Visit: Main Library at University of Cambridge (feat. a personal life update)

Cambridge University Library in Autumn” by Anna L Martin is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Fair warning: this is a lengthy post. If you just want to read the Personal Life Update, skip ahead to the end now! (I promise not to hold it against you.)

On Tuesday 18th October 2016, I was lucky enough to visit the main University library at the University of Cambridge for the first time as part of an organised visit for graduate trainees in Cambridgeshire. It is a legal deposit library and its collection of books, manuscripts and other assorted curiosities is absolutely enormous – everything from Isaac Newton’s notebooks to build-your-own-skeleton kits, via Soviet maps of Cambridge, Jane Austen novels and the Penguin Guide to Squash (the sport, not the vegetable). I was genuinely awestruck by the massive number of volumes they’d managed to fit under one roof. I think the fact that most indicates the sheer vastness of the collection is that they measure their new stock in kilometres! We were told that, every year, due to their status as a legal deposit library, they acquire about two kilometres worth of new stock, which blew all our minds a little bit.

Our itinerary for the day looked like this:

10:15 – Arrive

10:30 – ‘Behind the Bookstacks’ tour

11:30 – Visit to Rare Books Department

12:15 – Genizah Research Unit presentation

13:00 – Lunch

14:00 – Visit to the Digital Content Unit

14:30 – Visit to the Office of Scholarly Communication

15:00 – Depart

It didn’t go entirely to plan – we actually left about 15:15 because the lift broke in the morning and we had to postpone going up the tower – but only fifteen minutes over schedule is pretty good, I think.

The ‘Behind the Bookstacks’ tour was definitely enjoyable but it was very, very long! I couldn’t keep up with where we were going; the corridors were an indecipherable maze to me. Our guide said it had only taken him a week to get used to it, but we were a bit skeptical about that. Our first stop was the Historical Printing Room, which was fascinating. It really hits home how labour intensive printing used to be when you see the comparative sizes of the machinery and of all the individual letter tiles. After that, we proceeded into the main body of the library. It was really interesting to see all the places that only staff get to see, such as the climate-controlled stacks where the manuscripts live (they are absolutely freezing!). We also got to visit the Map Room, which is accessible to any member of the library, and the Munby Rare Books Room, which is slightly more strictly controlled. The Map Room was a particular highlight of the tour for me – our tour guide had pre-selected some maps for us, one of which was a (sadly not entirely accurate) map showing which parts of Britain are at most risk of drowning if sea levels rise. Of course, we all crowded round to see how East Anglia fared, which was sadly not very well at all. London and East and South Yorkshire were also quite badly hit, but most of Wales and the West coast didn’t seem to be affected too severely. At least now I know to hotfoot it to my boyfriend’s in Manchester if we start to see any sudden rises in sea level!

Our next adventure was back to the Munby Rare Books Room to hear a presentation from a member of staff about what exactly it is that they get up to in the Rare Books Department. Rare Books look after the older printed material in the Library – handwritten items (manuscripts) are looked after by the Manuscripts department. Although the distinction between the two seems obvious, we were informed that it can be more problematic than it first appears! After the presentation we were invited to have a nosey at some interesting examples of rare books, including one from the Peterborough Cathedral library, which is held in the University library, and a photographic book documenting the building of the University library. Although I can’t see myself working in a Rare Books department, it was really interesting to see some examples of the diversity of material that crosses their desks every day.

The presentation from the Genizah Research Unit was the most mysterious item on the itinerary. Neither myself nor any of the other trainees had heard of the Unit, so we were all very curious to find out what exactly it was about. It turned out to be absolutely the highlight of the day! The collection is made up of 193,000 manuscript fragments, mostly written in Hebrew, Judaeo-Arabic, Aramaic and Arabic, recovered in 1896-7 from the Ben Ezra Synagogue in Fustat, Old Cairo. We were lucky enough to actually see some of the fragments. The three that were the most memorable for me were:

  • a petition to the Muslim leader Saladin from a man who wished to be relieved of his duties as a tax collector (unfortunately for the petitioner, the request was denied);
  • a set of paper amulets against scorpion bites (the magician who created the amulets was apparently not a very good salesman, as only 3 of the 12 had been sold); and
  • most interestingly of all, an early example of a pre-nuptial contract, in which the husband promised his bride-to-be that he would not bring any gamblers or drunkards back to the marital home (what a reputation the groom must have had!).

Although some of the fragments were absolutely tiny, every one was crammed full of the most incredible social history, all the way from the 10th century right through to the 19th, when the manuscripts were recovered. If you want to learn more, links to five audio recordings about various pieces of the collection, originally recorded for Radio 3, can be found here.

Lunch was a coffee and some pumpkin and spinach risotto, then it was off to the Digital Content Unit. These are the people in charge of imaging and licensing the library’s content. They inhabit a very dark room somewhere in the basement, but they get to play with some astoundingly expensive toys, so I think that makes up for the lack of ambience in their working environment! They put those expensive toys to good use creating images for the Cambridge Digital Library, which is well worth a browse. For me, a particular highlight is this Chinese Book of Prints. Not only is it beautiful, but it is so delicate that it is believed that it has only been read from cover to cover once, and that is by Scott, the photographer who digitised it for the Digital Library. Now that it has been digitised, it will probably never be opened again, but thanks to the hard work of the DCU, we can admire it any time we like from the comfort of behind our computer screens.

Our visit to the Office of Scholarly Communication was a tad more controversial than our other activities. After a presentation by a member of staff from the Office, a lively debate broke out amongst us about the academic and commercial value of the Open Access movement. I think that it was a pretty even split between those who thought it was a worthy endeavour and those who felt it was an unnecessary burden on both scholars and publishers. I am on the former side; I think knowledge should be shared as widely as possible for the benefit of all.

The last thing we did was journey to the 14th floor of the tower in order to admire the stunning views over Cambridge. They really are absolutely beautiful! However, what was less beautiful was the sight of the 14 flights of stairs we had to climb down after our lovely guide forgot to bring with him the key which operates the lift downwards. It was so tiring, but fortunately the great views and overall great experience made up for it. I’m definitely very grateful that I had the opportunity to visit the library and to meet all the other trainees as well.

Personal life update: I had my first driving lesson last Saturday (22nd Oct)! I’d been procrastinating that moment for nearly five years but a few weeks ago I finally found the strength to conquer my fears and book the damn lessons. It was scary, but not as much as I had expected, and for brief moments I actually felt quite comfortable behind the wheel. However, I only actually drove for about twenty minutes, and didn’t have to do any of the indicating or two of the three gear changes, so we will see how that level of comfort changes when I’m put in charge of doing absolutely everything! My driving instructor is an absolute sweetheart who made me feel so calm, so shout out to my friend Cat for having excellent taste and recommending him to me.

Thanks for sticking with me all the way to the end,



4 thoughts on “Visit: Main Library at University of Cambridge (feat. a personal life update)

  1. John Aylward October 25, 2016 / 6:56 pm

    WoW! What a day. Really interesting – super day.

    And the driving another big plus, Ich gratuliere!

    the best drivers in our family are Dawn and Marjorie – seriously.


    • kathi October 25, 2016 / 10:12 pm

      I think Dad might be a touch offended by that, Grandad! Thank you for the congratulations, I’ll be up to see you this weekend with Tom in tow so I can tell you all about my lessons. 🙂


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