A reading room in the Weston Library
A reading room in the Weston Library

John Cairns

Opening of Bodleian's Weston Library

On 21 March 2015 the University of Oxford's Bodleian Libraries will celebrate the completion of the Weston Library following an £80m transformation designed to create a 21st-century library where scholarship and research, conservation and digitization take place and where members of the public can explore the Bodleian's national and international treasures.

The public opening marks the completion of an ambitious three-year project to dramatically renew this iconic Giles Gilbert Scott Grade II-listed building, formerly known as the New Bodleian.

Described by lead architect Jim Eyre as a 'cultural and intellectual landmark,' the reimagined library boasts state-of-the-art facilities for researchers to work with the Bodleian's outstanding special collections which include some of the world's most important cultural, intellectual and scientific treasures.

The completion of the Weston Library allows visitors to explore its new, fully-accessible public spaces for the first time. Entering through a spectacular new entrance hall on Oxford's historic Broad Street, visitors can appreciate and enjoy the library's great treasures in a variety of exhibition spaces, interact with the Bodleian's collections through new digital displays, attend talks in a new lecture theatre, relax in a café run by award-winning restaurateurs Benugo and browse in the new retail experience, The Zvi Meitar Bodleian Shop.

The vision of this ambitious project was to fully modernize a historic library, overhauling 80-year old storage facilities for the Bodleian Libraries' collections to make them meet the latest standards; to dramatically improve research facilities to support scholarship at the highest level; and to create inspirational new facilities for engaging the general public.

To do this, London-based Wilkinson Eyre Architects have expertly transformed the library from the inside out, completely updating the interior while retaining the unique historical features of the building.

Central to this was the removal of an 11-storey book stack in the centre of the building to create Blackwell Hall, a grand 13.5 metre-high entrance foyer. From here visitors can look up to see an innovative glass-sided 'floating stack' which encompasses the centre of the hall, providing a glimpse into the inner workings of the library.

In Blackwell Hall visitors can see displays such as the newly-conserved 16th-century Sheldon Tapestry Map of Worcestershire and they can view interactive screens providing a behind-the-scene view on the research being undertaken by university scholars of all disciplines within the Libraries. 

Richard Ovenden, Bodley's Librarian, said: 'This project has been an amazing opportunity to transform an unloved library building at the heart of Oxford, and to support the needs of the University long into the future. In a city full of libraries, it is one of the most significant and exciting library transformations for many years.

'We are particularly delighted to be able to welcome the public into the Weston Library, to help them appreciate and enjoy the collections built up in the University over centuries, and to engage with the ground-breaking research which surrounds these collections in Oxford. We are immensely grateful to all the donors and funders who have supported this tremendous project, particularly the Garfield Weston Foundation and Oxford University Press for their inspirational donations.'

The Weston Library was opened up to scholars in phases from the end of 2014, and is already proving to be a popular and effective centre for research. In the Library's three refurbished reading rooms students, scholars and researchers from all over the world can be found studying manuscripts or rare editions to inform a range of research and scholarly questions; the reading rooms are now equipped with the new 'Bodleian Chair', designed by London-based design team Barber Osgerby, following a national competition.

In seminar rooms researchers are able to debate and interact with one another, share research discoveries and pass on knowledge in masterclasses. The Visiting Scholars' Centre is already busy hosting scholars from across the globe and supporting projects while the Centre for Digital Scholarship will facilitate innovative technology-based research with the collections. The building is fully equipped with digital technologies, embodying the Bodleian Libraries' emphasis on digital discovery, preservation and infrastructure to support scholarship. 

'Now at last the Bodleian Libraries has a state-of-the-art facility commensurate with its world-class research collections,' said Michael Suarez, Professor of English at the University of Virginia, and as 2015 Lyell lecturer, a current Visiting Fellow at the Bodleian's Visiting Scholars' Centre.

'Working at the Weston nearly every day, I can say from experience that it is a marvellous place, a fantastic scholarly resource. Scholars from around the globe will benefit tremendously from this thoroughgoing renovation for generations to come.'

Within the Weston Library, conservation staff are caring for the collections in new world-class conservation studios that include an integrated workspace for painstaking preservation and restoration of the University's most important collections.

Here, library staff are also collaborating with scientists to bring new techniques - such as hyperspectral imaging – to discover new information about the Bodleian's amazing artefacts. Elsewhere trainee digital archivists are exploring new ways to preserve digital materials for the future while curators work to catalogue major 20th-century archives including those of Oxfam, Stephen Spender, Tolkien and Alan Bennett.

Above and below ground, more than 40km of secure, state-of-the-art storage facilities now house the Bodleian Libraries' special collections which include rare books, manuscripts, archives, music, ephemera and maps.

Key materials found within the Weston Library include the largest collection of pre-1500 printed books in a university library, a highly important collection of manuscripts from medieval Europe and the Byzantine Empire and one of the largest concentrations of modern British political manuscripts.

Items continue to be acquired, including the first book brought back into the Weston Library after the refurbishment: a beautifully-bound copy of Plato's complete works in Greek, given to Elizabeth I by the Chancellor of the University of Oxford in 1564.

The Weston Library's completion is one of many highlights in the building's remarkable 80-year history. Commissioned in 1934 and designed by leading architect Giles Gilbert Scott between 1936 and 1940, the building was commandeered for war use in 1940 before it could be opened. During this time it functioned as a Naval War Library, the centre for the Prisoner of War educational book scheme by the British Red Cross and a site for the Inter-service Topographical Department of the Naval Intelligence Division.

Only at the end of the war could the building finally be used as a university library; in 1946 it was officially opened as the New Bodleian Library. From this point onwards the building performed a dual function as both a space for readers and as a storage facility for over 3.5 million items from the Libraries' collections.

The £80m refurbishment was part-funded with the generous support of a number of donors. The building was renamed the Weston Library in recognition of a £25m donation to the project by the Garfield Weston Foundation which was matched by Oxford University Press. A £5m gift from Julian Blackwell, President of Blackwell's – whose iconic Oxford bookshop sits adjacent to the Weston Library in Broad Street – allowed the funding of Blackwell Hall.

Charles and George David made a £2m donation and The David Reading Room has been named in honour of their father, Rhodes Scholar, Charles Wendell David. Global electronics manufacturer Samsung supported the Library with a gift of state-of-the-art hardware, bespoke software as well as expert consultancy. 

The Weston Library will open to the public from 8am on Saturday 21 March 2015. To celebrate the opening an exciting programme of events will run over the course of the weekend of 21 and 22 March.

For this weekend only, visitors will be able to enjoy behind-the-scenes tours of the new building as well as displays and free lectures about the history of the building and the process of its transformation over the past three years. Pre-booking is recommended but some tickets for tours and talks will be available on the day. View a full listing of the Weston Library's opening weekend events.

The 21 March is also the launch weekend of the Oxford Literary Festival, to which the Bodleian Libraries is Cultural Partner. Many of the Festival's events will take place in the Weston Library over its nine-day run. The weekend also sees the much-anticipated opening of the Marks of Genius exhibition in the Weston Library, featuring world-renowned items of the Bodleian's unique collections, including one of the Bodleian's engrossments of Magna Carta.