Since the foundation of Trinity College in 1555, the Old Library has been used by the Fellows of the college. Undergraduates, such as John Henry (later Cardinal) Newman, have occasionally been admitted, but the library for junior members, when it has existed, has been housed separately.
The Old Library, or Fellows’ Library, was erected between 1417 and 1421 as the library room of Durham College (the Oxford house of the Benedictine monks of Durham Cathedral Priory). Little of the original library, except the exterior stonework, has remained unaltered since its foundation; the windows, particularly those overlooking Durham Quad, have undergone considerable alteration, and the ceiling may also date from a later period.
The original sloping library desks were replaced by the present bookcases after 1625, in a refit that followed the bequest of 100 titles from a Fellow, Edward Hyndmer, on his death in 1618. Until the 18th century, books were chained to the cases, and the holes left by these chains are visible on many books in the collection. After 1850 all the cases were extended to the ceiling to accommodate a vast bequest of books from President James Ingram, which doubled the size of the Old Library collection.
A catalogue from the late 14th century suggests that Durham College housed theological texts and biblical commentaries, as well as volumes on philosophy and logic, considered to be on loan from the priory in Durham. A number of donations are recorded from the 15th century, from members of the community in both Durham and Oxford, including Robert Rypon, sub-prior of Durham from 1406 to 1416, William of Appleby, warden of Durham College between 1404 and 1409, and Thomas Gascoigne, once Chancellor of Oxford University. Some of the volumes once held in Durham College library now reside in the library of Durham Cathedral.
In its early years, after the buildings were sold and Trinity College was founded, the library acquired the majority of its books as donations. The Founder, Sir Thomas Pope notably donated nearly a hundred books and manuscripts, and there were other bequests from presidents, including Thomas Slyhurst, Arthur Yeldard and Ralph Kettell, as well as Fellows, including Edward Hyndmer and Thomas Allen. In 1640, Richard Rands and Lord Craven left money to fund the purchase of books. This so-called ‘Hartfield Bequest’ funded the library for three hundred years.
As it is today, the collection represents a working college library of the 18th and early 19th centuries and houses some 5,500 items, most of which are catalogued on the Oxford University Libraries catalogue (SOLO). Its main strengths lie in classics, theology and history though it also includes geographical and scientific texts. The earliest books in the library date from the late 15th century and the collection also includes books from Henry VIII’s library at Greenwich. The college manuscripts are stored in the Bodleian Library.
In 1986 a steel framework was inserted into the floor to strengthen the building. Around the same time the books were cleaned thanks to a generous gift from Margaret Wind, in memory of her husband Edgar. However many of the books are still in need of repair and the college has recently started an ‘adopt a book’ campaign to raise funds towards this.
Temperature and humidity within the library is constantly monitored and new blinds, with UV filters, were installed in 2007.