairs completely in keeping with their surroundings and likely to last for decades. And of course first Ethernet and now Wifi have made it a suitably modern space.

The old and the new.The old and the new.

The robust replacements (right) are unlikely to fall into the same state of disrepair as the chairs installed in 2000 (left).

Brass discs display the names of old members who have kindly sponsored the chairs; some are yet to be named.

Although the need to house the collections of deceased Principals may have dwindled, the increase in the volume of books has not. Indeed, despite the acquisition of various spaces since 1664, the creation of several stack areas, and a certain amount of judicious weeding, the Main library is bursting at the seams.

But more pressing even than the lack of shelf space is the lack of study spaces. There are now around 500 students studying at Brasenose, and we have 73 library study spaces.  Sixty years ago we had a smaller intake (there were 3 graduate Freshers, 95 undergraduates and 4 ‘Colonial Service Probationers’ admitted in 1953/4) and yet the size of the library has remained unchanged. In 2004 the Fellow Librarian at the time (Dr Ed Bispham) and I had a notion that in order provide our students with the facilities they need we should expand the library downwards in to the Old Cloisters. Now, many years on, Brasenose is planning to re-model the Old Cloisters to create a beautiful new Reading Room and study space, fully worthy of its setting in the heart of Oxford.

The library is already an integral part of Brasenose. We want to make it still more central, by creating a first class student resource that truly meets the needs of students today and in the future. The new Reading Room will be a flexible and adaptive space, suitable for individual and group work, geared to the increasingly digitised nature of modern scholarship, but also sensitive to the fact that students relish working in environments that are warm and inviting. It will be complementary to the old library, above all in providing a variety of places to read, think, write, and sometimes quietly discuss ideas.

Those of us already engaged in the project are very excited by it. Students were involved at the start and continue to be members of the steering group. The (unanimously) appointed project architect is Tim Lee, a graduate here in the 1980’s. His expertise and feel for the College have reinforced our conviction that we will achieve our vision: a very special place, and specifically a very “Brasenose” place. The proposal is to return the Old Cloisters to a single room from entrance arch to the chapel wall, and in doing so restore the original proportions and formal entrance of the Old Cloister. (Imagine being able to sweep through the full length of the Cloisters just as Francis Willis, Physician to George III, and Prime Minister Henry Addington would have done in their day.) Our aim is to create a timeless space that can evolve over the years. The space will boast fine oak shelving, large desks that can be configured in various ways, with seating both formal and informal (and that can be adapted at appropriate times for dinners and conferences).  A section of the Old Cloisters, perhaps remembered by some as the HCR TV room, will be transformed into a soundproofed area where people may work in groups, hold seminars and meetings, access larger IT facilities (for instance for showing films). And crucially, in order to ensure a truly organic working environment, there will be a spiral staircase linking the new Reading Room to the Main Library. Thus we intend to achieve our goal: a fabulous enlarged and integrated library.

visualization3The architect’s visualisation shows how the Old Cloisters might look

 Detailed plans are now being developed by the architect. The work will be phased, probably over two years, to minimise disruption to students in Trinity Term, and to the summer conferences, and to allow detailed plans for the final Reading Room to be developed once we know the condition of the building. We recognise that it may take time to get all the plans and finances in place: but the College is firmly committed to this project, and looks forward to enjoying its new library by the summer of 2017 or 2018.

Some preliminary archaeology is being carried out this autumn in order to establish exactly what lies beneath the surface in Old Cloisters. We already know that people were buried there in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, but the extent and nature of the graves is beyond that unknown; it will be fascinating to find out more!  (See future blogs.)

Brasenose – and its beautiful library – is blessed in its location, at the heart of Radcliffe Square, adjacent to the Bodleian’s most treasured buildings and St Mary’s Church. Our part of this site deserves to be restored to glory. More than that, we want to create a new space at the very hub of the college, visible to all who enter our cloisters, a space where students come to read and think and learn. This development is an opportunity to make a striking contribution to Brasenose’s primary function: as an historic, world-class institution of study and learning.




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