The library provision at St John’s College started with a room in the Front Quad in 1555. Over 400 years – and several library sites – later, the College opened one of the largest and most modern college libraries in Oxford in October 2019 with its new Library & Study Centre.
Image 1 (DGIL-0313-0087).jpg Old meets the new: The Library and Study Centre from the gardens facing north.

History of the Library

The Library began in 1555, the year of the College’s foundation, with about 150 volumes. These were mostly theological, philosophical and legal books together with texts by classical authors given by John White of Southwick (who may have been the brother or cousin of the College founder, Sir Thomas White) and other friends of the Founder. Many important donations followed and the room allocated for them in the Front Quad was exchanged for a modern new library of the latest interior design (now the Old Library).

The Old Library

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Built in 1596-98, the St John’s Old Library was the first Oxford college library to include upright bookcases right from the start with seats and desks between them instead of the low lecterns that furnished medieval libraries. This new way of shelving books was introduced to Oxford only about 10 years earlier when Merton College refurbished their medieval library. The still existing pew-like seats and the lower parts of the bookcases date from the late 16th century, but the latter were raised in the 17th century to accommodate more books. The roof was originally ceilinged, concealing the irregular roof-timbers; these were exposed in 1888 when the ornate metal tie-rods were inserted to prevent the roof spreading. The Library was extended at the eastern end during the 1630s to link it with the new Inner Library (now called Laudian Library).

Between 2020 and 2019, the Old Library has been renovated as part of the College's library building project. The Victorian shelving has been removed, secondary glazing installed, the heating has been modernised and the lighting improved. A staircase between the Old Library and the Laudian Library, which had been built in the 1970s, has been removed and the area in-between the two historic libraries is now an exhibition room with modern display cases.

The Laudian Library

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The Laudian Library, forming the eastern range of the Canterbury Quad, was built 1631-1635 by William Laud (1573-1645), Archbishop of Canterbury and President of the College from 1611 to 1621. Originally known as the Inner, or Mathematical, Library, it housed mathematical instruments, manuscripts and other treasures of Laud’s. The items were kept in cupboards, of which one remains in the Laudian Library to this day. Other furnishings were desks and the roof timbers were hidden above a barrel-ceiling. The room thus looked very differently from today.

The present Victorian interior of the Laudian Library with its neo-Gothic bookcases and the angels and other decorations in the roof was created in 1838 to designs by the local architects H.J. Underwood. Two modern cupboards, incorporating metal panels form destroyed Laudian ones, were built to hold books and papers relating to the poet and classical scholar A.E. Housman.

Only since 1933 were students allowed to study in St John’s library, which then consisted of the Old Library and the Laudian Library. For about 40 years then the Laudian Library was the main reading room until major refurbishments in the 1970s created the Paddy Room.

Between 2020 and 2019, the Laudian Library has been renovated as part of the College's library building project. Modern shelving has been removed and study spaces have been modernised and increased. The layout of the neo-Gothic book cases has been arranged more symmetrically, and the decorations of the beautiful ceiling trusses has been treated by conservators where necessary. As in the Old Library, secondary glazing has been introduced, the heating has been modernized and the lighting improved.

The Paddy Room (1977-2019)


When plans to include a science library in the Thomas White building were abandoned in 1969/70, it was decided to take over the five undergraduate rooms underneath the Old Library to create more study and shelving space. The plan was carried out in stages between 1971 and 1977. The Paddy Room was named after Sir William Paddy (1554-1634), a graduate of the College, Physician to King James I and a great benefactor to the College. The Paddy Room provided additional shelving for some 20,000 volumes and about 24 additional study spaces. Moreover, with the help of an inner door and one of the old outside entrances, it provided a separate space for the Law collection, which allowed Law students to use their confined collection 24/7. Later, the Law collection moved to a separate room in Canterbury Quad before the Holdsworth Law Library was opened in 2010.

In 2019 the books in the Paddy Room were moved into the new Library & Study Centre. Between 2020 and 2023, the Paddy Room was restored to its historic layout and use as tutors' rooms.

Holdsworth Law Library


As in many other Oxford colleges, the Law students at St John’s College have enjoyed separate library facilities from the main library with 24/7 access since the 1970s. In 2010, the modern Holdsworth Law Library opened as part of Kendrew Quad. It is named after Sir William Searle Holdsworth (1971-1944), Fellow of St John’s 1897-1922 and Vinerian Professor of Law, and later Honorary Fellow. This unstaffed library contains all the resources needed for studying Law (law reports, journals, and textbooks) and is accessible to Law Students only 24/7.

Library & Study Centre

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The College’s new Library & Study Centre was opened on 12 October 2019 by Sir Keith Burnett, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Sheffield (2007-2018) and Honorary Fellow of St John’s College.

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This extension to the Laudian Library provides state-of-the- art study and research facilities, offering a variety of study spaces ranging from formal set-ups to informal sofas. It also includes the Felicia Taylerson Study Room, Tong Family Study Room, and Lin Family Study Room as well as the large multi-purpose Mark Bedingham Seminar Room, which accommodates a variety of events. The building has spectacular views across the beautiful College gardens and it has created a new view onto the Chapel. The Sidonie Thompson Bridge links the upper floor with the Laudian Library.


The new building houses the College’s working collections in three reading rooms and an open-access store. Further stores are equipped with the latest technology for preserving the College’s vast collection of manuscripts, early printed books, personal papers, and modern special collections.