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Historic Collections

General Introduction


From Paul Morgan, Oxford Libraries Outside the Bodleian: A Guide (2nd. ed., Oxford: Bodleian Library, 1980) by kind permission of Paul Morgan and the Bodleian Library, Oxford. Updates by Mark Purcell

Whether Cardinal Wolsey intended to build a library when his College was first planned in 1525 is unknown; there appears to have been no provision for books until the early 1560s, after its re-foundation by Henry VIIII in 1546. Some gifts from individuals were made in this decade and many more in the 1580s. Donors' names appear in the Disbursement Books from 1581, and chains were purchased, first in London but from 1592 they were forged by the College smith. As in other colleges, accessions mainly came through donations from members; between 1583 and 1636, the new graduates combined each year to make a joint gift, as Brasenose did from 1650. The practice began in 1599, and continued for many years, of electing a Bachelor of Arts as Library Keeper, who usually handed over to another after taking his master's degree.

The next development was in 1613 when Otho Nicholson, known more widely as the donor of the Carfax Conduit, provided £800 for the restoration of the building; in the following year he gave £100 towards the purchase of books. This year, 1614, was notable for two other library matters: statutes were drafted which laid down that a gift of money or books had to be made when graduating, the value varying with the degree, (which was only legalising an established custom,) and a Donors' Book was started. Liberally decorated with Nicholson's arms, earlier benefactions were not entered in it. It was used rather intermittently until 1841 - there are no entries between 1635 and 1653 for example. A card index of names has been compiled in recent years. A final significant decision of the later seventeenth century was the reduction of library fees in 1679.

During the first half of the eighteenth century several important benefactions were received, culminating in that of William Wake, Archbishop of Canterbury (1657-1737), for which the old library was quite inadequate and so the present fine building was erected. Begun in 1717, its decoration was not completed until 1779, but in 1763 the contents of the old library with about 18,000 additional volumes were put on the wall bookcases, an early example of this method. Presumably the chains on books transferred from the old Library were removed beforehand. New regulations were brought into force in 1776, covering the extra post of Wake Librarian (established 1754), to be in charge of the Wake manuscripts, in addition to that of College Librarian; each was helped by an Under-Librarian; the posts were combined in 1869. The rules governing persons entitled to use the library remained the same: namely, members who were graduates, noblemen or gentlemen commoners, thereby excluding commoners, battlers and servitors.

During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the annual expenditure on books steadily rose from about £30 to about £100 in the 1780s, and £200 between 1820 and 1870. Simultaneously a large balance accumulated in the library account, reaching over £600 in 1869 which, in the following year, was transferred to the College account and the practice of a separate annual grant was instituted. In 1904 this was about £200, considered inadequate by the Librarian; Balliol, for example, spent over £300 then.

Duplicates and surplus volumes have been discarded on several occasions, notably in 1793, 1813 and 1814, bringing in respectively £277, £505 and £422. Besides books disposed of officially, others have strayed elsewhere, as has so often happened in college libraries, including some scarce items.

The relationship between this college library and its undergraduates followed the usual Oxford pattern, but it is interesting that in 1668 Anthony Wood records: 'A little before Xtmas, the Xt.Ch. men, yong men, set a library in Short's coffee house in the study ther, viz., Rablais, poems, plaies, etc. One scholar gave a booke of 1s. and chaine 10d.'

The 1776 regulations, restricting the use of the library to noblemen and gentlemen commoners among the undergraduates, mentioned above, were amended in 1813 when, in consequence of damage to books taken out, borrowing was forbidden to junior members, while the library was opened to those previously excluded provided a suitable recommendation was given by tutors. Some years later, in 1827, college tutors were allowed to borrow books for their pupils, possibly to regularise an existing situation but according to the rules undergraduates were forbidden to take down books from the shelves. A separate undergraduate reading room was opened in 1884 for those reading for an honour school, at first under the control of the Librarian, up to 1893, and then separately administered until brought back under the Librarian in 1928 and the whole structure re-organised into its present state.

Christ Church was fortunate to have the services of the late W.G. Hiscock first as Assistant, and later Deputy, Librarian from 1928 till 1962. His scholarly researches into the Library's history and careful examination of its contents have made Christ Church Library more widely known than possibly that of any other Oxford college. This present account is deeply indebted to his works, as the notes reveal.

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