On the 9th of January 2023, the Graduate Trainees visited Pembroke College Library to attend a talk on Law Libraries, as part of our professional development. Founded in 1347, Pembroke is one of the oldest Colleges in Cambridge, with architecture and library collections that reflect its development from a medieval house of study to a modern and dynamic academic institution.
The Library has inhabited several locations within the College over the years. It originally existed in a corner of the medieval Old Court, before migrating to the original chapel building after Christopher Wren’s construction of another chapel in 1665. In 1875, the notable architect Alfred Waterhouse built a new Library as part of his refashioning of the College, and Pembroke’s collections now occupy the gloriously eclectic building, with its distinctive red brick façade, stained glass windows, and ornate Clock tower.
The Waterhouse Library is home to 42,000 books, with strong specialisms in Art History and Law. This year’s Pembroke trainee showed us around the peaceful reading rooms, with views over Pembroke grounds, and took us to see Ted Hughes’ impressively ink-stained desk and chair, positioned underneath windows inspired by his poetic fascination with nature. More stained glass windows, designed by German artist Hans von Stockhausen in 2001, shade the vestibule stairwell, featuring woodcut illustrations of animals and botanical specimens taken from the work of Nehemiah Grew and William Turner, early botanists at the College, contributing to the chapel-like ambience of the Library.
We then attended a talk on the world of Law Libraries by the Assistant Librarian at Pembroke, who began her own career at one of the Inns of Courts in London. Law librarians can work with many different aspects of the law, and are employed in law firms, academic institutions with law libraries, some government libraries, and the Advocate’s Library in Edinburgh, all with different remits.
As England exists in a ‘common law’ jurisdiction, our legal system is based in the ‘doctrine of precedence’, through which sitting judges can respond to, uphold, or reject the previous judgements of older courts. Librarians, therefore, serve a vital purpose within the legal profession, ensuring barristers, solicitors, and clerks have the relevant information on these precedents required to win a case in court. Our speaker described the enjoyably fast-paced nature of this environment, as well as the warm and often collegiate atmosphere of the Inns of Court.
Physical collections remain an integral part of legal information services, due to the mass of written material on historic cases. When referencing cases from many hundreds of years ago, librarians might even consult some of the early printed books still held in collections at the Inns of Court, adding a special collections element to the role. Databases, and database management, form a similarly vital part of the job. The Librarian showed us the highly specific referencing style within the different law books and online databases, which can aid finders in their search for individual cases. We examined the online judgement of the recent (and infamous) Rooney v Vardy case, to observe how these cases are disseminated as precedents after their conclusion.
It was fascinating to hear about the demands and rewards of this strand of librarianship, and revealed another possible path for our careers after the trainee year. It was also wonderful to observe the inner workings of Pembroke Library, with its peaceful demeanour and busy and vital Library service, hidden in the very heart of Cambridge.