Visit to Cambridge Libraries

On Thursday, 17 July, five of us were lucky enough to visit several libraries in Cambridge and meet their graduate trainees. Last year’s London trainees did a similar trip to Oxford, and I hope future years’ trainees will get this opportunity as well. Not only was it nice to get out of London and see another city, we also were able to learn about the unique features of working in libraries that are often a mix of centuries-old books and architecture, and very modern buildings and services. In some ways, I found the Cambridge libraries to be a lot like my workplace, the Courtauld Institute’s Book Library.

The outside of the Wren Library, Trinity College

Trinity College

We began our day at 11am at Trinity College. The graduate trainee, Harriet, was kind enough to come in on her day off to give us a tour. She walked us through the impressive First Court, past the steady stream of awed tourists. Of course, most of the students were already finished for the academic year, and there were only a few dotted around the grounds and the library. We entered the library from the newer section and wound our way through the stacks and student study areas to the entrance of the impressive Wren Library, completed in 1695. This was certainly the most typical example of what one would expect of an old Cambridge college library; a beautiful arched ceiling, scholars working silently, and shelves full of antiquarian books and manuscripts. Within the display cases on either side of the central aisle were gems from the collection such as a first edition from Sir Isaac Newton (with an annotated title page adding the ‘Sir’ once he was knighted), A.A. Milne’s manuscripts of his Winnie-the-Pooh books, and a special exhibition created by Harriet and other library staff focussing on the college and library during WWI.

St. John's College

St. John’s College

Our next stop was St. John’s College, where we were met by graduate trainee Charlotte. Despite the similar look of the college itself, the ‘Working Library’ as it is called, was very different from the older libraries of Cambridge. Built in 1994, the Working Library has all the modern features one would expect from a university library. For instance, students can gain access 24 hours a day, using their cards to gain entry outside staffed hours. The building is full of natural light and feels very spacious, but also allows for quiet, secluded study spaces. Looking around their new acquisitions displays and audio-visual collection, I was impressed by their large selection of both academic and non-academic items. The Working Library is connected to the ‘Old Library’, staffed by a Special Collections Librarian who supervises the Reading Room on the ground floor. The Old Library’s first floor is smaller than the Wren, but just as impressive. It is lined with beautifully carved shelves, which even have the old library catalogue hand-written on to fold-out panels on the front of each bay, a snapshot of the library as it once was. Each graduate trainee is able to create an exhibition, and Charlotte’s, which is entitled ‘Blancmange to make, Blisters to draw’, has been receiving attention from the media thanks to the publicity help of her colleague. Having done her masters dissertation on early modern medical recipes, Charlotte decided to curate the exhibition on this topic.

The Old Library, St. John's College

Christ’s College

Our last stop before lunch was Christ’s College. Graduate trainee Lucy first took us to the separate Law Library, nestled on the side of the Porter’s Lodge, and then to the main Working Library. Built in the 1970’s, the Working Library is less architecturally stunning than the first two libraries, but they offer services such as ‘Squash O’Clock’ where library staff provide squash and biscuits for students near the library entrance during exam times. One of the features of the collection is the music hire library, one of the largest collections of borrowable music in Cambridge. The Old Library was designed by architect G.F. Bodley in the 1890's, although a small section dates from 1505 when the college was founded. The collection includes six first editions of Paradise Lost by Christ’s College alumnus John Milton, and a first edition of On the Origin of Species and letters from alumnus Charles Darwin to his cousin, William Darwin Fox. Lucy’s exhibition is in the Old Library and explores the link between the college and American alumni and investors. Besides the American flag bunting decorating the room, we were also shown unique library items such as sixteenth-century mummified rats, which were found in the walls during a library renovation. The rats were kept for anatomical study because of their exceptionally long tails, which indicated they were genetically interesting specimens.

On that appetising note, we headed off in search of lunch.

Pembroke College

Our first stop after lunch was Pembroke College’s libraries. The Old Library was designed in 1875 by Alfred Waterhouse (architect of the Natural History Museum in London), and the modern additions such as the Law Library and Yamada Reading Room were added in 2001 by local architect Tristan Rees-Roberts. Graduate Trainee Sarah took us through the library, beginning with the newly added collection from the library of art historian Tom Rosenthal. The beautiful stained glass of the old and new libraries, and the views of the peaceful, leafy ground make for the ideal place to read and study. I felt that this library presented the best mix of old and new of any of the libraries. The Yamada Reading Room is a real gem, with modern stained glass windows on one side featuring poems from former Pembroke College student Ted Hughes.

The Classical Faculty Library

Our second visit of the afternoon was to the only faculty library on our list, the Classics Library. Graduate trainee Emily, who also kindly organised our Cambridge visit, showed us the modern building and its collection. Although there were less of the interesting architectural features and rare books of the college libraries, Emily’s tour gave us the best sense of the day-to-day workings of a Cambridge library. The first floor of the Classics building holds the Museum of Classical Archaeology, which features casts of a multitude of classical sculptures, an exhibition of modern art inspired by the casts, and lots of features for school visits.

Newnham College

Newnham College

Our final stop was Newnham College, originally the only college or faculty library women were allowed to use, and currently still a women-only college. Unfortunately, the graduate trainee at Newnham library, Meriel, was not able to be there on the day, so we were kindly offered a tour by the library assistant on duty. The ‘old’ part of the library is actually relatively new, as it was built in 1897. It was expanded in 2004 and is now a graceful mix of old and modern features. There are study spaces with views out through the large arched windows of the old library on to the beautiful grounds. In addition to an impressive collection of books from all disciplines, the library also has turn-of-the-century illustrated children’s books. I only glanced the spines of some of these on a closed access shelf, but even those were beautifully embossed. Meriel’s exhibition is on the theme of ‘All creatures great and small’ featuring zoological and botanical illustrations. As an illustrator, the Newnham’s collection really appealed to me, and I was especially drawn to a small selection of ukiyo-e prints hanging on the walls of a darkened hallway. Our tour guide finished by showing us the grounds and pointing us in the direction of the old laboratories. Having had a look at this building, we headed back towards the city centre and met some of the Cambridge graduate trainees.

Thank you to Mike and graduate trainee Emily for organising the visit, and to the Cambridge graduate trainees for giving us tours!

Photos by Bobbie Winter-Burke

Christ’s College Library
The Classical Faculty Library
Newnham College Library
Pembroke College Library
St. John’s College Library
Trinity College Library