Designing libraries: how the Bodleian’s Weston Library was transformed

Weston library

The Bodleian Libraries’ new Weston Library reopened to readers in 2014 following a three-year, £80 million refurbishment. Here, Toby Kirtley, Estates Project Officer for the Bodleian, discusses how a Grade II listed book ‘fortress’ has been transformed into a finalist for the RIBA Stirling Prize 2016.

When our newest library, the Weston Library (formerly the New Bodleian), was announced as a contender for the RIBA Stirling Prize it was an exciting moment. The positive feedback we’d had from the public and from readers using this special collections library meant we felt confident that this new site met user needs. Being shortlisted for the Stirling Prize, however, is a testament to the architectural building work itself and, with the Weston the only dedicated library building on the Stirling Prize shortlist, it is great to see our sector represented.  

Weston Library surrounded by scaffolding

Caption: Weston Library exterior - under wraps during the redevelopment

For myself, the project team, project architects Wilkinson Eyre and many of those working on this unique project, the £80m refurbishment of the Weston Library was a huge undertaking, many years in development culminating in the three-year refurbishment. As the Estates Projects Officer for the Bodleian Libraries I have been involved with other large-scale capital projects, most recently the development of the Bodleian’s Book Storage Facility in Swindon, but this was a different level of complexity. The scale of planned improvements for this major refurbishment of an existing listed building is unparalleled among research libraries.

The Grade II listed building, originally known as the New Bodleian Library, was designed by Sir Giles Gilbert Scott in the 1930s and opened in 1946 as a working library and storage facility. The building is a recognisable feature of the Oxford cityscape, given its prominent location on the corner of Broad Street and Parks Road in the centre of Oxford. After 70 years of service the building was in need of upgrading in order to meet the National Archives' Standard for Record Repositories; severe overcrowding of bookstacks along with non-compliance with fire regulations meant the building and the libraries were at risk of losing their heritage status.  

The vision of this ambitious project was to fully modernize the library, overhauling the storage facilities for the Bodleian Libraries’ special collections to meet the latest standards. The aim was also to dramatically improve research facilities to support scholarship, with the renovation of three reading rooms and creation of new centres of scholarship: the Centre for Digital Scholarship and the Visiting Scholars Centre. Finally we wanted to create inspirational new facilities for engaging the general public, and to expand public access to the Libraries’ great treasures with two new exhibition galleries, digital interactives, a shop and a cafe. In order to achieve this, London-based Wilkinson Eyre Architects expertly transformed the library from the inside out, updating the core of the interior while retaining the surrounding spaces and the historical façade of the building and many of the unique fixtures and features within it.  

It’s difficult to summarize a project that ran over such a long period; however I’ve tried to provide some highlights of this exciting project below: 

Project highlights

Planning permission

Long before work started on the building we had to go through the lengthy planning permission process and consult extensively with English Heritage, preservation groups and the City of Oxford. Securing Planning Permission approval and Listed Building Consent from Oxford City Council in May 2010 made the project viable. 

Book moves

Empty shelves at Weston Library

Caption: Toby Kirtley at the Book Storage Facility in Swindon 

Over 3 million books needed to be moved from the library before works could begin. In November 2010 the book decant got underway, a process that would take over a year, led by our incredibly efficient and organized Book Moves Team. It was a process that never seemed to stop, however, as once the bookstacks in the refurbished building were completed, the lengthy process of moving items back into the building began. Over 40km of materials were moved back in a move lasting over 3 ½ years! The new library now holds over 1.25 million volumes and boxes of special collections materials. 

Demolition works begin

The project really started with the demolition process which began in August 2011. The demolition phase lasted 12 months in total. 

Completion of the storage areas and new storage

A highlight was seeing the storage and climate control systems installed in the library’s new internal bookstacks that run across six floors. As one of the key drivers for this project was overhauling storage to meet the requirements of BS5454 (British standards for the storage of archival material), the completion of the bookstacks was a huge achievement. In total, above and below ground, the Library has more than 42km of secure, state-of-the-art storage facilities with the capacity to house 1.25 million of the Bodleian Libraries’ special collections which include rare books, manuscripts, archives, music, ephemera and maps.

Historic preservation

The project was designed to ensure that the library could be modernized in a way that preserves the historic character of the building and allows the unique features of Scott’s design to be seen in their best light. Seeing the cleaning of stonework/stone facade, the refurbishment of wooden chandeliers designed by Gilbert Scott, the modernization or the original reading room desks and the delicate preservation of the 1930s reader’s entrance was a constant reminder of the historic importance of this listed building.

Refurbishment of the reading rooms

Reading Room at Weston Library

Caption: The Charles Wendell David Reading Room on the top floor of the Weston Library, completed  

he library includes two readings rooms which needed considerable renovation.  Removing coverings from the skylight of the Mackerras Reading Room that had been in place since the room was used by the War Office in the 1940s was a big occasion, opening up the room and providing natural light for readers. So too was seeing the careful cleaning and preservation of the inlaid wood ceiling in the Rare Books & Manuscripts Reading Room. In these rooms students, scholars and researchers from all over the world can now study manuscripts or rare books to inform a range of research and scholarly questions. 

Topping out

June 2013 marked ‘topping out’, when the rebuilding of the central part of the library reached its highest extent. . Just under two years into the project, this was a huge milestone that signalled that we were closer to the end than the beginning. 

Broad Street opening

The opening of the Broad Street entrance of the building really brought the architect’s vision to life. Previously the building had been closed off on the side facing onto Broad Street. A series of high windows here were cut through and opened up to create a modern glass entranceway leading into the new public space called Blackwell Hall.  

Fitting out of the exhibition galleries

People looking at tapestry map at Weston Library

Caption: Displays in Blackwell Hall - the Sheldon Tapestry 

One of the last elements of the project was the fitting out of the two exhibition galleries entered from Blackwell Hall. A key aim of the project was to engage with the public by making our collections available so it was exciting to finally see the spaces where some of the University’s greatest treasures would be on public display.

Items uncovered in the building

Over the course of the renovation project an array of items dating back to the 1930s were found. These ranged from cigarette packets, sweet wrappers and a George VI stamp to a receipt for a book from Blackwell’s Bookstore (next door) purchased for the Red Cross Prisoners of War Educational Books Section, based in the library during wartime.  All these items were a constant reminder of the building’s past use and are now part of Bodleian archives.

Library opening

Exhibition gallery, Weston Library

Caption: St Lee Gallery - one of two exhibition galleries in the Weston Library, displaying the flagship exhibition 'Marks of Genius'

The Weston Library opened to the public in March 2015, with our flagship exhibition Marks of Genius opened by physicist Stephen Hawking and conservationist Sir David Attenborough.  It was hugely gratifying to see visitors at the opening enjoying the space and visiting the exhibition galleries for the first time.   

A year and a half from opening the Library welcomes an average of 3,171 readers every month and has welcomed over 1 million visitors to its public spaces.  

Critical factors in this project have been the good working relationships that developed between the project team, contractors, staff and the architects. Also key was the level of commitment to the project at every level of the Library and University, along with the anticipation that something special was being delivered. 

Transforming this Grade II listed building into a 21st century research facility and visitor space has been a major undertaking for the libraries and will hopefully enable the Bodleian to continue to hold its place as one of the world’s greatest centres for scholarship.

References

Image credits (in order they appear down the page):

  1. Credit: John Cairns. Copyright: Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford.
  2. Copyright: Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford.
  3. Credit: John Cairns. Copyright: Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford.
  4. Credit: John Cairns. Copyright: Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford.
  5. Credit: John Cairns. Copyright: Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford.
  6. Credit: John Cairns. Copyright: Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford

 

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