Redesigning the college library: Merton, 1589-90

Redesigning the college library: Merton, 1589-90

In the decades either side of 1600, many Oxford college libraries were belatedly transformed to accommodate the vastly increased numbers of learned books flooding off Europe's printing presses. First to introduce these changes was Bodley’s friend and college colleague, the Warden of Merton, Henry Savile, who refurbished the south wing of Merton College library in 1589-90 (Images 1 and 2), on the basis of lessons learned during his extensive continental travels between 1578 and 1585. 

The basic arrangement -- already evident in Duke Humphrey's Library -- of placing two-sided reading desks between windows at right angles to the walls was retained; but the low medieval lecterns were replaced with high, three-storied book-presses in which the books were stored standing upright, rather than lying flat as in most previous English libraries.  Benches were added to allow readers to sit within easy reach of the desks, and new dormer windows constructed to compensate for the light blocked by the high bookcases. By 1610, similar arrangements had been introduced to the libraries of St John's, All Souls, Christ Church, Queen’s, New College, Magdalen, and Corpus Christi

Bodley adapted this arrangement for the University library in two significant ways. First, the wider spacing of the windows in Duke Humphrey’s allowed for a more commodious arrangement of chairs and desks. Second, shelf space in the main reading room was reserved exclusively for the huge folio volumes which remained the preferred format for publishing the weightiest authorities of the Western intellectual tradition in this period.

These innovations established the pattern of library building in Oxford for the rest of the century, culminating in the new library in Queen’s College, constructed in 1692-5 (Image 3).

Commentary. Howard Hotson (September 2016)