In April we were able to visit the library at the Judge Business School, which is housed in the old Addenbrooke’s Hospital building on Trumpington Street. It is a striking building, remodelled in the 1990s in a colourful, post-modernist style. We were met in the lobby by the Deputy Information and Library Services Manager, who gave us our first sneak peek of the library as we went to collect the User Experience Librarian, before leading us up one of the building’s “floating” staircases to the Business School’s café. They very kindly treated us to our choice of hot drinks, and we all sat down in the café to get an overview of how they run their library and how it fits into life and work at the Judge Business School.
They have a relatively small physical collection of approximately 10,000 volumes, but have a huge digital offering of resources like e-books and databases. This means that their students can access library resources from anywhere in the building – and anywhere in the world, which is very important as they have a large number of international students who are studying remotely. These students are very rarely – if ever – in Cambridge to visit the physical library space, so it is crucial that they are able to access the relevant materials online. They always aim to get a digital copy alongside every print copy of a book they order.
The Judge library offers an incredibly user-focused service (where many older libraries with lots of rare books might be more collections-focused), and this comes across in their customer service and user experience initiatives as well as their collections management. For example, due to the high number of remote international students, they manage an incredibly active chat service. While the COVID-19 pandemic forced many academic libraries to start offering services like academic sessions and inductions over Zoom, the Judge library was already offering such services via Skype well before this.
It was quite interesting to note that none of the library staff came from a business background, despite working in a specialist business library. As we’ve seen from speaking to other specialist librarians, this appears to be quite common – in many cases, having the skills to run a library is the most important thing, and specialist knowledge can be picked up along the way. This is really reassuring and good to know, as new professionals like us might otherwise be put off applying to roles in specialist libraries because they don’t have specialist knowledge of that field.
Once we got into the library, it quickly became evident that they really do understand and cater to the needs of their users (both academically and generally) and it comes across in every facet of how they run their library. Their “Boost” collection offers a number of non-academic titles to supplement readers alongside their study needs – from graphic novels and pleasure reads to wellbeing titles and recipe books.
Just across from this is the “Weird Ideas” collection, which highlights books that introduce new, innovative, and disruptive ideas to the world of business and economics. Interestingly, as some of these ideas inevitably make it into the mainstream (cryptocurrency being one such example), the book is no longer a ‘weird’ idea and gets moved to the main collection. This is therefore a very interesting and dynamic part of the library, and a concept that works uniquely well for a subject like business.
They also showed us Bloomberg, a database that provides live stock market information, the same as anyone on Wall Street would have in their office (the “Buy” button is understandably deactivated on the library version). There’s a lot of interesting information that can be found on Bloomberg but one of the highlights that they showed us was Posh, an internal marketplace for the ultra-rich. Think eBay or Craigslist but for yachts, small islands, city centre apartments, and Fabergé eggs. For us librarians it was a lot of fun to poke around and explore Bloomberg, but for the students and staff at Judge Business School, I imagine it must be an invaluable resource of live information.
The space offers blankets and bean bags so students can have a comfortable experience in the library and even squeeze in a power nap if they need to. Past these and up the stairs, alongside some student desks, is a paper “graffiti wall” where students can provide feedback about different features of the library – and the library staff write back! This allows students to report things that they might not bother to write an email about or find a member of staff for – for example if a door hinge squeaks.
As well as all the interesting and varied practical library services and UX initiatives, there were also a lot of fun extras. As Star Wars Day was approaching (May 4th), they had a lot of Star Wars paraphernalia in the office ready to set up for it, including a full-sized Baby Yoda/Grogu. There was also a “dinky door” in the back of the library, board games that students can play, and a secret false book hidden on one of the shelves, with chocolate inside for anyone who finds it. All of these extra touches ensure that students (and library staff, I have no doubt) can have a lot of fun when visiting the library, as well as finding the resources they need.
We are very grateful to the team at JBS for hosting us and making us feel so welcome.
Another month, and another tour, to Queen’s College old library. Its claim-to-fame being the oldest library in Cambridge. Emma, our grad trainee, and the library staff at Queens College gave us a tour with a hands-on historical workshop. We looked through texts that varied between the 1500s and 1700s. Have a hankering for library tour posts? Check out Lauren, Jess & D’s experiences of The UL Tour. Or Lucy’s Cambridge Central Library post. I promise you won’t regret.
One thing I love about the college libraries is that each college has its own distinctive characteristics. Katie’s post on Newnham College library tour will give you a flavour. Queens College is certainly distinctive. Across the mathematical bridge (remove the screws and the bridge would remain) span beautiful buildings and lush gardens. The architecture was a mix of “old country town” and “modern build”. But the nicest thing was, every person I saw was smiling. Queens is one of the smaller colleges in Cambridge, built of just over 1000 undergraduates, graduates and academics. Nonetheless, the college is utterly charming and quirky. I felt a lovely sense of community, even just walking through!
The main library is fairly modern and bright.. and busy! It was the end of term. And we heard nothing but ferocious keyboard clicking from students getting essays in. Because Queens caters for first year undergraduates of all subjects, it has few books that cater for other years. As a grad trainee working in departmental libraries, this is a major difference between our collections. As our collections are tripos-based, we cater from undergraduate to fellow. Our collections are based soley around one tripos.
Bliss Classification scheme
Queens use the bliss classification system. Bliss builds classmarks through a combination of letters and numbers. The alternative is a numerical-based system like Dewy. We call the former a faceted scheme whilst the latter an enumerative scheme. Whilst it’s possible to have a system that is in-part enumerative and faceted. Bliss is fully faceted. Faceted schemes allow for in-depth subject analysis, aswell as freedom and flexibility for the classifier. This is because they build their classmarks rather than pick from a list. Therefore it’s easier to show links between subjects, accommodate new subjects. With enumerative schemes, subject headings are already
As libraries strive to be more inclusive and accommodating, faceting elements can prove to be desirable in schemes. This is because of the hospitable element, made possible by the classmarking system. It helps to endorse and embraces new subjects that sprout, and ones that arise from existing subjects.
The old library
Some of the old books kept in Queens College old library.
The ability to use two different colours for ink indicates wealth.
“Queens College old library is the “Elmer-the-elephant” of libraries. From 12th Century Windows, to 17th Century wooden safe. It was a beautiful mesh of time periods”
The trainees were taken through to Queens College old library, which was like stepping through an architectural time capsule. It featured the most aesthetic walls, ceilings and furniture from across different time periods. Queens College old library is the “Elmer the elephant” of old libraries. From 12th century windows, to a 17th century wooden safe, it was a beautiful mesh of time periods. The top half of the shelves were from a different century to the medieval bottom half of the shelves! And there were modern spinny desk chairs dotted around too. The mismatched museum of vintage library furniture made Queens College old library more charming.
On the right, the key to Queens College old library. Even the key is aesthetic…
Towering above us were shelves of old books. They were beautiful and unique. Meanwhile Emma talked us through how she catalogues these books. Broadly speaking, this involves; subject analysis, publishing information, a physical description and classification. If you’re after an idea of cataloguing, Lucy’s blogpost on cataloguing training is a great start.
The history of the printing press
The trainees were then given a 101 on the history of the printing press. I’ll keep this brief – I’ve left a further reading list at the end of this post. But, the compositor would have to manually select the type from his case. Then, set this onto the composing stick. And as you can see in the image below, the composition stick is composed letter-by-letter. And, the individual characters would have to slot onto a stick corresponding to a line of text. Each stick (line) would then accumulate to create a page of writing.
Pages would have to be set, letter by letter, before printing.
Once the page was complete, the ability to rewrite or edit a sentence became impossible. This is unlike modern times, where the touch of the button can easily rewrite words and sentences.
A composer selects type from his case and places it in a composing stick. Printed sheets are hanging, drying from the ceiling.
We also learnt about imposition. Now, imposition (in terms of books) is the way the pages are laid out. When folded, the pages appear in the correct order. The below image is an example of imposition. After printing the page, people would have to fold the sheet in the correct order.
Old book workshop
We were handed books ranging from 15-17th century. For me, a French book from the 15th Century on the French revolution. The book contained three forms of handwritten notes and, suggested it had been rebound at least once in its lifetime. One of the handwritings seemed scrawny, child-like in nature. We thought that a child aged 7-10 could be behind these notes. We concluded that the book was used for school. It was fascinating to see children’s notes from centuries ago. Handwriting is personal to the individual, and these have been frozen in time.
Finally, a bit of show-and-tell. The grads got to grips with miniature books from the 18th century. Roughly 3cm by 4cm, these dinky books were usually ye old testaments. And whilst they were not practical, they were very cute!
Thank you Queens!
Overall, it was a fascinating visit and I certainly thouroughly enjoyed it. The tour of Queens I want to say a big thank you to the Library staff at Queens for making the visit possible. And, for taking time out of the day to provide us with this workshop. A special thanks to Emma for giving us an informative tour of the college grounds and library.
General Book History
Robert Darnton, ‘What is the History of the book?’ Daedalus, 111 (1982), 65-83 David Pearson, Books as history. The importance of books behong their texts (Newcastle, DE: Oak Knoll; and London: British Library 2008) Sarah Werner, Studying early printed books, 1450-1800: a practical Guide (Hooken, NJ: Wiley Blackwell, 2019)
Phillip Gaskell, A new introduction to bibliography (Oxford: Claredon Press, 1972) Joesph Mocon, Mechanick exercises; or, THe docterine of handy-workd. Applied to the art of printing (London: Joesphy Moxon, 1683)
At the end of last year, the Library Graduate Trainees went on a visit to Cambridge Central Library. The purpose of the trip was to give us a behind-the-scenes view of the workings of a public library, and for us to see the Library’s important Cambridgeshire Collection.
After gathering at the front entrance on a cold December morning, we were met by a member of staff, who showed us around the multiple floors of the library. The space was a colourful and welcoming one – with entrance displays, information stands, and staff who were friendly and happy to help. Our guide pointed out the different subject and genre areas across both fiction and non-fiction, and talked us through the classification systems used in various parts of the library (with different systems implemented in the children’s, teenage, fiction and non-fiction sections). There was plenty of desk space for people to work or study, as well as a computer area for users to access the internet.
A colourful guest in the library entrance!
After seeing the ‘front-facing’ side of the library, we were taken around the rooms that are used for sorting through book returns ready for re-shelving, as well as the office used for processing and cataloguing new books.
Hazards in the sorting room!
During the first half of cambridge central library visit, we saw how a public library often acts as more than just a repository for books – it can also be an important community space for local residents. For example, near the entrance to the library, a desk had been set up for library staff to help members of the community without internet access apply for bus passes. Within the children’s section of the library, we also saw a reading session taking place for a baby and toddler group. Our visit demonstrated the role that public libraries play as important components of social infrastructure.
The second half of our visit involved a tour around the Cambridgeshire Collection. Founded in 1855, the collection is a major local studies library, with thousands of historic newspapers, photographs, books, pamphlets, and journals all relating to Cambridge city and the county. We were shown around the visitors’ room first, where some of the maps from the collection were on display, alongside a selection of street plans of towns and villages. Open access to the microfilm readers was available in the search room, where people can read the historic newspapers that have been printed on microfilm. Also accessible in the search room were a number of paper catalogues, some of which had photo negatives attached to them.
One of the microfilm readers
Microfilm of some of the historic newspapers
Downstairs in the basement, we were shown the ‘stacks’, where materials are stored in conditions amenable to their preservation. Seeing the stacks gave us a real flavour of the scope and diversity of the collection – the range of different items was mind-boggling! A personal highlight was the collection’s holding of a miniature set of jam jars which had been made by a Cambridgeshire company for Queen Mary’s dolls’ house in the 1920s.
The miniature jam jars made for Queen Mary’s dolls’ house!
The trip to Cambridge Central Library was a thoroughly enjoyable one, and all of the trainees would like to thank the staff at the library for their generosity.
A collaboration between Lauren Pratt, D Saxelby & Jess Hollerton.
Something you might have noted from our other posts, like our post on a visit to Cambridge Central Library, is that we get many opportunities to tour different libraries around Cambridge. Today, we were lucky enough to receive an exclusive behind-the-scenes tour from the Cambridge University Library (UL), featuring talks from senior members of staff from a wealth of different teams. These included rare books, digital collections, cataloguing, legal deposit and acquisitions teams. I spent a lot of time as an undergrad at the UL, but never did I quite understand (or even think about) the scope and depth of effort and upkeep fronted by the teams here.
The UL from the outside
The exact date on which the University Library was established is somewhat up in the air, it’s generally agreed to be around the fifteenth century. No computers meant no iDiscover, no iDiscover meant no online records of books, no online records of books meant, well, they had to use paper records. So, if you were looking for a certain book, you had to (potentially) spend hours scanning through stacks of files until you found the written record and location of the book you wanted. I don’t think anyone could envision doing that in the 21st Century. Can you imagine trying to get by on paper records that are in one location? Hundreds of students fumbling over that one crucial text on the recommended reading list – sometimes technology is a good thing! It was interesting though, to grasp an idea of how technology has shaped the lives of these books.
On our tour, we saw incredible things, from a piece of manuscript from the 8th century written in ancient Sanskrit, to the personal diary of Charles Darwin, to a step-by-step guide on how Sir Issaac Newton undertook an experiment on the colour spectrum by sticking objects into his own eyes – ouch. It was incredible to discover just exactly how these teams fit together in one huge library jigsaw. Their day-to-day work is so diverse, yet the teams are united in sharing one common goal: creating the library.
General tour – Jess
It’s a well-known fact that that University Library is a bit of a labyrinth. The students tell horror stories about people who went inside and never made it out again, cursed to wander the halls of a modern-day Daedalus for eternity, another soul claimed by the hungry depths of the UL. (Or something to that effect, I may have over-dramatised.) Since my undergraduate degree, I have loved the UL immensely and I thought that after three years of using it while a student, there weren’t many more secrets it could reveal. I was, quite clearly, wrong.
One of our first stops on our tour is the Catalogue Hall, a room which I had walked through hundreds of times before, but never paid any attention. The current catalogue for most libraries in Cambridge, including the UL, is hosted online but prior to this, as Lauren mentioned earlier, the catalogues were kept as books or written and filed on individual cards. The books which make up the former are still kept in the UL on open access, and together they take up all the shelving of an entire room. The card catalogue is also still accessible, the hundreds of thousands of records kept in tiny, perfectly sized drawers. Whilst it is not normally necessary to use these, there are apparently certain collections where the physical catalogues are still the fastest way to search them.
One of the things which distinguishes the UL from other legal deposit libraries is the amount of material which is kept on open shelving, available for any member of the UL to browse – and, for those with borrowing privileges, to borrow. The North and South Fronts and Wings, and West Four are all open access, as well as several other more specific collections. A significant proportion of the collection, however, is housed in either closed stacks or off-site storage. If you want to use these, they need to be requested and picked up from our next stop, the main Reading Room. As well as requesting non-borrowable material here, there are also desks for working at, and terminals for viewing Electronic Legal Deposit material. As we enter, the room is silent apart from the shuffling of paper and the clicking of laptop keys. It feels like how I would imagine a medieval scriptorium.
One of the stops on our tour
All this is accessible to all the UL’s members, but our next stop takes us behind doors marked ‘Private’, deeper into the library’s depths. As we entered the staff-only corridors, I lost my sense of direction alarmingly quickly, and was forced to follow close behind our guide for fear of never seeing the sunlight again. It was fantastic, and I could quite happily have done it all day. In one of the corridors we came across a huge set of grey-silver metal and glass doors that looked uncannily like the iconic red telephone box – which it turns out that Sir Giles Gilbert Scott, the architect of the UL, also designed. This warren of corridors led us into the sections of the library that are usually off-limits to all but staff, including the closed stacks, where on-site books that are not borrowable are stored, and the offices of various departments – for example, the Legal Deposit team and the Digital Content Unit, both of which we would visit later. One of the closed stacks we saw was the storage for modern journals and magazines. We were challenged to find the strangest or most niche magazine in the collection; I found a modern magazine for the Clangers and someone else found Scottish Beekeeping!
After this, our final stop was through another maze of corridors, to the Rare Books Reading Room, and I’ll let D, the Pembroke trainee, take over from here.
Rare books – D
While most of the college libraries in Cambridge have a special collection containing rare books, I wasn’t quite prepared for the treasure trove which was shown to us in the UL. Pembroke’s special collections are relatively extensive and very fascinating, but the UL has more rare books than I could have dreamed of – though we didn’t get to see just how many there were until the end of our tour of the rare books reading room.
When we arrived, a member of the rare books team had laid out several interesting rare books for us to look at. Among these was a first edition of Shakespeare’s first folio (published in 1623), which was in pristine condition – it was almost impossible to tell that these pages were nearly 500 years old, other than for the discolouration on the fore-edge of the book. Unfortunately, this book was not in its original binding, but had been beautifully rebound in the Victorian period, an era in which ornate bindings were considered a sign of wealth. We can only despair that they did not see the importance of an original text – however it does mean that this book is steeped in the history of more than one period.
Similarly, we were shown a book which had been rebound with a red velvet binding, on the front of which was the coat of arms of Queen Elizabeth I. One theory is that this book was owned by Queen Elizabeth I, which would explain its luxurious binding. Another book which felt particularly historical was a medical textbook, in which a local apothecary had annotated descriptions of surgeries he performed. One of the annotations is suspected to be the first written account of what I think was a full body dissection, though my memory is not perfect, and unfortunately my palaeography skills are lacking when it comes to medical terminology! The passage begins: ‘1565. the 27th of marche I did make anatomie…’ and is written on reddish brown paper – stained by the blood of the corpse! It
seems that he had the book open whilst he performed the dissection, reading the relevant information, which has made for an interesting historical object!
Particularly fascinating to me was a late 15th century text titled The Nuremberg Chronicle (the Liber Chronicarum in the original Latin), by Hartmann Schedel. Having done an MA in European Renaissance studies, I was thrilled to find scattered throughout this text many beautiful images, printed with illustrations suspected to have been made by none other than Albrecht Dürer himself! Although it cannot be confirmed which of the illustrations are Dürer’s, the suspicion seems highly probable in light of the fact that the publisher and printer was Anton Koberger, Dürer’s godfather. Like the first edition of Shakespeare’s first folio, this text was incredibly well preserved; the hand-painted illustrations still pop with colour 528 years after the book’s publication. To physically turn the pages of such historic texts made this part of the tour, alongside the manuscripts (which I will discuss later), the most exciting for me.
Finally, we were taken into an enormous room where the rare books are shelved – and then into another of the same size! It is impossible to describe how extensive this collection is without seeing it for yourself. These books are shelved using a variety of classification schemes, but one section that we all enjoyed learning about was ‘Arcana’, marked with the label ‘DO NOT FETCH’. The Arcana section contains a variety of books which were banned for different reasons (it is best to use your imagination here), spanning a large time period which leads up to texts that faced lawsuits in the modern world. These books are not available for viewing by anyone, and must remain on the closed shelves under lock and key – though they demonstrate just how exciting the position of Rare Books Librarian at the UL is – who wouldn’t want access to texts which can be viewed by no one else?
Digital content unit – Lauren
My highlight of the tour was the digital collections team as they fused creativity with technology to preserve the past.
Fresh eyes laid upon texts that are centuries old can produce new, exciting perspectives for exploration and research. However, due to everyone’s favourite friend – aging – this is not always possible. Pages crafted from finite resources like crate paper or palm leaves after a while become too delicate for our oily fingers, the ink fades and becomes illegible. The wonderful words and beautiful artwork from thousands of years ago become forgotten, and the roads for research and new ideas close. Thankfully, the digital collections team at the UL have this in hand.
The kind of material that the digital content unit strive to protect
Armed with lights, cameras, and a plethora of new-fangled tech equipment, the team demonstrated just how they use modern technologies to their advantage, extrapolating methods from photography and lighting to preserve the delicate detail displayed in the library’s special collection. For instance, they can manipulate lighting to uncover text that had been written over. On that note, check out the UL’s exhibition ghost words which is based all around this! It runs until December 4th 2021.
It appears that, to become a digital archivist, a person can come from a diverse background. Not many of the team members had master’s degrees in library-related subjects, which is great news for accessibility. They also came from diverse academic backgrounds too. Supposedly, anywhere from computational linguistics to modern Greek, digital archives, media studies to physics.
Whether it’s historical significance or individuality of the item, or even scribbled notes of a mad scientist, it will tell a fascinating tale about the history of mankind, and thanks to this team, can now be looked upon by humans for generations to come.
In this blog post, the trainee at Trinity College (Lucy) and the trainee at Anglia Ruskin University (Ellen) reflect on the first library visit of 2021.
On Tuesday 21st September, the new Library Graduate Trainees went on their first visit of the year – a tour of Newnham College Library. We were greeted by the Newnham trainee, who took us on an initial walk-through of the Library. I was struck right away by how welcoming the Library felt; you could tell that the space is fully focused on serving the needs of Newnham’s students. It was not a surprise to hear that the Library is one of the best-stocked undergraduate college libraries in Cambridge, and is kept as relevant and up-to-date as possible to enhance user experience.
Newnham Library has two sections: the original Victorian Yates Thompson Library (designed by Basil Champneys), and the Horner Markwick extension (opened in 2004). In the latter, our Newnham trainee guide pointed out the different subject sections, and explained the in-house classification system. Spread across three floors and with large windows to let in plenty of light, the modern extension of the Library felt like a wonderful place to study.
Next we moved to the Yates Thompson Library, a Grade II* listed building. All of the trainees were impressed by the blue barrel vault and ornamented ceiling, which is decorated with 13 early European printers’ marks (chosen by Henry Yates Thompson). A highlight was seeing a collection of first edition works by Virginia Woolf, which contained early examples of Hogarth Press printing. The dust jackets on a number of the books were particularly beautiful, including those for ‘Between the Acts’ and ‘A Writer’s Diary’ (both designed by Vanessa Bell, Woolf’s sister).
Part of the blue barrel vault and ornamented ceiling in the Yates Thompson Library.
Over on the other side of the Library, we saw the small Glossographia exhibition, which displayed treasures from Newnham’s rare books and special collections. It was fascinating to see the first English translation of Don Quixote, as well as some unique reference aids, such as Thomas Blount’s ‘Dictionary of Hard Words’. A quick detour took us via the closed stacks in the basement, which house works from Newnham alumnae as well as materials that are not suitable for the open shelves. These included several boxes containing fake human bones, which are given to medical students at the beginning of each academic year – a somewhat unexpected and incongruous sight!
One of the exciting features of our inaugural library visit was that it also included our inaugural archive visit! After the tour of the main library, we were split into two groups: one to look at the rare books collection with the Librarian, and the other to look at the archives with the College Archivist. For the Archives visit, we were led into a set of small offices, where the Archivist had selected and displayed some notable pieces for us. Laid out around the room were a number of books, posters, newspaper articles, and more.
The Archivist began by explaining that this year marked Newnham’s 150th anniversary as a women’s college, and the 100th anniversary of a rather unsavoury event in its history. In 1921, the University was voting on allowing women full membership of the University or ‘titles of degrees’ upon completion of their courses, where up until this point they would only have received a certificate acknowledging that they had taken and passed the exams. Some of Cambridge’s male students did not take kindly to this idea, and effectively stormed Newnham in protest. College property was vandalised, most notably the ornate bronze Clough Gates (commemorating Anne Jemima Clough, the first principal of Newnham) which were battered by a handcart.
The bronze Clough Gates.
As such, many of the pieces on display were about this event and the resilience of Newnham’s students that shone through because of it. One of the most memorable and amusing pieces was a letter of apology written by one of the men who took part in an earlier 1897 protest. In it, he professed his embarrassment at being there at all, and his shame at having accidentally broken a window in the process. He made an offer to pay for the damages and again apologised profusely, but at the end of the letter shattered this saintly image that he had painted of himself by asking, since he was Danish himself, if the college had any Scandinavian ladies studying there, and if so, that he be put in contact with them.
One of the more sobering pieces was a small poster from the 1897 protest, which in large letters simply said, “NO WOMEN”. It was a strikingly tangible reminder that attitudes like this were still prevalent only a hundred years ago, and that I sometimes take that for granted. I studied at Royal Holloway, which was very similar to Newnham – it was purpose-built as a women’s college in 1886 and educated suffragettes such as Emily Wilding Davison, but to my knowledge never had quite so much opposition. Seeing the dissonance between that experience and that of Newnham’s students was quite jarring!
We then moved on to the next room to view the stacks, where the archive materials are stored. The room was surprisingly small for a place with such a rich history, but I suppose that speaks to the meticulous curation and efficient organisation of the archivists more than anything. Truthfully, I could have spent the rest of the day in there quite happily, exploring all the different items on the shelves.
I was struck by the excitement in the room while looking at and talking about these materials. On a personal level, I had never given archive work a great deal of thought until this moment – I’d always thought it might be interesting to work in an archive, but I’d never really understood what that meant. Archivists are the caretakers of physical pieces of history. As well as exploring fascinating areas of the past, they get to decide what materials will be held from our time for the historians of the future. It sounds like an exciting and challenging responsibility, and I am certainly going to give it greater consideration going forward in my career.
Our visit to the Rare Books room was led by Newnham’s current Librarian. Established in 1982 and built, stylistically speaking, in line with the rest of the Library’s architecture, the space was named in honour of Katharine Stephen. Stephen was appointed as the College’s first Librarian in 1888 and later became its Principal. She also happened to be the cousin of Virginia Woolf.
The College Librarian told us about Newham’s special collections, which contain approximately 6,000 rare books and manuscripts (ranging from the 15th to the 20th centuries) and result from donations to the College. This includes 16th century Chaucer editions, as well as both the Rogers and the Renouf collections. Many of the books are beautifully bound, with intricate patterns and gilding adorning their spines. The room was noticeably colder than the rest of the Library – the temperature signalling the priority that is given to the historic materials housed in the room over the librarians working within it!
We were also shown a small glass case, which housed a ring with the braided hair of Charlotte Brontë coiled inside. Just as we were leaving, the Librarian pointed out a recent donation given to the College – a first edition of an Aphra Behn play. On a personal note, this was wonderful to see, having briefly studied her work during the final year of my undergraduate degree.
After we had viewed the rare books, and the other group had viewed the archives, we joined together once again and were led out to the college gardens. The Librarian was very patient as we collectively listed off the most complicated drinks order known to man, and before long we were all sitting together on the grass sipping our teas, coffees, hot chocolates, and chai lattes in the final rays of the summer sun.
Newnham College and gardens.
Our conversation topics ranged from decolonisation workshops to films and musicals inspired by Greek mythology, and everything in between. I was interested to learn from the Assistant Librarian that there is in fact a library allotment somewhere in the 17 acres of Newnham’s beautiful gardens, and that they are growing blueberries there! I had never heard of such a thing, so it was a very pleasant surprise. Initiatives like that can make for a very enjoyable workplace and can do wonders for staff wellbeing. It made me wonder what other workplace initiatives might be possible for library and university staff more generally.
After we had finished our drinks, we got up and explored the college gardens and marvelled at the gorgeous Victorian architecture of many of Newnham’s buildings. Unfortunately, we didn’t get to see the library allotment, but we did see lots of lovely growing things, including tomatoes, pumpkins, and more than a few sunflowers. I hadn’t done any research on the gardens before our visit, so I was surprised to learn just how large and diverse they were, with innumerable varieties of trees, flowers, and other greenery.
One of our last stops was at the sunken rose garden. Down a set of stone steps were four large beds of roses, with a pool in the centre dedicated to Henry Sidgwick, Newnham’s co-founder. The flower beds were abuzz with activity, with a wonderfully large number of bees flying around. Honeybees were reintroduced to the Newnham gardens in 2016, for the first time since WWII. These are Buckfast bees, which are bred for their productivity, gentleness, and resistance to disease. The gentleness certainly came across, as they seemed to have no issue with us joining them to admire the roses.
The beautiful sunflowers growing in the college gardens.
Lastly, before heading off, we stopped at the bronze gate that had been damaged during the protest in 1921. It had, of course, been repaired since then but even so, seeing it in person added a huge weight of tangibility to that event. As well as a fascinating insight into rare books librarianship and archival work, this visit to Newnham gave me a renewed gratitude for the academic and professional opportunities I have as a woman in 2021, and I am doubly grateful for the generations of women who came before me to make that possible.
All of us graduate trainees are immensely grateful to the library team at Newnham for taking the time and effort to provide us with such a wonderful visit – thank you! It was the perfect way to start off our programme of library visits, and has set the standard very high.