Working your way around the libraries of Oxford: the Good, the Bad and the Ugly

Art & Lit Literature

When starting out at Oxford the library system is more than a little intimidating. With over 100 different libraries affiliated with the University, it can be a bit overwhelming knowing where the best place to study is, so I thought I’d help out. Not all the university libraries are accessible to every student, particularly the college, departmental and faculty libraries, but, on the whole, there’s a lot on offer. We’d be here all day if I reviewed every single one of the Oxford University libraries, so instead I’ve decided to give a lowdown of seven of the biggest. Time to get those Bod Cards out!

1. The Bodleian Old Library. Probably the most famous of all of Oxford’s libraries, The Bodleian is the home of the ‘Harry Potter Library’, otherwise known as The Duke Humfrey’s Library. First opened in 1478, this library is the oldest part of the Bod. Its dark wooden tables and panelling are surprisingly cosy, plus you can get a great photo for your Insta here. If you choose the right time, this library can also be amazingly quiet and has a choice between shared tables and modest desks facing the bookshelves (my personal preference). It is visited by tourists however and though they are not allowed into the study areas, this can be a bit of a distraction. Aside from the Duke Humfrey’s Library, there are many other reading rooms to explore in ‘The Bod’ which vary in age and size, and some have a fabulous view of the Rad Cam – which brings me nicely onto library number two.

2. The Radcliffe Camera. Opened in 1749, this is another of Oxford’s oldest libraries. Technically the history faculty library, but often frequented by non-historians due to its beauty, it’s an instagrammer’s haven. It’s worth visiting simply to have a look around, but if you want to work here it can get pretty packed so be sure to arrive early to get a seat. Unlike the Bodleian, visitors aren’t allowed in so you get all the strutting power of being able to walk right down the path and through the main entrance whilst others stare longingly after you. 

It does admittedly have a bit of a bomb-shelter vibe but don’t let this put you off…

3. English Faculty Library. If you get a bit fed up of dark wood panels and ornate ceilings (and let’s be honest the Hogwarts comparisons do get a bit old after a while), the EFL, and adjoining Bodleian Law Library, might be the place for you. The 1960’s blocky, concrete façade might not be to everyone’s taste but indoors it is light, large, and airy. Most of the work spaces are in an open plan format (a bit like long dining tables) but they can feel a bit exposed at times as almost all the central work zones can be viewed from the upper balconies.  

4. The Gladstone Link. This is the perfect place for those who prefer less open study areas. Split between two floors (The Upper and Lower Gladstone Link) this library is housed underground and links the main Bodleian Library to the Radcliffe Camera. It was built as a book store in 1909 and then opened as a working library in 2011. It does admittedly have a bit of a bomb-shelter vibe but don’t let this put you off. The Gladstone Link is much more informal than some of the other Oxford libraries with armchairs and little work spaces hidden in odd cubbyholes and corners. On a good day, you can find a space to work in and barely see four or five people all day, so once you get past the lack of sunlight and metal building work it could become a favourite. 

5. The Radcliffe Science Library. To many just popping in this may seem a pretty bog-standard library but due to huge size (it’s split between eight levels) it has a massive variety of spaces depending on how you like to work. There are bright, clean spaces on the upper floors and dark hidey-holes on the bottom floors, such as the Lankester Reading Room which seems to be a favourite haunt for some students. For me, the heavy use of pine-coloured furniture and grey/green carpets does conjure up a few flashbacks of old school classrooms but other than that there’s little to offend.

… the grey colour scheme may make it feel a bit cold and industrial but it is nonetheless a well-lit and friendly space…

6. The Sackler Library. The opposite of the EFL, the Sackler Library – home to the classics, archaeology and art history books – is dark, confusing and not the most functional. The circular design of the floor plan is more than a little bewildering to begin with – so be prepared to get lost the first couple of times you visit. But if you like little cubby holes and darker corners this may be another the place to go. There’s an odd mix of people that work here, a fifty-fifty split between older academics and younger undergrads and postgrads but it has plenty of space and it’s a good place to get your head down and work with no distractions.

7. The Social Sciences Library. Arguably the most conventional library in Oxford is the SSL, next door to St Catz College, it feels more like your traditional modern city library with big open windows and purpose-built workrooms. For some, the grey colour scheme may make it feel a bit cold and industrial but it is nonetheless a well-lit and friendly space with plenty of desks and work areas. Plus, it has a café, win!

Image credit: David Iliff