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Author Sir Philip Pullman formally opens Exeter College Library following major restoration

On Saturday 18 May, Exeter College was delighted to welcome author Sir Philip Pullman (1965, English and Honorary Fellow) and other esteemed guests for the formal opening of Exeter College Library following a multimillion-pound restoration and transformation project.

The Victorian library was designed by Sir George Gilbert Scott in the Neo-Gothic style and originally opened in 1857. Over the decades it has been the heart of academic life at Exeter College for generations of students, including celebrated authors such as Sir Philip, JRR Tolkien, Alan Bennett, Sir Martin Amis and Tariq Ali, athlete and neurologist Sir Roger Bannister, and former president of Ghana His Excellency John Kufuor. More recent former students include Turner Prize-winning artist Helen Marten, BBC journalists Reeta Chakrabarti and Sanchia Berg, and actress and writer Imogen Stubbs.

Nex Architects undertook the complex redesign of the Library, enhancing its original features and making substantial improvements to transform the beautiful Library into one that is also fit for 21st century study.

Following a year of restoration and renovation work, the Library reopened to Exeter students at the start of the academic year. It is now fully accessible, with a lift that services all floors, step-free entrance and a wheelchair accessible toilet. The lighting, electrics, ventilation, and environmental performance of the building have all been significantly improved. There are also more reader spaces, with every desk fitted with electric plugs and lights for each person and the option to raise or lower some desks electronically. The Library’s striking Victorian Gothic architecture has been preserved and restored, revealing original features, some of which had been hidden for decades. The stonework, woodwork and oak bookcases have been restored, and where there is new woodwork, such as in the new mezzanine floor in the Library annexe, outstanding craftsmanship has ensured that it is of the highest quality throughout and sympathetic to Gilbert Scott’s vision.

Speaking at the formal opening, Rector Professor Sir Rick Trainor said: “The library has substantially more reading spaces and better accommodation for library staff than it did before the construction began. Also, the building now has a lift and modern services fit for the digitised work of early 21st century students. In parallel there has been an emphasis on restoration. Not only is the stonework in much better shape than before, the interior of the library, with cluttering modern bookcases removed, has much more of the air and light that Gilbert Scott intended, complete with restored historic bookcases and the great bulk of existing books back in place.”

Now named the Jackson Library – honouring the father of the project’s principal donor and Exeter College alumnus William Jackson (1983, Geography) – the library was formally opened on the morning of 18 May by Sir Philip, a champion of libraries who was knighted for services to literature in 2019. Speaking before cutting the ceremonial ribbon, Sir Philip praised the transformed library’s technology, which he pointed out helps make both the physical space and the digitised resources available to all. Sir Philip said: “Look up Exeter College Library online and you will see the sort of technology that, in the words of Arthur C Clarke, is indistinguishable from magic. All that information at the stroke of a few keys on your phone. We should be walking about in a continuous state of wonder. You can sit at home in Argentina or New South Wales and read medieval manuscripts held safely in the archives of Exeter College in the comfort of your own pyjamas!”

Sir Philip concluded: “Libraries are about books. Books are their heart and soul and mind and spirit. The library of any place of learning is the engine room, the treasure chamber, the nursery, the seedbed, the well of inspiration, the arsenal, the kitchen garden, the beacon, the lighthouse, the workshop, the glory of the past, the present and the future. I could not be happier or more honoured than to declare this library open.”

We would like to thank the many alumni, students, staff and friends of Exeter College who made gifts in support of the Library project, many of whom were at the formal opening. Among those in attendance were the co-founder of Twitter, Biz Stone, and his wife Livia, who together contributed $1 million towards the library refurbishment, alumnus Bart Holaday (1965, PPE), who made an equally generous donation, and lead donor William Jackson.

The library is open 24/7 to Exeter College students, except for a brief closure at Christmas, and since its reopening it is proving more popular than ever.

Sir Philip Pullman opens the restored library

Sir Philip Pullman formally opens the restored library with Rector Trainor

Library annexe mezzanine floor

The Library annexe now contains a mezzanine floor, creating more reader spaces and allowing much more natural light into the building

Library interior with Victorian bookcases

The original Victorian bookcases have been restored and new desks with improved lighting installed

Library interior looking towards the entrance

Original Victorian Gothic features have been preserved and are complemented by new wood, stone and metalwork fashioned with outstanding modern craftsmanship

Library exterior

From the outside the Library looks almost unchanged, save for a new entrance next to the Bodleian and restoration work to the walls, windows and roof

All images of the Library are courtesy of Will Pryce.