[M]ay it not be hoped that if the debates were ever to cease, the Union would still survive, attached to a library?

Herbert Arthur Morrah (1923)

Featuring beautiful work spaces, approximately 60,000 books, and a thriving Library Committee responsible for maintaining interesting and relevant collections, the Library acts as a key attraction to Union membership. The Old Library’s Pre-Raphaelite murals and William Morris ceiling moreover, attract hundreds of annual visitors from around the world.

The provision of a library for its members has long been central to the aims of the Society. When the original United Debating Society dissolved in December 1825, before being replaced by the ‘Oxford Union Society’, the President expressed anxiety that this not ‘interfere with the continuance of the Reading Room’. Such early concern was echoed almost a century later in the quote above from historian of the Union, Herbert Morrah.

This post will explore the history of the Library’s locations, collections and people.

Black and white photograph of the Old Library of the Oxford Union viewed from the ground floor
The Old Library in 1909
Oxford Union Society Library and Pre-Raphaelite murals viewed from the gallery at night
The Old Library today

1. Locations

Upon the formation of the reformed ‘Oxford Union Society’ in December 1825, a team of three members was immediately appointed to secure a reading room and draw up rules for its operation. In February 1826, the three men – Edward Field (Queen’s), Edward Villiers (Merton), and Robert Hornby (Oriel) – were duly thanked for accomplishing their task, although there is no record of the room’s location. A year later, the Union Committee approved the rent of a Mr Sheard’s rooms at 21 High Street. The Library remained there until late 1830, when it relocated to Talboy’s at 86 High Street. Talboy’s was a bookseller and publisher who published some of the Union’s rules.

By 1839 the Union were renting the premises of a Charles James Adams. We know this because Adams went bankrupt and the property he leased at 90 High Street was described in Jackson’s Oxford Journal as including, ‘a very splendid room, 50 feet by 30 feet, and 14 feet high, used as a reading room by the members of the University Union Society’. The Society continued to rent space for a Library and Committee rooms from the new occupant, publisher Joseph Vincent, at a cost of £100 per year, approximately £8200 in today’s money.

Colour photograph of a house on Oxford High Street that once housed the Oxford Union Society's reading room
90 High Street today

Once the Society occupied the premises at Frewin Court, a reading room for the use of members was established in what is now the Poetry Room, part of an original Georgian house on the site. When the new Debate Chamber designed by Benjamin Woodward was constructed in 1857, it incorporated purpose-built bookshelves on the gallery designed to house the Union’s book collection. Upon Woodward’s invitation, the blank walls above the bookcases were soon filled with a series of paintings by founding Pre-Raphaelite member Dante Gabriel Rossetti, recent Exeter college graduates William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones, and a number of other artists. Despite having faded over the years, the murals, based on the stories of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, continue to enhance the space, and enchant members and visitors alike.

Engraving of a debate taking place in what is now the Old Library of the Oxford Union, but was then the Debate Chamber.
© Illustrated London News Ltd/Mary Evans. Engraving from 1873 showing a debate in Benjamin Woodward’s original chamber

The Society’s reading room remained in the present-day Poetry Room for over twenty years before the completion of a new Debate Chamber in the Union gardens in 1879. This enabled the Library to take over the original Chamber where it has remained ever since. A separate writing room was established in what is now the members’ bar in the 1860s and a new library, now called the Goodman Library, was added in 1911. Originally housing an extension to the ‘Old Library’ and a reference section, the Goodman now holds runs of print journals and provides much needed additional event and study space.

Black and white photograph of the writing room of the Oxford Union Society.
The writing room built in 1863

2. Collections

The first recorded acquisitions of the Union relate to periodicals, pamphlets, and newspapers. In early 1826, the Union’s governing Committee approved the purchase of all parliamentary debates from 1800 and placed responsibility for choosing political pamphlets in the hands of Committee. The admittance of periodicals and newspapers remained a serious business for the Society with a huge variety and number soon being acquired. By 1853, the combined budget for newspapers (£39/16/4) and periodicals (£13/10/6) was considerably higher than that for books (£35). In today’s money this converts to approximately £5200 on newspapers and periodicals and £3445 on books. The Union received 20 daily copies of the Times in 1856 and the Victorian periodical London Society reported the rush for Punch on Wednesday evenings as ‘alarming’.

It was not long after the formation of the Society that the first record of books being added to the collection can also be found. The 1827 move of the reading room to larger premises at 21 High Street, prompted a recommendation that a library be established ‘for the purposes of receiving books which any member may wish to present to the Society.’ It is here that the early stages of the Union Library’s acquisitions policy emerged. Committee had to approve all potential book donations from members and the Committee was unable to purchase new books without the sanction of the Society. Detailed acquisition decisions were thus put before the House following the weekly debates alongside any number of other motions regarding the running of the Society. Acquisitions were not passed as a matter of course and a vote was taken whenever there was a difference of opinion. On 18 March 1830 a motion to purchase Moore’s Life of Byron was opposed by none other than future Prime Minister William Gladstone, although narrowly carried by a majority of 23 Ayes to 22 Noes.

Spines of Hansard Parliamentary Debates specially bound by the Oxford Union Society and now housed in the Goodman Library.
Hansard Parliamentary Debates
Title-page of the Oxford Union copy of Lord Byron's letters and journals, acquired by the Library in 1830.
Letters and journals of Lord Byron (1830)
Aged sticker with the text "Oxford Union Society: Confined to the Coffee and Smoking Rooms" stuck to the block stamped cover of a book
Fiction book confined to the coffee and smoking rooms

The Union Library now holds one of the best collections of fiction in Oxford, but the provision of fiction once formed the longest-running controversy regarding collection policy. In 1831, when the Committee recommended subscribing to a circulating library to supply the works of the day, a Mr Moncrieff moved an amendment that no novels be admitted to the reading room. This amendment was rejected but reservations remained. In an article for Macmillan’s Magazine in 1873, Edward B. Nicholson, Union Librarian from 1872-1873 and later Bodley’s Librarian, wrote that ‘for a long time…all lighter literature was excluded from the shelves, and as late as 1836 proposals to buy the Waverley Novels and Pickwick Papers were thrown out’. Indeed, Austen’s Pride and Prejudice and Mansfield Park were proposed by a Librarian in 1856 but lost. By 1872 though, enough had changed that the novels were separated from the general collection and moved to the Smoking Room (now the Gladstone Room) – something approved by H.H. Asquith, during his time as Treasurer. From 1830 to the 1940s, the majority of novels and current literature was still rented via subscription to a circulating library.

Another issue that raised strong debate was the borrowing of books. A resolution was passed in 1831 that the Society considered the taking of books out of the Library as an ‘ungentlemanlike act’. By 1837, however, the Union’s rules detail arrangements for book borrowing. Only one could be taken out during full term, with a maximum of five during the long vacation. Members could also have books delivered by the Society’s servant. The borrowing allowance soon became more generous and the Union became firmly established as a lending library. This was so much so that by 1873, when a Mrs M.A. Schimmelpenninck tried to donate her collection of books about Port Royal, it was refused on the grounds that ‘a lending library of current literature, was not a fit place for such a special collection’.

3. Librarians and permanent staff

The role of Librarian was created in Michaelmas 1830 in response to the growing size of the Society’s Library. It was initially a year appointment. The Rules specified that the Librarian must be a member of at least eight terms standing and would be selected without reference to the debates.

The Librarian’s duties involved preparing a weekly list of books and maps to propose to the Society and compiling a catalogue for the use of members. Following the formation of a Library Committee in the 1840s, it was the responsibility of the Committee, chaired by the Librarian, to prepare the list and the Librarian or another member of Library Committee remained responsible for proposing the list to the House. This policy remained essentially the same into the 21st century, although any questioning of Library Committee’s proposals became rare. The Librarian was initially given the role of preparing lists of newspapers and periodicals, but this responsibility was transferred to the Treasurer in the 1840s, only returning to the Library in about 1950. The first printed catalogue was prepared by the Librarian in 1836 and was already in its third edition by 1852. By this time, the Library, and the Librarian’s role, had grown to the extent that another member of Library Committee was appointed as Sub-librarian to catalogue on his behalf.

A Senior Librarian was first appointed in 1907, to have ‘general charge of the Society’s Library’. They were to be a Member of the Society of the degree of MA and were nominated by Standing Committee, initially for a year. The first person to hold the post, from 1907-1913, was a Fellow of New College, Robert S. Rait, later Principal of Glasgow University and Historiographer Royal for Scotland.

Title page of the Oxford Union Library Catalogue from 1853.
Oxford Union Society Library catalogue (1853)

Along with elected officers, the Society had long employed servants, and later dedicated Library Clerks, to help with Library operations, including maintaining records of books borrowed, filing papers and periodicals, and delivering books to members. The Steward of the Society, a role created once the Society had a permanent home at Frewin Court, also held some operational responsibility for the Library. In 1858, this involved taking vouchers from members indicating which books they had borrowed. When there was a notable theft of books from the Library in 1848, a Thomas Harris was described as ‘keeper of the library’. This role is not listed in any of the records of the Society, but the position of Chief Library Clerk existed from at least 1924. Raymond Walters, who worked at the Union from 1934, and as Chief Library Clerk from 1955, was the first person to be given the title of Librarian-in-Charge, a position he held until his retirement in 1984.

The Library now employs a professional staff of four, headed by the Librarian-in-Charge. There have been many changes for the Library in recent years – the introduction of Dewey Decimal classification, the joining of the Oxford Libraries online catalogue, and the assuming of responsibility for the organisation’s archives – but the central tenet remains, providing a space for members to read and study.