Visit: Cambridge Colleges’ Conservation Consortium and Whipple Library

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It is not easy to find Creative Commons images of either the Whipple or the CCCC, so have one of a bit further down Free School Lane instead. ‘Free School Lane, Cavendish Laboratory‘ by David Incoll is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

March’s second and final visit was another joint venture: this time to the Cambridge Colleges’ Conservation Consortium (CCCC) and the Whipple Library (who actually have their own blog here). It was a gloriously sunny day, perfect for a stroll around the delights of Cambridge… although, of course, we ended up spending most of it inside. However, the lovely and unusual things which we were able to see more than made up for it.

I had never heard of the CCCC before this visit was arranged, and when we arrived they told us that they liked it that way! It was quite a difficult building to find, and I definitely wouldn’t have managed it alone. Once we had all successfully arrived, we were whisked upstairs into the beautifully naturally lit conservation studio for an insight into what being a conservator is like.

Firstly, we were introduced to three of the CCCC’s staff: manager Bridget, and conservators Françoise and Claude. Bridget gave us a quick overview of how the Consortium runs and who it serves (it has 11 Colleges as permanent members, plus four annual associate memberships, which rotate between Colleges). An organisation like this is really important to a university like Cambridge, because every College’s collection will include at least some precious and fragile items: rare books, manuscripts, archives, etc.

Each of the conservators showed us a project they were working on. Claude was first: he had some land deeds from Christ College, which were in quite a poor state. He was working on flattening them out and repairing some of the damaged parts, and then preparing them to be packaged away again in boxes so that they could be stored in the College. Claude told us that ideally such documents would be kept flat, as this is the most effective way to preserve them, but these needed to be boxed due to space constraints. A detail that has stayed with me about these deeds was seeing the holes in the paper where the iron in the ink had rusted and eaten its way through – you never really think that ink could cause damage like that.

Françoise then showed us her project – Chinese books from (I think) St John’s College. They were unusual because their binding was different from standard Western binding, which meant that they required extra special conservation to make sure that they do not lose their unique character. In contrast, Bridget showed us some examples of poor Western bookbinding – extremely tightly compressed books, with binding which did not allow the pages to be read properly. We were all quite shocked at the obvious problems with the binding, but Bridget explained that the fact that the College had bothered to foot the cost for sending them out for binding repairs showed that they really did value the book – definitely a point I hadn’t thought of.

Overall, I did enjoy seeing the CCCC because of the stark difference between our jobs. However, whilst I can appreciate the historical and aesthetic qualities of rare books and manuscripts, they are not where my heart lies, so for me the visit to the Whipple was the more interesting and valuable visit of the day.

The Whipple Library is, surprise surprise, next door to the Whipple Museum on Free School Lane. It’s the department library for History and Philosophy of Science, which means that I would find 100% of the books fascinating, but probably only about 10% of them understandable. Its head librarian is Anna Jones, who to be honest was the real highlight of the visit – she was funny, knowledgeable and extremely welcoming. She started the visit by telling us all about the history of the Library. Both it and the Museum came about as the result of a bequest by a Mr Robert Whipple, who for thirty years was Managing Director of the Cambridge Scientific Instruments Company. He collected scientific instruments, books and models, and in 1944 gave a large donation of books and instruments to the University in order to further teaching and learning. The library is now one of the largest libraries in the UK for the history and philosophy of science. Whipple was also an obsessive notekeeper, so the library also has his ledger, listing when and how much for he bought the items which started the library.

I was really taken with the building itself: it has two distinct halves, creatively named the Old Library and the New Library. The New Library is new to being a library, but the building itself is definitely not new – it dates from the late 19th century and used to be a lecture theatre for the Department of Material Science. Both halves are really light and airy – very important for a good study atmosphere, I think – and seem very comfortable. There are some scientific instruments in and around the bookshelves, which adds a nice touch to the space.

Once we had seen the building, Anna spoke to us for quite a while about some of the more important or unique books in the collection. These include a first edition of Newton’s Principia and a book by a somewhat controversial German physicist called Carl Freidrich von Weizsäcker – the book was printed in Paris during Nazi occupation, and somehow avoided being systemically destroyed after the war as most other such books were. The most entertaining item was probably a first edition of John Wilkins’ An Essay towards a Real Character, and a Philosophical Language from 1668. Amongst other things, Wilkins proposes a design for how all the animals could have fit onto Noah’s Ark. He was especially mindful of what the carnivores would eat whilst they floated on the seas, and to this end he filled the entire middle deck with sheep. I’m still not 100% sure how this fits into the book’s purpose (to develop a universal language) but it definitely made us all smile – a charming end to two really enjoyable visits.

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