The Oxford Union Society Library – a walled haven

 Written by By Elizabeth Piper

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This is the original Debate Chamber of the Nineteenth Century, now the main library,

called the Old Library.

Right in the heart of a tourist-filled Oxford lies the walled haven that is the Oxford Union Society Library. Surrounded by trees and squirrels, and steeped in the atmosphere that is academic Oxford, the library holds a surprise that is different from any other library in the city (and there are a good many libraries in the city!).

The squirrels are practically staff!

The library is an odd one in that it appears to be a part of the Oxford University conglomerate of Bodleian libraries as a whole, and yet it is a private library for members only to use- although visitors can pay to visit. It was the old debate chamber for the Society, and has retained the air of a gentlemen’s club, with comfy leather armchairs and a fireplace, ambient lighting and a thick carpet, but you will almost always find a student working silently in at a writing table; it is definitely a well-attended library for study and for leisure. There are academic books for the undergraduates, and many for the postgraduates of the university as well, but the particular specialities of the library are travel guides and writing, and fiction. The travel guides are the likes of Lonely Planet, Rough Guides, and Bradt, and members frequently take them out to go travelling with or to get inspiration for their next holiday. We even still use good old-fashioned library date stamps when a book is taken out: the familiar “ka-chunk” sound can still be heard as it is manually released into the wild- a sound that seems to be rarely heard these days but is still appreciated, if the comments of the members are anything to go by.

Poetry Room, 1909. All of this furniture is still in use!

What the library holds is entirely based upon its members’ desires. Anyone can suggest a book for the library to acquire, and every week, the library committee decides whether or not to allow the book to be purchased. This must be quite strict, with a “one-in, one-out” policy as the library is quite small and only has around 46,000 books- it isn’t the smallest library in Oxford, but it is certainly a far sight away from the Bodleian’s collection of 12 million plus!


The really special surprise that the library has, making it entirely unique, are the murals. These murals organised by Dante Gabriel Rossetti who gathered a number of up-and-coming artists at the time, including William Morris, Briton and William Riviere, Valentine Prinsep, John Hungerford Pollen, Edward Burne-Jones, John Stanhope, and Arthur Hughes to paint murals around the top of the library room and the ceiling. These artists were members of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. They chose the theme of the Arthurian legends, as written in Le Morte d’Arthur, and there are ten murals from the various legends. The artists spent a long summer cavorting around the Society and the city. A letter from John Ruskin, the prominent art critic of the day and on-off Pre-Raphaelite patron, is framed on one of the walls. In it, Ruskin seeks to placate the somewhat perturbed Oxford dons, reassuring them that Rossetti and his friends were not hooligans and were up to the job.

It isn’t just artists and Pre-Raphaelite lovers who come to the library though; architects find it fascinating too- the library is octagonal with lovely rose windows, and in the centre is a marble fireplace with an underground flue- one of apparently only three in existence. It is no longer in use as it seems the only way to make it work properly is on a very windy day to assist with the flue draw! But it is surrounded by comfy armchairs and cushions for the members to take a seat and read the daily paper. Besides, it is a lovely warm library complete with fuzzy blankets to make it extra cosy – an open fire within the library is neither required nor desired!

The Old Library ceiling, by William Morris.

Do come to see us- we love having visitors to see the murals and it would be selfish of us to keep them to ourselves!

Old Library, 2018


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