History of Magdalen’s libraries

Library provision was one of Waynflete’s main concerns when he built his new College in the 1470s. He worked with the builder-architect William Orchard to construct an appropriate room in the Cloisters, issuing clear instructions that Magdalen’s library windows should be as good as or better than those of All Souls. He also gathered together a foundation collection of about 800 volumes, making Magdalen’s the best-stocked library in Oxford in the 1480s. In conformity with contemporary practice, some books were allowed to circulate amongst the fellows, while the large reference collection was chained to lecterns. This is now known as the Old Library, and its books are still consulted there by scholars from around the world.

The Library continued to grow through gifts and, unusually for a college, through regular book purchases. In 1549 we appointed possibly the very first Oxbridge Fellow Librarian, Henry Bull. By the beginning of the seventeenth century the Library was outgrowing its original furniture and Magdalen decided to join the trend to much more efficient book storage: shelving. A considerable amount was spent renovating the Library between 1608 and 1610, mainly removing the old lecterns and replacing them with shelves and built-in desks, similar to those still in Duke Humfrey’s Library in the Bodleian.

The seventeenth century was a beneficial time, as far as the Library was concerned. Bishop John Warner gave large cash gifts that enabled the librarian to purchase books specifically required by college members; John Goodyer bequeathed his fabulous botanical books; Arthur Throckmorton left us continental imprints he had acquired on his travels (unfortunately his wife was given the pick of his English books—including Shakespeare’s first quartos—and she took them all); Nicholas Gibbard bequeathed his medical books; and John Fitzwilliam left books and £500 cash at the very end of the century.

In many respects Gibbon’s famous description of a slothful Magdalen in the eighteenth century is apt, but the Library was a notable exception for a while. In the 1720s the Fellow Librarian, Henry William Cane, established an undergraduate library on the north side of the main library, stocking it with lighter reading, such as translations of the classics, and cookery and etiquette books. Under Martin Routh’s presidency, this collection was unaccountably shipped off to Halifax, Nova Scotia, to fill the shelves of a newly established college, now the University of King’s College. Not only did Routh give away the undergraduate library, he failed to leave Magdalen a single book from his own large and carefully collected personal library. Instead he bequeathed his books to Durham University.

The library was refurnished in the 1820s and that furniture remains in use today. But the highlight of the nineteenth century was one of its Fellow Librarians, John Rouse Bloxam, who worked particularly hard to build up the Magdalen Authors Collection. Thanks to him, Magdalen has one of the most comprehensive college authors collections in Oxbridge. Meanwhile, the college was rebuilding its undergraduate library in separate subject collections scattered around the College.

These little undergraduate libraries were brought together in the late 1920s, when the Library was re-established in the former Magdalen College Schoolhouse at the corner of Longwall and the High and was called the New Library. When that library opened in 1931, we had fewer than 200 students. Today we have over 600 students and there was an obvious struggle for seating in the library. The building was renovated and extended between 2014 and 2016. It is now called the Longwall Library and was opened by Prince William, the Duke of Cambridge, on May 11th 2016.