Bodleian tunnel refurbishment planned for 2023

This will involve dismantling the remaining parts of a paternoster conveyor and pneumatic tubes that once carried books and request slips back and forth between the reading rooms of the Old Bodleian and the bookstacks across the road.

Parts of the system will be retained and displayed in the Weston Library basement. This will not usually be open to the public but may be seen on tours of the building.

Bodleian staff still use the tunnel to transport delicate items such as manuscripts between the two libraries without exposing them to the weather, but the conveyor has not run since the Swindon Book storage facility was built and the New Bodleian converted into today’s Weston Library.

The refurbishment has received the go-ahead from Oxford City Council, who are satisfied with the University’s plans to retain some of the conveyor belt system to preserve a record of the building’s history. Work is expected to start in early 2023 and last around two months.

As well as having the conveyor and tubes removed to provide more space, the tunnel will be fully cleaned and redecorated, with new flooring, better lights and improvements to fire safety. The project should make using it safer and more pleasant for Bodleian staff.

The book transport system is a fascinating example of once-futuristic technologies that have become obsolete in the modern age. A paternoster conveyor carried the books in boxes, moving slowly in a continuous one-way loop on forks spaced equally along its length. Staff could simply place the requested books into a conveyor box and load it into a station. The next set of empty forks to pass by picked up the box and carried it to its destination.

The slips that readers used to order books up from the stacks, meanwhile, were placed in special capsules and dropped into steel pipes. A vacuum system was then used to suck them along the tube to their destination at high speeds– there were 14 pipes in all, connecting various parts of the library.

Nowadays the Weston Library has a new role as the Bodleian’s Special Collections library and offers space for reading, research, seminars, events and exhibitions after a major refurbishment project that was completed in 2015. Most modern library holdings are kept in the Bodleian’s Book Storage Facility at Swindon, and the conveyor has been replaced by vans driving back and forth along the A420. The pneumatic tubes have been inactive for even longer than the conveyor belt after the library moved to a computerised system for ordering books.

The work will be carried out by contractors and managed by the Conservation & Buildings team within Estates Services.