Reg Little takes a tour of what will become the Weston Library as it nears completion

Oxford University will take ownership of the £80.5m Weston Library next summer, in good time for the new academic year.

To many it will surely feel like walking into a spacious new library on Broad Street — for the vast structure, at least from the inside, already appears to be totally different from the unloved 1930s New Bodleian building.

True, some of the doors, tables and chairs have survived. But make no mistake, next year Oxford will be celebrating the opening of a ten-storey building -— seven levels above ground with three below — that will stand along with the Ashmolean Museum as an example of an historic building modernised and expanded for the benefit of both scholars and the general public.

When The Oxford Times last visited the site it had seemed that the world famous Oxford seat of study and culture had had its heart ripped out, with a 120ft crane sitting in the centre of the building that Sir Giles Gilbert Scott had created opposite the Sheldonian Theatre.

The celebrated artist had built the New Bodleian as a vast book fortress but it had succumbed to modern demolition equipment, with 6,500 tonnes of rubble, concrete and masonry removed.

With the first readers expected to enter the new library in nine months’ time, it is now possible to see what has become of the New Bodleian, now destined to become far more than a place of study and storage for some of the world’s most precious books, maps and manuscripts.

Steps on Broad Street will lead into a new entrance colonnade with glass doors on the south side of the building — and it is now possible to see what will lie within, once the public are given a passport into “the republic of the learned”.

Behind the doors a vast entrance hall has been created, to act as a central 854sq m public space, through which both scholars and the public will enter the building.

It is to be known as the Blackwell Hall, in honour of Julian Blackwell, president of Blackwell’s, which neighbours the New Bodleian, who donated over £5m to the project, one of the largest cash donations ever made to a university library in the UK.

It is surrounded by galleries, with visitors able to look up to see the inner workings of an academic research library. Adjoining the entrance hall will be a 76-seater cafe, with doors from the hall leading on to two public galleries, one for temporary exhibitions, the other to display treasures of the Bodleian itself.

For, in addition to its appearance, the nature of the former New Bod itself is being changed, with its doors opened to the public, seven days a week.

The ground-floor public areas of the new building will not be opening until March 2015, when the Weston Library will be officially opened.

With the treasures of the Bodleian seemingly limitless — two Shakespeare first folios, four Magna Cartas, the papers of six British Prime Ministers and more than 10,000 medieval manuscripts representing just the tip of the iceberg — the Weston Library is certain to become one of the city’s busiest visitor attractions.

There are currently 300 people still working on the site. And with some 500,000 worker hours complete, Stewart Basham, project manager with construction company Mace, proudly tells that there has not been a safety incident.

He said: “The difficulty is to integrate all the services into a comparatively small space. Although when we took part of the building down we found that none of the steel columns had been properly bolted to the concrete floor.”

The new library’s most important function is to create a safe and secure environment for the Bodleian’s valuable special collections.

Toby Kirtley, estates project officer, said: “We will be putting in 99 CCTV cameras. I believe that will almost double the number of cameras on university sites.”

While declining to reveal the location of “the inner sanctum”, where priceless Bodleian items will be stored, he revealed that the most valuable material would be housed in a large concrete box with walls half-a-metre thick.

Huge cost has gone into fire protection, the New Bodleian having previously relied for decades on a Second World War-vintage system with fire hoses and hand-held extinguishers.

Rooms containing collections will be able to withstand fire outside for up to four hours, while a high-pressure water mist system produces droplets significantly smaller than sprinkler systems, making them more efficient in controlling fire, while reducing the extent of water damage.

The New Bod had housed some 3.5m books. With millions having been sent to the Bodleian’s book depository just outside Swindon, the library will still house 1.4m volumes in the basement, covering 39km of shelving.

Care is now taken to maintain a stable humidity reading and temperature of 18C, with new rooms created for conservation.

On the upper floors there are three reading rooms — including an impressive wood panelled room created by Gilbert Scott.

But there are now additional facilities, such as a suite of seminar rooms, which will allow “hands-on” teaching and masterclasses, using materials from the special collections.

A visiting scholars’ centre has also been created along with a new digital media centre.

The building was handed over to Mace in 2011, but now after a year-long demolition, with the removal of 1,000 tonnes of steel and 80,000 tonnes of asbestos, the end is coming into sight.

Not everything has changed. Referring to the levels of underground water, Mr Kirtley observes that the library remains essentially “a concrete box floating on a sea of clay”.

One new structure being introduced will be a late 15th-century archway that comes from the Ascott Park Estate, in Stadhampton — an unlikely addition, you may think, until you see the inscription: “If you are good you may enter, if you are not you can’t.”

And, best of all, it is in Latin.