It was built as a vast fortress, capable of storing nearly three million volumes including some of the world’s most valuable books.

Now Oxford’s New Bodleian Library is stripped and deserted.

The miles of empty shelving give this vast library building a slightly eerie feel, as sounds echo around the bare corridors that for so long had been a hub of scholarly activity.

You once could have laid your hands on just about any book written in the English language in this place, along with treasures such as a Gutenberg Bible, two Shakespeare first folios, the original manuscript of Frankenstein, the papers of six British Prime Ministers and more than 10,000 Medieval manuscripts.

Now there are just mountains of cardboard boxes, piles of newspapers and some bound copies of The Oxford Times dating from the 1920s.

A case of the best saved for last?

Well, perhaps not.

With Oxford’s biggest library to shut its doors for the final time any day now, I embarked on a tour of the New Bod with John Duffy, who began work at the Bodleian in the 1970s as ‘a stacky’, when book requests would reach him on level G down a pneumatic tube.

He and Toby Kirtley, estates projects officer for the Bodleian Libraries, have been working towards the closure of a library they both came to love for several years.

Not everyone in Oxford shares this deep affection.

While the Bodleian buildings on the other side of Broad Street, ranged around the Schools Quadrangle, are counted among England’s architectural glories, the New Bod has been variously described as ‘gloomy’ and ‘inaccessible’.

The great travel writer Jan Morris has compared it to “a well-equipped municipal swimming bath”.

Yet, the New Bod was created by the celebrated architect Sir Giles Gilbert Scott immediately before the Second World War, giving Oxford an efficient 11-storey bookstore.

Now Scott’s book fortress has served its purpose, with the building becoming demonstrably inadequate in terms of space, humidity control, fire safety and flood and security protection.

The massive steel columns are to come down, with the building to undergo a £78m redevelopment.

When it reopens in 2015, it will have been transformed into the Weston Library, with a new glass frontage facing out on to Broad Street, a large entrance hall, a cafe and exhibition rooms allowing the library’s treasures — such as the newly acquired draft manuscript of Jane Austen’s unfinished novel bought last week for in excess of £1m — to be displayed to the public.

The project will also involve the replacement of the central stack, the development of three floors of secure storage below ground, the provision of additional reading rooms and the creation of dedicated floors for curation and conservation.

Mr Duffy, now a projects officer, said: “There is some personal sadness for me to see it like this.

“But I am excited about what the New Bod is going to become.

“Offering more access to the public of Oxford has to be a good thing.”

Mr Kirtley said: “When you are talking about air conditioning and fire protection, you have to remember it is a 1930s building.

“Back then, concrete and steel materials were viewed as fireproof.

“In recent times, there have even been leaks in the roof.

“This is really all about giving the books more comfortable and stable conditions to live in.”

The bulk of the books have gone down the road to a business estate on the outskirts of Swindon, where the Bodleian opened a £25m depository.

But Mr Kirtley insists that much of the original furniture will be put into the Weston Library. He said: “Everything will be coming back — from coat racks to clocks, tables, chairs and waste paper bins. We want to preserve everything.”

In some respects the New Bod has served as a giant attic.

Countless authors, churchmen and politicians have bequeathed their manuscripts and personal papers to the Bodleian for safe keeping.

Everything from old photographic material to a lock of Napoleon’s hair has been stored in the building, along with the plate from Oscar Wilde’s original coffin.

It has also held hundreds of portraits and busts.

The massive removal operation has also led to a few miscatalogued gems being unearthed, including a first edition Oscar Wilde.

One investigation revealed that a concrete roof had been laid during the war to protect the building from Nazi bombs.

The first occupants of the New Bod were not, in fact, university readers and researchers, but staff from naval intelligence, who were based there during the war.

It turns out some of the preparation for the Normandy landings was carried out in the building.

At one point Oxford people were requested to submit holiday snaps and postcards from France, in the hope they might provide new information about the French coastline.

According to Mr Kirtley, it seems the Bod may even have played its part in the story of the Bletchley code breakers.

In order to guard Bletchley Park secrets in the event of a German invasion or bombing campaign of Britain, Bletchley’s extensive archives of every decoded intercept and the accompanying original intercept were photographed and catalogued at the New Bodleian Library.

One of the visiting archivists was intrigued as to why there was no floor I before level J in the New Bod building.

On being told it was to avoid confusion, he immediately thought this same approach may have been used by the Germans in their secret Enigma machine codes.

It turned out that was exactly what the Germans were doing.

The Bodleian now wants to hear from people with personal memories about the New Bodleian.

Anyone who was involved in its construction or worked there in its early years should contact Oana Romocea, the Bodleian’s communications officer.

Some past and present staff will shortly be gathering at a special reception to say farewell to the New Bod.

It will take place in a reading room, where dignitaries had gathered at its opening by George VI in 1946, still remembered for the highly embarrassing moment when a silver key broke in the lock of the building’s front door.

By a nice touch, the closing of the Bod coincides with the opening of the Gladstone Link.

This £5m scheme has involved the refurbishment of an underground book store under Radcliffe Square and the opening of a tunnel allowing readers to move underground between the Radcliffe Camera and the main library of the Old Bodleian building.

The scheme has also seen major alterations to the iconic Radcliffe Camera building where a staircase has been removed and a new lift installed to give easier access to visitors and readers.

Altogether the work has provided space for 270,000 books and 120 extra reader spaces.

It is difficult to think of a decade that has seen more change in the Bodleian’s 400-year history.

But in this ongoing story, there is unlikely to be a more significant chapter than the opening up of Scott’s fortress of books.

  • To contact Oana Romocea, call 01865 277627 or email