There has been a library at Queen’s ever since its foundation in 1341 by Robert Eglesfield, Chaplain to Queen Philippa, consort of Edward III. The Upper Library was built between 1692 and 1695 to house large donations from Thomas Barlow, one-time Provost of the College and later Bishop of Lincoln, and from Sir Joseph Williamson. The designer is not known, the most likely candidate being Henry Aldrich, Dean of Christ Church, who designed other buildings in Oxford and stylistic similarities suggest that he might have been the designer of Queen’s Library. However, Timothy Halton, Provost of the College at the time the library was built, is also a possible candidate. He was an accomplished man capable of designing such a building but no documentary evidence exists for either man as architect.
The builder was John Townsend and the plasterwork, which is the most outstanding feature, was modelled by James Hands. The stucco frieze is the work of John Vanderstein who also created the sculputures on the garden facade. The beautiful woodcarving is attributed to Thomas Minn and son.
The Queen’s College collection is set apart from all other Oxford college libraries thanks to a donation of £30,000 in 1841 by Robert Mason, an Old Member, who stipulated in his will that the money had to be spent solely on the Library within three years. In order to accommodate the large number of volumes purchased with Mason’s bequest, the open arcade below the Upper Library was enclosed (following the designs of Charles Robert Cockerell, professor of architecture at the Royal Academy) to form what is now the Main Library. The Librarian of the time showed exceptional foresight: he not only purchased a great number of modern books, but also a wide selection of the greatest editions of printed books from the fifteenth to the nineteenth century. By the late 1840s Queen’s had what was probably the richest college library collection in the country.
During the early twentieth century the library spread from the existing buildings to vaults beneath the back quadrangle. The environmental conditions in these vaults have been deemed unsuitable for the storage of a collection of such historical importance. There is also a need to modernise facilities for the undergraduate collection. Consequently, the College is actively considering how to improve and enhance its library facilities.