A ceiling boss in the Upper Library

The history of Merton College Library

Merton is home to the world’s oldest continuously functioning library for university academics and students. Learn more about its development from the Middle Ages to the present day.


The provision of books and their storage feature in College records from 1276, when Robert Kilwardby (Archbishop of Canterbury) directed that any books that Fellows brought with them to the College, or acquired during residence, should remain at Merton. The books were to be kept in a chest under three locks, and to be assigned by the Warden and Sub-Warden to the use of the Fellows against a pledge. Later, there were two collections of books: one was kept chained in libraria (the earliest form of chaining dates from 1284), the other was a circulating library. It is not known where the first chained library was located, but repairs were needed in 1338 and it had to be plastered and whitewashed in 1346.

The inspiration and much of the finance for the new Library came from William Reed (sometime Bursar and Sub-Warden; Bishop of Chichester 1369-85). The work was supervised by John Bloxham (Warden in 1374); the principal mason was William Humbervyle. He and Bloxham examined the library of the Dominicans in London and also visited Salisbury, Sherborne and Winchester. Only Fellows who were Masters of Arts were allowed to use the chained Library until 3 November 1484, when all Fellows, including Bachelors of Arts, were given a key to the Library.


The oak-panelled waggon roof dates from 1502-3. The bosses on the ceiling are, unusually, made of metal. They bear the arms of Henry VII; royal badges of leopards’ heads and Tudor roses; and the earliest surviving examples of the arms of the College. The bosses also display the dolphin, the device of the Warden at the time, Richard Fitzjames.

The volumes in the Library were originally kept flat, on lecterns, or desks, and chained to them. Methods of chaining changed over time. Evidence from bindings suggests that until about 1470 the chain was attached to the bottom of the back board by a centrally placed metal clip held by four rivets. From about 1470 to 1603, the chain-clip was riveted to the lower fore-edge of the back, or under, board and reflects the change from the lectern to the stall system of shelving that was taking place at that time.

In 1572, the Library was first given an annual income, when the College agreed that admission money payable by Fellows at the beginning of their probationary year was to be used to buy books for the Library, and purchases took place from 1584; the feast that newly elected Fellows had customarily given the Warden and Fellows was abolished.

In August 1583, Henry Savile became Warden and on the 16th he inaugurated new rules for the Library. In the same month, James Leech, a former Fellow, died and bequeathed over 200 books to the College; in October, a bequest of 54 volumes, mostly of medieval theology, was received from William Marshall. Warden Savile had started to refurbish the Library by the time that Leech’s bequest arrived: by August 1589, Key the joiner had worked there for nine weeks. The new continental method of a stalled library (shelves with a desk and a seat at each press) was adopted; Leech’s books were chained accordingly and well over 200 chains were bought in 1589-90. Savile had visited France, Germany and Italy and must have seen Renaissance libraries there. Merton had the first stalled library in England; nearly 20 years later his Mertonian friend, Thomas Bodley, refounded the University Library using a similar, though grander, design.


Several important gifts and bequests were made during the seventeenth century. Helen Gulston, widow of Theodore – elected to a Fellowship in 1596 and an eminent physician (d.1632) – gave her late husband’s library in 1635. One of the largest bequests that the College Library ever received was that of Griffin Higgs (1589-1659). Higgs, Fellow 1611-26, was afterwards Chaplain to Elizabeth, Queen of Bohemia, during her exile in the Netherlands and later became Dean of Lichfield. While abroad between 1627 and 1638 he bought many books at auction sales. The annotated catalogues are in the Library today, together with over 650 of his books. Higgs also left money to buy divinity books and endowed the office of library keeper. Robert Huntingdon, the first Higgs librarian, sent Oriental books from Aleppo in 1671, and Warden Thomas Clayton bequeathed his important library in 1693.

Two notable bequests were received in the eighteenth century. Thomas Herne, elected a Fellow in 1716 and tutor to the family of the Dukes of Bedford, left some books in 1722 including about 30 volumes of tracts concerned with the Bangorian and other controversies of the time, in which Herne had taken part. Later in the century Henry Kent, a commoner in 1737, left over 800 volumes. By the end of the century space had again become a problem. In 1792, the chains were removed from all but two books and additional book shelves were built below the reading desks.


The nineteenth century marks the admission of the first undergraduates to the Library: in 1822 for one hour each week. In about 1870, the College agreed to spend £20 annually on modern history books under the short-lived scheme of specialisation by colleges in different subjects. Opening hours had become more generous in 1899, when undergraduates were admitted for three hours daily.

The printed books owned by F. H. Bradley were given along with his papers in 1924 to form the basis of the Bradley Memorial Library of Philosophy. After the second world war, the collection of printed books formerly the property of successive Wardens was made over to the College. Most of the volumes are of eighteenth-century date and the collection is particularly strong in classical authors and British topography. Sir Basil Blackwell’s benefaction of 27 works, mostly editiones principes of classical authors, is especially noteworthy. So, too, is the gift by T.F. Brenchley in 1986 of over 500 items by and about T.S. Eliot. The Beerbohm Room was opened in 1961 and refurbished in 1999-2000.


More recently, Merton has embarked upon several projects that use 21st-century technology to conserve its historic collections. These include the construction of a new archive store in the Finlay Building, and the development of a modern, spacious workshop for the Oxford Conservation Consortium.

The Library collections continue to grow to serve the needs of current students, Fellows, and visiting scholars. While today’s computer facilities, databases and other recent technologies might initially puzzle the library’s medieval founders, they embody a continuing commitment to scholarship which those founders set in motion over 700 years ago.