New Life for the Old Library

8 Jan 2019|James Howarth

  • Library, Arts & Archives
The Old Library with scaffolding on its roof
The Old Library, located on the first floor above the College Chapel

Since the summer the sedate quiet and austere calm which normally reigns in Teddy Hall’s seventeenth century Old Library has been replaced by the noise and industry of a large scale building renovation programme. The project is now nearing completion and an exciting new chapter in the life of the Library will begin.

Before work got underway the 4,800 books in the collection had to be carefully packed up and removed by a team of specialist antiquarian book movers from the Bodleian Library and transported to a secure storage facility. For some of the volumes, this is the longest journey they have made in hundreds of years. For example, our copy of the works of the French scientist and philosopher Pierre Gassendi was given to Teddy Hall in 1665, was borrowed by the Vice Principal in 1666 according to a list of ‘books lent’ which is the earliest record of books owned by the Hall, but has since almost certainly remained on the same shelf where it was placed when the Old Library was built until last June.

Inside the Old Library, once the books had been removed
Work getting underway in the Old Library, once the books had been removed
The Old Library's copy of Pierre Gassendi's Opera Omnia
Pierre Gassendi's Opera Omnia
The Old Library
The Old Library, prior to the restoration work

Indeed, if you have ever taken a tour of the Library, you might imagine it to have been unchanged for centuries but in fact the space has undergone several transformations and restorations. Notably in 1920 when it first became the ‘Old’ Library and modern books were removed to form the basis of the undergraduate borrowing collection; or the extension of the building in 1932 when the purchase of a small strip of land from New College allowed us to fill in what had previously been the false frontage of the northern end of the Library and Chapel.

It’s also easy to forget that the Old Library was once new, and not only new but modern, even in some sense hi-tech. When it was built in the 1680s it was the first library in Oxford outside the Bodleian to be built with book cases against the wall, one of the first to have a gallery and, unlike college libraries which were restricted to Fellows, open to all members of the Hall.

The renovations currently taking place build on this heritage and, as with the original construction of the Library, have been made possible by the generous help of St Edmund Hall alumni and friends of the Hall. Modern environmental controls and new lighting are being installed to provide better conditions to preserve and protect the books. The wood work and fittings have been cleaned and restored. All of this work will enable the Library and its collections to play a larger part in the life of the Hall, in its intellectual work and in its outreach.

An illustration from the Micrographia by Robert Hooke
An illustration from Hooke's Micrographia

A key part of the renovation is the installation of a new display cabinet which will allow us to show off some of the treasures of the collection, such as our beautiful first editions of Robert Hooke’s Micrographia and Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathon and also books which tell us something about the history of the Hall and the Library, for example A Genealogical History of the Kings of Portugal which was donated to the Library by Arthur Frogley, the carpenter who made the original woodwork in the Library.

In this sense the renovation is also a continuation of the opening up of our special collections begun by the cataloguing project (2013-2018) which put details of all of the Old Library’s books on the University’s online catalogue SOLO, making them visible to scholars across the world. We will also be showing things off and telling stories about the collection here on this blog as well.

The Old Library has fulfilled many roles in its history: the working library of the scholars of the Hall, the repository for our most precious books, briefly the Senior Common Room when the Hall first gained a fellowship, even at one point a film set, and the current renovation will ensure that it will continue to be at the heart of the Hall’s life.

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