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Library History

The Old Library

The first Christ Church Library opened in 1562, and was housed in the former dining hall of St Frideswide’s Priory.  It was fitted with wooden lecterns bought second-hand from the derelict medieval University Library.  The books were chained to the lecterns: most were large Latin folios on theology and patristics, imported from the Continent but bound in Oxford; about 140 are still here. The books were reserved for the dons, and the Library was not usually open to undergraduates until comparatively recently.




The Old Library in 1775

In 1610-11 the Old Library was refitted with bookcases and an elaborate painted ceiling.  As in Duke Humfrey’s Library, the shelves were placed across the main axis of the building and each incorporated its own desk and bench.  New books were bought and shelved fore-edge outwards, and chained to the bookcases.  The library was divided into four sections: Theology, Arts, Law, and Medicine.  The earliest surviving catalogue, written in 1665, show that Theology was the largest class, but that there were large numbers of books in all subjects. The collection expanded rapidly, and by the end of the seventeenth century the Old Library was full.


The New Library

The present building was started in 1717 and completed in 1772. It was intended to match the great classical libraries of Trinity College, Cambridge and Trinity College, Dublin, and to attract aristocratic students to Christ Church. The building was probably designed by Dr George Clarke of All Souls, and the master mason was William Townsend (1668?-1739). The books were placed at first floor level to avoid damp and flooding. The ground floor was originally intended  to be an open loggia, but while the building was still under construction, Christ Church was given a large collection of pictures by General John Guise (1682-1765). The lower storey was filled in to house them. Today these rooms house the modern books used by Christ Church undergraduates.

The Upper Library is nearly 150 feet long, and contains around 40,000 books. It is lit by large Venetian windows at either end, and by three sash windows facing onto the Peckwater Quadrangle. Four more windows are hidden behind the pediments of the bookcases, and can only be seen from outside. Originally it was intended that the shelves should be placed across the building, but large bequests of books arrived while the building was under construction, and the present wall-shelving and gallery were inserted to house them.The interior and fittings mostly date from the 1750s; the plasterwork is by Thomas Roberts of Oxford.

The names above the books commemorate: Dean Henry Aldrich (1649-1710); Canon William Stratford (1672-1729); Archbishop William Wake (1657-1737), and Charles Boyle, 4th Earl of Orrery (1676-1731). All bequeathed collections of books to the library, though their gifts were not necessarily shelved immediately beneath the name labels, as was once thought. Otho Nicholson gave money to buy books in 1613, and paid for the refitting of the Old Library in 1610-11, and John Morris (d.1648) was Regius Professor of Hebrew, and set up a trust fund to buy Hebrew books.

The rooms leading off the Upper Library (closed to visitors) originally held prints, drawings, coins and scientific instruments, as well as books.  Some of these are now in the Picture Gallery, and others are on deposit in various Oxford museums.

Other objects are still on display. The celestial and terrestrial globes were made in London in about 1760. The head of Mercury (on the right-hand window sill looking down onto the Quad) is from the original statue of 1695 which stood in the fountain in Tom Quad. The famous cardinal’s hat is displayed under the gallery directly opposite, though there is no direct evidence that it belonged to Wolsey. Its painted Gothick display case was made for Horace Walpole.

The wooden models of characters from Alice in Wonderland are a reminder that Charles Dodgson (Lewis Carroll) was Sub-Librarian in the nineteenth century. The Upper Library retains most of its original furnishings, including the stools made by Thomas Chippendale, the library steps, and the wrought iron charcoal braziers, which were once the only heating.


The Collections

The Library is a beautiful building, but the books are not here to decorate the room: almost all are available to scholars by prior appointment.

The collection of early printed books is, after the Bodleian, probably the finest in Oxford: there are perhaps 100,000 books printed before 1800, the oldest printed in 1468. 
There are several hundred medieval manuscripts, over 100 incunabula (books printed before 1501), tens of thousands of rare early pamphlets, and an outstanding collection of manuscript and printed music.

All of these are particularly interesting because - unlike the collections of many large research libraries - they remain in their historical context in a building which was originally designed to house them. Many of the books are in contemporary bindings, and others have annotations or early ownership inscriptions.

More information can be obtained on the Library's History page.

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