A visitor in the Upper Library

The Historic Library & Special Collections

Visiting the historic Upper Library is possible only with a College guide, and groups are limited in size.

From mid-July to late September, guided tours of the College, which usually include the Upper Library, take place daily at 2:00pm. To find out more about Guided Tours, please see the Visitor Information page, under the section 'Guided Tours - Summer 2023'.

To request a guided tour of the Library outside of the summer months, or for a group with a special interest, please contact us via the group tour request form

Enquiries should be made at least 14 days in advance of your intended tour date.

History of the 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.

Making a research visit

If you would like to arrange a research visit to the Upper Library, please complete the research visit request form.


Merton’s collections include medieval manuscripts, parchment deeds and account rolls, prints, photographs, maps, and early printed books in historic bindings - all of which require specialist care to preserve them for current and future use. Fortunately Merton is a member of the Oxford Conservation Consortium, a collaborative conservation centre formed by a group of Oxford colleges in 1990.

Since 2001 the Oxford Conservation Consortium has been based in a modern, spacious workshop developed by Merton at the Grove Cottage site. The Conservation Consortium employs accredited conservators, helps train future specialists through an internship programme and attracts visits from conservators from around the world.

Virtual Tour

Take a virtual tour of the library courtesy of Google Street View:

You can find out more about the stained glass in the Upper Library on the Corpus Vitrearum Medii Aevi.

Consultation of special collections

Archives, manuscripts, early printed books, other special collections 

If you would like to schedule a research visit to consult our special collections material, please complete the research visit request form indicating which material you would like to consult. Please provide full descriptions, titles or reference numbers, where known. 

1 July until mid-November 2024: many early printed books may not be accessible during this period due to conservation work being undertaken on the library’s windows.  It is essential to contact library staff before planning a visit in order to check whether the items you wish to see will be available. 
Special collections consultations normally take place on Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays, with a morning slot (10am–12 noon) and an afternoon slot (1.30pm–4.30pm) available to book on each day. An appointment is essential. Please give us plenty of notice when you submit the research visit request form to request an appointment, and be aware that we may not be able to provide an appointment for your preferred date and time.

Please read the rules for readers (also available in PDF format) and our guidelines on the use of book supports (also available in PDF format) in advance of your visit.

If you have any questions, please contact the library.

Imaging services


Digital images, photographic prints, slides and transparencies for private study and for publications may be ordered by completing the Application for Photographic and Digital Reproductions. You will then be advised of options and charges relating to the format of reproduction you require.


Permission to publish images of items in Merton’s collections must be requested by completing the Publication Permission form. Permission requests made directly via email cannot be accepted. Please note that 'publication' refers to publication in any media, including websites. General conditions relating to publication permissions are listed on the relevant forms. All requests must be approved by the Governing Body of the college which meets three times per term and you are advised to make such requests well in advance of publication deadlines.