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.
Last week, we had the first of our visits to one of our own trainees’ libraries – Newnham College. Newnham is a women’s College founded in 1871, with the Library being first constructed in 1897. The Library was a gift from Henry and Elizabeth Yates Thompson who had close connections to the College and its founders, including the architect Basil Champneys. The 2004 modern extension is named the Horner Markwick Library after two previous Librarians of the College, who both generously donated funds towards expanding the Library.
Our tour started in the Archive, where the Archivist had laid out a selection of photographs and other items of note from the College’s history for us to view. Of particular note was a letter written by Rosalind Franklin, whose later work would contribute hugely to our understanding of DNA structure. At the time of the letter, Franklin was a first-year undergraduate student, and wrote to her parents of the exciting news of the first female professor elected in either Oxford or Cambridge (this was Dorothy Garrod), who had been elected from Newnham. Franklin also noted that there was still a question over whether, as a woman, she would be given full membership of the University.
Our visit to the Archive also elicited a fascinating discussion about archiving personal histories of people who have been marginalised throughout history. Collection of personal letters and photographs allows us to now reveal and understand some aspects of women’s lives that would have been ignored, deliberately hidden, or suppressed in previous centuries and decades, for example LGBTQ+ identities and relationships.
Our Newnham trainee then took us on a tour of the Library reading rooms, explaining the layout and their classification scheme. The size of the collection was particularly impressive, and is one of the best-stocked undergraduate college libraries in Cambridge. For a College with around 400 undergraduates, a collection of over 100,000 volumes gave a much larger ratio of book-to-student numbers compared to other College libraries such as my own, Pembroke. I was then reminded that for a long time, women were not permitted to enter the University or faculty libraries, and thus the College needed to stock anything its women could potentially need for their studies, explaining the large collection.
The Library building itself was beautiful to see. We first explored the modern extension of the library, where the majority of reader spaces and the main Library office now lie. It is bright and spacious, and though very modern in appearance, its layout and vaulted ceiling bring with it a continuity of style into the old library. The similarly vaulted ceiling in the old Yates Thompson library features beautiful panels displaying printers’ marks from European printers that Henry Yates Thompson, himself a collector of manuscripts and early printed books, highly regarded.
Throughout the library were several displays. Some of these were created by students themselves, while others had been put together by Library staff. Highlights were the ‘Roger’s Collection’ of late 19th century children’s literature and folk stories from around the world, on display in the old library, and the display about women obtaining the right to education in Cambridge, on display in the lift corridor. The latter of these featured shocking photos of riots that ensued when the question of women obtaining degrees was put to the (all-male) University members, and in particular of the vandalism Newnham College was subjected to by opponents of women seeking the right to receive a degree.
Next, we were shown the Katharine Stephens Rare Books Library, named for the Librarian who presided over the creation of the Yates Thompson Library. The Assistant Librarian gave us a tour of one of their current rare book exhibitions they’ve put together for students, about the history of Sociology and Anthropology. She explained that the Library begun to put together collections of rare books related to each Tripos subject studied at Newnham, which they would then invite students to look at during their subject formal halls. This not only enabled the students to become aware of and engage with relevant texts and resources in the Library, but also allowed the Library staff to continue to get to know their large collection of rare books by challenging them to find books relating to particular subjects.
The overall impression of Newnham College Library was one of a welcoming and friendly study space, with a large and diverse collection of books and materials for its students. It is a great example of a library whose space and collections have been truly shaped by its history and users. Having been one of the only spaces for women studying in Cambridge for so many years, it appears to have fostered an incredibly supportive and close-knit environment, leading to its alumnae and members giving generously to maintain and expand the Library and its collections.
For our second visit, we were given a tour of Cambridge Central Library. It is one of the 33 council run libraries in Cambridgeshire, tucked away in Cambridge’s busy shopping centre, the Lion’s Yard. The bright and modern library spans three floors and caters to all with community at its heart. In addition to its broad catalogue (children’s, teenage, and adult books; CDs and DVDs; music scores; and newspapers), it offers important services to the public such as book clubs, rhymetime, arts activities, basic digital skills sessions, mental health support, and help applying for a bus pass. Membership is free and open to all living, working, visiting, or studying in Cambridgeshire. I have always found public libraries to be warm and welcoming spaces, and Cambridge Central Library was no exception.
In the first half of our visit, one of the library staff, Jess, gave us a general tour of the library. On the ground floor, the fiction, teenage and teenage plus, and children’s books can be found.
I was really impressed about how accessible the children’s collection is with separate sections for braille, large print, dual language, and dyslexia friendly books. The entrance and train shelving units were also great fun!
We were then shown the book return sorting room which had some great technology. Once customers have returned their items via the self-service machines, the books are taken on a conveyor belt to the sorting room where they can be distributed into various boxes depending on which floor they’re shelved, or which library they need to be sent to.
The rest of the books can be found on the second floor, classified according to the Dewey Decimal system. There are also plenty of desks and computers available, and some great nooks for reading and relaxing (or people watching!).
In the second half of our visit, Mary introduced us to the Cambridgeshire Collections. Starting in the reading room, we were shown their microfilm newspaper collection which dates from 1762. Mary was really proud to show us their microfilm reader, too, which is the only one in Cambridge. The digital machine allows users to easily find and crop articles, then save them as PDFs/JPEGs – a really useful tool for research. We were then taken down into the temperate-controlled basement, which stores the majority of the collection. The range of material is extensive – as long as it relates to Cambridgeshire, then you name it, they probably have it! Mary shared her personal favourite with us: a set of miniature jam jars created by a local company in Histon for the Queen’s dolls’ house. We loved these too!
We are all very grateful to Jess, Mary, and the rest of the Cambridge Central Library team for welcoming us to their library.
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 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.
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.
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.