Our Plans


The Library at Exeter College, Oxford, was designed and built by the celebrated Victorian architect Sir George Gilbert Scott in 1856-7; it is a building of considerable architectural importance and one of the College’s most distinctive landmarks.

The Library is central to the student experience at Exeter College, and the building and its collections are extensively used 24 hours a day. It has been an intellectual home to many of the notable writers who have emerged from Exeter since the early 20th century, including JRR Tolkien, Alan Bennett, Martin Amis, Philip Pullman, Christopher Reid, Will Self and Amy Sackville.

The Vision

"The vision is to provide a study space fit for 21st century students and beyond whilst still maintaining the Library’s inspiring atmosphere and beauty for generations to come, preserving and protecting the historic fabric of the building inside and out. Respecting the architectural integrity and special atmosphere of the Library is essential as current students have told us that they value these qualities. "

Rick Trainor Professor Sir Rick Trainor
Rector, Exeter College Oxford

The Need

After nearly 170 years the Library urgently needs improvement in order to realise its potential. The external stone work is disintegrating. Internally the heating is inadequate, the roof leaks, and the wiring is too frail to allow students to use the laptops on which they make notes, write essays and access information from outside the Library. Also, the ventilation is poor, the temperature control is non- existent, and the workspace for readers and librarians alike is uncomfortable and cramped. A restoration and renovation project is clearly required.

The Restoration Project

Since the Archives and Special Collections moved from the Turl Street Library to Cohen Quad in 2017, about a quarter of the Library remains empty and unusable. The removal presented an opportunity to re-design the internal space and modernise it in a way that was sympathetic to the original design. In May 2019 Exeter appointed Nex, a London-based architects firm to oversee the re-design of the Library with Donald Insall Associates as conservation architects and historic building advisers.

The new design will deliver:
A third more reader space (up to 90 readers from 65)
A variety of study spaces from individual desks to more casual communal areas
A fully accessible Library (including a lift and accessible WC)
Step-free access route via the Rector’s Garden
Dedicated Librarians’ facilities
Modern electrical wiring
Environmentally friendly ventilation
A more flexible design which can be adapted in years to come as study habits change
Display cases for treasured books and objects - such as a display of our Tolkien-related artefacts

Design Brief

The proposed renewal is comprised of a number of key elements intended to reveal the building's beauty, restore its original character, and enhance its future use.

The design intends to enhance user experience of the Library with new finely crafted spaces and fitted furniture, while the original Gilbert Scott interior and bookcases will be carefully refurbished. Proposed materials for new elements include beech hardwood structure, oak joinery, cast iron lift-shaft cladding, glazed steel partitions, and stone ashlar walls and floors.


Existing Arrangements

Environmental and security considerations have required alterations to the main entrance over time, which have compromised its original character. A large glazed lobby was added inside the main door to control access and reduce draughts. Security pillars were added to protect books, and services have been brought into the building and terminated in a cluttered arrangement around the entrance door.

Proposed Alterations

The draught lobby and automated door, together with the exposed services around the historic entrance door, will be removed. New glass doors will be carefully located between the first pair of bookshelves to create a full width entrance vestibule.

We will move the services to a more discreet location in the building and remove the draught lobby to create a new semi- conditioned space that will continue to remain a part of the ground floor reading room.

New Entrance

The proposed entrance reconstructs the existing wall linking the Library to the Bodleian. This will allow us to provide there a new main entrance to the Library.

The existing Link block will be altered to provide an accessible WC, a new entrance and draught lobby with the insertion of new roof-lights to brighten circulation spaces and reveal new views out to the exterior of the upper floor of the Library building (as pictured left).

The gap alongside the Bodleian is divided along its length by stone buttresses. Some of this space is accessible from the Rector’s Garden. Some spaces are currently inaccessible.

The gap offers the opportunity to selectively expand the Library without altering the external elevations. Our proposals infill this gap in some places to enable the installation of a new staircase (as pictured right) accessing the mezzanine level, and further north to provide a much-needed staff office and archive store.

A new staircase will be inserted to access the annexe mezzanine next to the lift. Offering easy access from the new entrance, the stairs will be made from oak joinery and be top-lit via a circular roof-light. A display case will be built into the wall to enable the College to showcase some of its rare books and other treasures relating to the Library.

Accessible Lift

A significant technical challenge of the project is the sensitive integration of a passenger lift to provide wheelchair access to all areas of the building, using fabric appropriate to the Grade II listed building.

As part of the overall aim to make the building fully accessible, safe wheelchair refuges will be created at first floor and mezzanine levels. These are supported by a new protected escape route via an evacuation lift and a final exit through the new Link Block.

The proposed location minimises the impact on the main Library interior, which remains largely as in the original Gilbert Scott design.

Annexe (lower ground)

The roof-lights in the annexe reading room were installed in 1957. The design and detail of these roof-lights is unsympathetic to the character of Scott's building and compromises the clarity of the original finely crafted roof structure.

We propose to replace these roof-lights with a design of clerestory roof-lights that is more sympathetic to the character of the original building and suited to the proposed mezzanine arrangement.


The existing mezzanine splits the original west facing annexe windows and obscures the glazing to the north facade.

The proposal will replace this mezzanine with a finely crafted wood 'balcony' extending only half the width of the interior space. This intervention once again reveals the full-height of the west windows as originally intended, while providing the additional study spaces needed by the College.

Floor Plans

Existing floor plan
Proposed floor plan