History & Exhibitions

Somerville College Library has a remarkable history and the building forms a focal point on the main quad. The collection has been built up with the help of many generous donations, both to the working library and of more precious items. We have a regular Book of the Month exhibition, as well as occasional other exhibitions, to showcase our treasures and celebrate events past and present – read more about some of our past and upcoming exhibitions.


Somerville College Library was built in 1903 (Architect Sir Basil Champneys). It was notable not just because it was the first purpose-built library amongst the women’s colleges at Oxford but also because of its sheer size. Taking up the whole north wing of the Main Quad at Somerville, it was designed to house 60,000 volumes at a time when the library only possessed 6,000. This far-sightedness was justified and now the library (with several extensions and outposts) boasts a collection of around 120,000 items, one of the largest undergraduate College libraries in the University.


Benefactors to the library  have included Egyptologist Amelia Edwards (c 2000 vols), John Stuart Mill (another 2,000 volumes), John Ruskin, Vera Brittain and many other tutors and grateful students over the years.

Alternative uses of the Library

During the First World War, the College became a hospital for convalescing officers and the library loggia was a popular place for beds to be placed, overlooking the gardens. Siegfried Sassoon and Robert Graves were both to reminisce of their time at Somerville Hospital. Our World War One blog records what was happening at Somerville one hundred years ago, month by month

Another famous resident of the library was Indira Gandhi. Before the ground floor was converted into library space, it contained a series of student rooms which were notoriously draughty because of the open loggia half way along, and Indira Gandhi (Nehru as she was then) felt the cold very badly!

The library has often provided the backdrop for College plays, performances and photographs. The opening of the library in 1904 was marked with a production of ‘Demeter’ – a piece specially written for the occasion by Robert Bridges, a subsequent Poet Laureate. It was accompanied by music composed by Sir Henry Hadow. A revival of the drama was staged outside the library in 1954 for the 50th anniversary of the library’s opening.

The Library Today

Today, the library building manages to accommodate the needs of twenty-first century students with 24 hour opening, wi-fi Internet access throughout the building, a group study room, comfortable seating in the loggia and plenty of computers to access electronic resources alongside the traditional printed ones.