It’s safe to say that my relationship with Oxford’s libraries has been through some ups and downs in the past few years. I’ve gone from marvelling in awe on open days while staying a respectful distance from ‘readers only’ signs, to the wonderful liberty of discovering that not only could I work in these incredible spaces, I could also fall into a hazy, mid-afternoon, sleep-deprived slumber in them. (I have been told off for snoring in the Oxford Union Library more than once.) All this concluded in a bitter standoff of rare mismatched online bookings while desperately trying to revise for exams in the midst of the pandemic.
Yet, when I think about returning to Oxford in Michaelmas, one of my first thoughts is how good it will be to be back in a library, surrounded by dusty books and stressed students again. While I’ve certainly not visited all the wonderful libraries Oxford has to offer – there are, after all, 28 Bodleian Libraries, together comprising the largest academic library service in the UK – I, like most, have my favourites.
1. The Radcliffe Camera
Ah, the Rad Cam. You can’t beat it. There’s a distinct pleasure in striding up the path between the gate and the imposing front doors (negotiating the horror of the cobbles in Radcliffe Square shall not be factored into this library’s ranking) which makes the little voice in your head say “wow, I really go to Oxford”. The Lower Rad Cam, the Gladstone Link and the Upper Rad Cam all provide distinctly different vibes – they could all be their own individual libraries. The Upper Rad Cam is probably my personal favourite for the daytime, with a choice of two floors and a good amount of natural light. In the happy (and now seemingly distant) times in which one used to be able to turn up without a booking at 9pm to do an hour’s work, the Lower Radcam had the edge for evening studying, offering the atmosphere of a warmly lit stone cellar and – more importantly – not requiring your tired legs to make it up the stairs.
2. The Old Bodleian Library
Yes, I can hear you saying “yet another boring and conventional choice”. The Bod itself is of course a classic, with a range of wide square or rectangular rooms, and a lottery of chairs. Each side of this square library offers a slightly different working environment, and one wing offers wonderful views of the Rad Cam. My personal choice is a desk under a big window in the Tower Room, peering down into the courtyard below. More practically, a trip to the bathroom in the Old Bod also involves far fewer stairs than the aforementioned Rad Cam, especially as there’s also a lift in the building. You can also walk past the Duke Humfrey’s Library – the kind of wood-panelled sacred space you can hardly believe actually exists outside of films – without having to conform to the rules for working there (no food or drink, even in sealed containers, and belongings only in clear plastic bags). The only reason for bumping it down to second is that the rooms remind me ever so slightly of Exam Schools.
3. The Taylor Institution Library (Taylorian)
The Modern Languages Library on St. Giles is a maze of varied and charming spaces. The main room is gorgeously bright and airy. If you arrive super early, you’ll be able to bag one of my favourite spots at a window looking out onto the Ashmolean on one side or St. Giles on the other. Other favourite spots in this library include the Voltaire Room, which feels almost separate to the rest of the library due to its slightly difficult-to-find location, as well as the basement rooms with their tucked-away desks which can be particularly cosy on a winter’s day. It comes further down the list due to the fact I always feel slightly like an imposter as a Classicist, and because good seats can be hard to find.
4. The Oxford Union Library
The Union is a controversial place in Oxford, but the library is what swayed me into membership (for better or worse). The ceiling was painted by William Morris and you can spend far too long staring up at it instead of getting on with work. The library is stacked with fuzzy blankets and armchairs which led to many impromptu naps for me in first year. One of the things I particularly like about this library is the fact that it not only features a decent selection of degree-related books (at least in my experience as a Classicist) but also has a room upstairs that features a wide range of modern fiction which does its best to prevent me spending too much money on books to read for pleasure in Blackwell’s.
5. The Sackler Library (The Classics Faculty Library)
If you thought the Union library was the hot take of this article, you were wrong. After all, there are many, many reasons to dislike the Sackler: it’s named after a highly questionable family who have been blamed for the opioid crisis; it’s so circular that you run the risk of feeling like a dog chasing its tail when you try to return to your desk; loans last a week and fines can (at least in my pre-corona experience) only be paid in cash; there’s little to no phone signal in the building; and the windows seem to miss natural light altogether. And yet, albeit begrudgingly – some might call it Stockholm syndrome – it’s made it onto this list. In the depths of lockdown three, as I returned to Oxford to study for Classics Prelims/adapted Mods, I chose to work here. Why? Because, quite frankly, I already hated it, so associating more stress and negativity with it wouldn’t be a problem. In this process, I grew to enjoy the ridiculously long desks (made even longer due to social distancing), discovered that the second floor does get some natural light and phone signal, and was grateful that the temperature, unlike many Oxford libraries in winter, is kept above freezing. This has proved enough to slowly overcome my strong dislike of the colour scheme of obnoxious, cat=sick pink and green, and make me strangely fond of this library.
I’d highly recommend you try any of these libraries next time you’re looking for a space to work, and hopefully everyone who’s not yet been able to experience the joys of Oxford’s miles of bookshelves due to the restraints of the pandemic will be able to in the terms to come!
Featured illustration by Grace Kirman.