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Reimagining a University Library

Architect Jim Eyre of WilkinsonEyre, London, shared his vision for the Weston Library at Oxford University with members of the Harvard Library community.


How do you modernize an iconic but aging building into an inviting place where students, faculty, and the public gather together to learn? In the first of a series of talks on new visions for library spaces, architect Jim Eyre of WilkinsonEyre, London, presented his plan for the successful renovation of the Weston Library at Oxford University. In 2006, his firm won a bid to redesign the Weston Library—formerly the New Bodleian. The priorities of the project were not only to safeguard collections, but to promote them: leading to wider understanding and public engagement. Plans for the revamped building included the addition of modernized research facilities, spaces for seminar rooms, exhibition galleries, and digitization studios. The goal was to provide a structure that invites all visitors to engage with the library’s materials.

Eyre took into account the history of the existing space as he began his preliminary work. The New Bodleian was designed in the 1930s by architect Gilbert Scott and officially opened in 1946. There were many problems with the existing structure—including eleven stories of book storage that lacked fire protection, inadequate climate controls, and an archival conveyor system that was insufficient to handle delicate materials. 

He did not plan to demolish the building in order to start again. “[There was] enough in that original building to draw out and make something special,” he said.

Book storage was the practical heart of the library and presented a challenge. The existing design housed 4 ½ million books on 17 kilometers of shelving. An attempt to build a storage facility in Oxford fell through, but Sarah Thomas—in her previous role as Bodley’s Librarian at Oxford—found another site to build a facility modeled on Harvard Depository. With the issue of storage resolved, Eyre and his team began to change the architectural markers that weren't welcoming to create the atmosphere of a "real working library where you feel engaged with what's going on." They took out levels of book storage for demolition and removal. They found that the original columns holding the building up were not bolted to the ground, which meant that hundreds of replacement columns needed hundreds of bolts to be anchored to the floor and then encased in concrete. The team then figured out how to fit shelves—both fixed and mobile—for maximum efficiency and they tested an innovative ventilation system by using a computer model to check air flow.

"You can change buildings very substantially when you put them to new uses," Eyre said. Rethinking the building’s many functions led to the creation of a south-facing arcade that opens up a space for people to gather, along with a series of entrances to the library with their own personalities. A restored entrance welcoming the public includes a stone archway from an Oxfordshire estate with the Latin inscription: "If you are good, enter. If you are wicked, by no means."

The central part of the library's ground floor is now opened up to the public. It includes a cafe, exhibition space, treasures gallery, lecture area, and shop, along with an open collection of books that anyone can read in the public reading rooms. Eyre and his team wanted to create a degree of comfort and calm in all of the reading rooms that reflect their purpose as spaces that you want to spend a lot of time in.

The construction process took three years. Eyre’s team paid homage whenever possible to the designs of the original architect while adding their own updated style. The restored library spaces include roof lights to let in natural light and oak-lined surfaces to provide better acoustics while respecting the traditional look and feel of a library. The nucleus of the building is a center for visiting scholars that includes a communal space and a series of offices. In return for this space, visiting scholars give back by teaching classes.

Eyre found many benefits in collaborating with stakeholders across the library community to accomplish the vision of a revitalized center of learning: "When you get different disciplines working together in close proximity, interesting things happen."

Article written by Kaitlin Buckley, Harvard Library Communications.
Article published on March 9, 2016.