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Robert J Comito

 February 4, 2004

The Merton College Library

Oxford, England

            This library, the oldest one on the Oxford campus, has a long and treasured history.  Oxford University constructed the Merton College Library on the Mob Quadrangle in 1373, making it the oldest continuously functioning university library in world history.  The college archive extends back all the way to Oxford’s foundation in 1264—almost seven and a half centuries of unbroken history.  More recently, another old building on the Oxford Campus, the Bursar’s home, across the street from the Merton College Library, has been converted into the Merton Undergraduate Library. 

            The long history is reflected in the resources and books found in this archaic library.  The book stock features numerous works from the 1400s.  A collection of some 300 medieval manuscripts can be found.  Even famous graduates from Merton College, such as philosopher F H Bradley, have works here.  With various print formats and texts, visitors and students alike can explore the changing curricula of Oxford students from the Middle Ages to nowadays.  The library’s stock is not archaic in the sense of outdated—it boasts over 70,000 volumes, collections of works that have expanded from the Middle Ages until the present day. 

            Remnants of the old traditions and culture are evident in the building’s design and arrangement. The Merton Undergraduate Library, for instance, can easily be picked out as a former home.  Lacking spacious rooms (it is divided into rooms much like a home would be), this library presents a hassle for librarians to clean in comparison to other, more spacious libraries.  The main Merton College Library, however, does have large and quite ornate rooms.  The woodwork of this library reflect not only the antiquity and age of the room but the awe-inspiring delicacy and beauty that went into building this library.  Medieval craftwork at its best, modern additions to these libraries (such as a the issue desk) as well as restorations and reproductions had to be carried out with special care to reproduce the authentic historical work originally done here—thus special effort was made to make sure every object in the library fits in with the antique medieval motif. 

            One medieval tradition sticks out when one studies how former Merton students used to study.  Arranged into two wings at a right angle, the library is arranged so that books are line up along the walls.  In the center of the rooms are individual “choir stalls” used by medieval students for studying.  These “choir stalls” had students on benches with very little room between them and their books.  The reason for this was that books were chained to the shelves because during the Middle Ages textbooks could be worth well more than the price of a small house.  Thus students had to be close enough to the shelves to use the books and ensure the librarians that they would not steal these valuable books.  The books in turn were designed with a large eyelet-hole attached to the bottom of the spine, where a cord just long enough to reach the benches was attached.  Though not in place today, this story illustrated the rich history and tradition still preserved at the Merton College Library.

            Today, The Merton College Library and the Merton Archive continue to grow.  The College purchases books and accepts generous gifts from various donators.  Far from the days of chaining up its collection, the library now invites visiting researchers as well as its own students to use the historical resources at Merton.  Through college tours and recent exhibitions, Oxford has clearly tried to show its resources to an ever-wider audience.  One of many old libraries at Oxford, including the “Old Bodleian” and the “Radcliffe” libraries, Oxford has many more collections of medieval and more recent texts.  Many of these libraries are more modern than Merton, but Merton still retains its claim as the “prettiest” and most historically authentic of the libraries (Duke Humfre’s Library had to be restored due to damage by beetles).  But whatever one is looking for, the Oxford libraries offer a genuine look both at history and literature as well as architecture.


Newglass, Oriole and Richardson, Gemma. “Merton College, Oxford: the library” Jan 1, 2003. Feb 2, 2004


“Visit to the Merton and Bodleian Libraries” Jan 1,2003. February 2, 2004



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