Taylor Institution Library

In honor of National Libraries Day, a post on one of Oxford’s most beautiful department libraries, the Taylor Institution Library! Sir Robert Taylor is the namesake of the Taylor Institution (or Taylorian), founded in 1845, half a century after his death. Although Taylor worked as an architect and sculptor, he left his estate to support the teaching of modern European languages. And that’s pretty much what the Taylorian still does. Its shares its original quarters, built in the 1840s by Charles Cockerell, with the fabulous Ashmolean Museum (which is fabulous. Seriously.) The Modern Language Faculty Library inhabits a less glamorous but still pleasant connected 1938 building on St Giles’ (the door, photo 1; the stacks, photo 9). The growing Slavonic and Eastern European collections have since been transferred to a different location, which I think is a bit unfair to them, since the Taylorian is such an inspiring space. Its cavernous ceiling, graceful gallery, and elevated desks overlooking the wide boulevard of St Giles’ make it a much sought-after (and sometimes crowded) study space (photos 2-8). The Institution also seems to go on forever, with a warren of bright paneled rooms and basement tunnels. As for its collections, in addition to 500,000 books on the languages of Europe, it also holds a variety of special collections materials and an entire collection devoted to the French Enlightenment, the Voltaire Room (photo 10). There may not be a cafe (my second favorite thing in a library) but there are lots of books (first favorite thing)–so come visit!


More information here:



And go on a virtual tour (with more pictures, and fire safety tips!) here:


Social Science Library (SSL)

Today marks the 400th anniversary of the death of Sir Thomas Bodley, a very important man in library history! And if you don’t know who he is, then clearly you haven’t been reading this blog very carefully (hint: see my first post). All academic libraries owe him an enormous debt, including modern ones like the Social Science Library, today’s subject. The SSL, constructed at the turn of the millennium, eventually combined three libraries and covers the subjects of politics, international relations and international development, sociology, economics, and social work, among others (also criminology!). It occupies one floor of a building that also houses several related departments (photo 8). By not getting built until 1999 the building avoided many of the pitfalls of other (relatively) “modern” Oxford architecture. It has nice big windows and a two story atrium that lets in lots of light for readers, climate permitting (photo 3). In the cafeteria upstairs, you can eat some cheap delicious food-by-the-kilo and take in the river view (photo 7). Also, there is a library, which with its stark mostly-grey palette seems like a great place to get some serious work done (photos 5 and 6). I think this library is well thought out, and I’m not just saying that because there is food there.



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Balfour Library

Part of my aim in writing this blog is to highlight the little gem libraries of Oxford’s alleys and departments. They’re not always beautiful, soaring spaces, but they’re intensely useful. It’s easy to fall in love with one of these small libraries and to make it your study-home for a semester or year. The Balfour is a one-room library partitioned off from the Pitt Rivers Museum, which shares a Ruskinian building with Oxford’s Natural History Museum and focuses on anthropology and archaeology (photo 1). As you can see in photos 2 and 3, the Pitt Rivers is a wild and somewhat claustrophobic space absolutely filled with artifacts (the shrunken heads being the most popular).  So it’s something of a surprise to come across, at the back of the building, the glassy, modern Balfour Library. It’s a cheerful space, although compact. Founded in 1939 and named after the museum’s first curator, the library still serves as a research base for the museum and as the library of the School of Anthropology and Museum Ethnography.


Find out more here:


Rhodes House Library

Yes, that Rhodes. Founder of the diamond company De Beers, the imperialist’s imperialist and namesake of both the country of Rhodesia (now Zambia and Zimbabwe) and the Rhodes Scholarship. This was not his house, but built as a memorial to him and a home for the scholars in 1928. It’s more Arts and Crafts than 1920s Gothic; its rotunda is not exactly part of the building and it looks blocky and awkward from some angles, like a set of bedroom furniture in a too-small room (you can rent it for your wedding!). Nevertheless the library is lovely: now called The Bodleian Library of Commonwealth and African Studies at Rhodes House, it “specialises in the history and current affairs – political, economic and social – of the Commonwealth and sub-Saharan Africa including the offshore islands.” Even Oxonians are surprised to find that anyone can use this library–just wave to the porter and try not to make too much noise in the rotunda (photo 2, it echoes). Once inside note the beautiful William Morris textile, with figures designed by Edward Burne-Jones (photo 3) on the way to the library upstairs. Happy studying!


Find out more about the library:


Find out more about the building here:

http://www.rhodeshouse.ox.ac.uk/rhodes-house  (You can take a virtual tour! But not including the library)


St John’s College Library

I joined a group to tour the library of St John’s College. Stuart Tiley (photo 5) is the Librarian and captain of this ship-like building, constructed in 1596-1598 and now called the Old Library. He showed us just a few of the College’s 400 precious manuscripts and 20,000 early printed books, including some letters of Jane Austen. Tiley told us that the ceiling was originally covered with an ornate plaster design, but the plaster fell down sometime in the 19th century. Now that the beams are exposed, you can really see how they put these old buildings together (photo 3). This one looks a little wonky and it is not entirely stable (hence the thin iron supports that run across its width). Also pictured in this post is the Laudian Library (photo 7) built in 1631-1635 but pretty much gutted by the Victorians, who make me wince sometimes even though they wrote some great stuff. A more modern part of the library serves the everyday needs of students and fellows, of course, but it’s not very interesting looking compared to the other two.


Find out more here:



The English Faculty Library might be ugly, but it’s beloved. Take this video from a musical at Oxford a few years ago, replete with Theory jokes:


As you can probably guess it was built in the 1960s. But after recent construction work involving lots of scaffolding and banging, it will (probably) not sink into the Thames. With 105,000 volumes it’s a wonderful resource for those studying English, and you can even check books out (something you cannot do at the Old Bodleian, below)! Although personally I think the 12-book limit is a bit stingy. It’s bright and open and has some of the largest work surfaces I have seen at any library in Oxford!



Find out more here:



Bodleian’s Old Library

I’m starting with the Bodleian Library’s Old Library, the beating heart of Oxford’s library system. Oxford had a library collection as early as 1320 but it found its first real home in Duke Humphrey’s library, built in 1488 and still a functioning part of the square-shaped building (photos 3 and 4). If you’re looking for a special collections book, you can still request to look at it in Duke Humphrey’s, providing you leave your pens at home! The library suffered during struggles between the English and Catholic Churches, when reformers stripped it of ‘superstitious’ books and images (ie almost everything). Sir Thomas Bodley came to the rescue, using his wife’s family money to the excellent end of restoring the library in 1602, and for this it justly bears his name. The Bodleian continues to undergo improvements–it not only has artificial lighting (as of 1929) but also wifi! And they’ll scan book chapters for you! For me there’s no better place to get work done than the Upper Reading Room facing the Radcliffe Camera, where they keep the English lit books (photos 2 and 9).


Read all about the Bodleian’s history, which I’ve condensed, here:


Also they have an excellent gift shop(pe)!