Pusey House Library, Oxford, England – the heady mixture of incense and old books

Written by Anna James

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Pusey House (pronounced Pew-zee) was opened in 1884 as a memorial to Edward Bouverie Pusey (1800-1882), Regius Professor of Hebrew, Canon of Christ Church Cathedral, and for forty years a figurehead of the Oxford Movement in the Church of England.

When Dr Pusey died, it was agreed that he deserved a permanent memorial in the city of Oxford where he had lived and worked for more than six decades, and so his friends decided to maintain his personal library and to buy a building to put them in, and provide Anglican priests to care for the books and to offer ‘spiritual counsel’ to students and Fellows of all colleges.

Although not a classic bibliophile, Pusey had been a judicious collector of books, spending money only on works which he could not access elsewhere within Oxford, meaning that many of his books are unavailable elsewhere in the University, and in some cases, even in the UK. Nevertheless, the idea was not without its critics: one magazine claimed that opening yet another library on the doorstep of the Bodleian was ‘like carrying coals to Newcastle’, and only likely ‘to benefit the architect and the bookseller, and so be as useful as most monuments generally are’. (Truth 23/11/1882)

Despite the naysayers, the plan went ahead to create ‘a home of sacred learning and a rallying point of the Christian faith… to arrest the further decay of faith in Oxford’, (H.P. Liddon,1882) and today, Pusey House continues to be home to an unusual combination of Anglican chaplaincy and stunning library of 75,000 books dating from 1500 to the present day.

In the Library’s early days, any sound books on theology were purchased – in 1882 Oxford University did not have a theology faculty library – but over time, the collection has been honed to focus on works about the Church Fathers, Anglican Church history, and distinctively Catholic theology.

The House also holds an important archive of papers of Anglo-Catholic Churchpeople and societies, and the papers of many societies of Anglican monks and nuns. Highlights include original letters from ‘Tractarians’ such as Dr Pusey, John Henry Newman, John Keble, and John Mason Neale (writer of ‘Good King Wenceslas’) and also from more unexpected sources such as the Victorian Prime Minister William Gladstone, C.S. Lewis, and Poet Laureate John Betjeman, who was a Governor of the House for many years.

The Library is open for free to any who are interested in the collections, and visits to the library can (in term-time) be bookended with Morning Prayer, Mass, and Evensong, and punctuated with a pause for the Angelus at noon for an enriching and authentically Oxford day. Once you have inhaled the heady mixture of incense and old books, you will never look back. And did we mention the that the library has blankets?

For more details, visit  http://www.puseyhouse.org.uk/library.   Pusey House Library is open 50 weeks every year, Monday-Friday, 9.30-5.25. Follow us on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram

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