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Library of the Month: Eton College Library

Posted By Administration, 29 August 2019

Library of the Month: Eton College Library

Eton College

September heralds the start of the new school year. This month we feature the library of one of the most famous schools in the world – Eton College. Thanks to Stephanie Coane, Assistant Librarian (Early Books) at Eton, for the contribution. All images are reproduced by permission of the Provost and Fellows of Eton College.


“The King’s College of Our Lady of Eton beside Windsor” was founded by King Henry VI in 1440 for the education of 70 poor boys, the King’s Scholars, who would then go to King’s College which he likewise founded the following year in Cambridge. A library (not for the use of the boys, but of the Provost and Fellows) was intended from the outset, and detailed regulations for the care of the books specified in the Statutes. By 1465 an inventory listed 42 “bokys in the librarye”, but the library’s exact location is first known around 1521 when Provost Lupton built a new room for the collection, by now numbering some 500 volumes. The books moved at least two more times until eventually in 1720 the College resolved to build a new library, and the designs of Thomas Rowland, Clerk of Works at Windsor Castle, were approved in 1725 and the work completed in 1729. The new library was built on an ambitious scale, providing room for nearly ten times the two to three thousand volumes then in the collection, and thanks to a number of gifts and bequests including five whole private libraries during the 18th century, the shelves were essentially filled a century later, with additional presses being added in the early 19th century. Thereafter the collection expanded more slowly, but the College continued to buy a few books of particular relevance and to receive occasional bequests, most notably the paper copy of the Gutenberg Bible in a contemporary binding by Johannes Fogel of Erfurt, presented in 1817. The most significant of the library’s several hundred medieval and later manuscripts is the Eton Choir Book, a compendium of late mediaeval music written between 1490 and 1504 for use in the College Chapel. In addition to the classical literature and theology one would expect in a collegiate library, the early printed collections are rich in continental and English books on most subjects, including 194 incunables and some three hundred Aldines.

Meanwhile the first purpose built boys’ borrowing library had been opened in 1907, and this also began to accumulate rare books, many given to Eton so that the boys might also have access to library treasures, including Thomas Gray’s manuscript of the ‘Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard’ (the churchyard itself being in neighbouring Stoke Poges), and the Macnaghten War Memorial Library, a collection of some five thousand books presented by an Old Etonian in honour of his house master in 1938 and since augmented by gifts and purchases of photographs, maps, autograph letters and war memorabilia. In the late 1960s the College embarked on a programme of refurbishments, and began to collect more recent rare books and manuscripts of the 19th and 20th centuries. Initially housed in School Library, these joined the College Library collections when space was provided for them in Lupton’s Tower in 1995. Now housing more than 150,000 items ranging in date from the 10th to 21st centuries, the library continues to acquire rare materials to build on existing strengths, as well as to support teaching at the School and outreach activities.


Stephanie Coane


(Images Reproduced by permission of the Provost and Fellows of Eton College)



Further reading:

Birley, R. The history of College Library. Eton, 1970.

Birley, R. One hundred books in Eton College Library. Eton, 1970.

Meredith, M. Challenge and change : 100 books & manuscripts acquired by Eton College Library since 1965. Eton, 2012.

Quarrie, P. Treasures of Eton College Library : 550 years of collecting. New York, 1990.

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