Visit: Newnham College

It’s just ludicrously pretty, isn’t it? “Newnham College” by Steve Cadman is licensed under CC BY SA 2.0

All the way back in 2016, all the trainees from Cambridge were invited to spend a couple of hours in the library at Newnham College. I was unable to attend then, so instead I got in touch with Newnham’s lovely GT, Frankie, and organised a trip for the Easter vacation. I was lucky enough to be able to bring four of my colleagues with me, so it was a proper ARU family affair!

The first thing that struck me about Newnham College was the relatively large size for a college library, both in terms of the building itself and the collection. The building was built in two halves: the Yates Thompson Library dates from 1897, whilst the Horner Markwick building was added in 2004. Both are really airy and light – the glass roof really does let the most beautiful natural light in. The collection is also one of the largest for a college library; there are roughly 90,000 volumes alongside 6,000 rare books. There is a simple historical reason behind this relatively large size: Newnham was the second college to admit women (and still does exclusively), and women were not permitted to use the University Library. This meant that Newnham had to provide everything that its students would require, and it keeps that tradition up to this day: the collection encompasses all subjects and about 1000 new volumes are added every year.

We were given a quick tour around the library, the IT room, and the group study room. One thing I really liked was that current periodicals and modern fiction were kept in a cosy little nook, complete with comfy chairs and beanbags. It made for a really welcoming sight and I was relieved when Frankie told us that it was a popular spot. There’s an ongoing academic debate about the suitability of recreational reading materials in academic libraries, but personally I am definitely in favour. After the tour, we were given the chance to see some of the library’s collection of children’s fairytales and folk stories, which were on display as an exhibit on ‘Writing for Children’ had been held by the College in February. This was particularly interesting to us as ARU has a fantastic MA in Children’s Book Illustration, and we get to see lots of children’s books every day, but rarely any as vintage as these.

On our way to the rare books room we got to have a peek at another display of children’s writing, this time books written by alumnae of the college, which was interesting and a tad weird because I actually own one of them. (‘Girl, 15, Flirting for England’ by Sue Limb, in case you were wondering.) Above the glass display cabinet was a wall display about Newnham’s first 70 years, which were somewhat turbulent (to put it mildly). Cambridge took a circuitous route to awarding degrees to women – for example, in 1921 a vote to grant degrees with substance to women was refused, and instead it was decided that degrees ‘in title only’ were to be awarded. Male undergraduates celebrated this victory by destroying Newnham’s bronze gates. Degrees with substance were not awarded to women until 1948 – 76 years after Newnham was founded.

After we had been suitably shocked by these facts, we proceeded into the rare books room. It is climate-controlled, so library staff tend to take the rare books out to the main library to be read by patrons, rather than make them sit in the cold air. Debbie, the College Librarian, told us that the majority of the collection were donations, which makes it rather eclectic; for example, there’s a strong holding of German romantic poetry! Again, Newnham’s rare books collection is relatively large for a college, which shows that people really believe in the mission of the college and want to support it – always a good sign.

Our next treat was a visit to the College Archives. The Library employs an archivist, Anne, who very kindly showed us some of the treats from the collection. Two highlights were a student’s chunky scrapbook, which was absolutely full of theatre and sports match tickets, and a rather heavy tennis dress (with an ankle length skirt and long sleeves!) from the 19th century, complete with a sepia photo of students from the College in similar dresses. I really enjoy seeing objects in archives, as for me they are more immediately evocative of their era than more traditional paper documents.

Our penultimate activity was that librarian classic: a good chat over a cup of tea and some biscuits. We talked a lot about the differences between our libraries, particularly the size of our student bases – Newnham has about 700 students, compared to the 11,000 at the ARU Cambridge campus! We still had lots of the same problems, though, especially policing food, which definitely made me feel better.

The very last thing we did was have a quick tour of the College gardens, kindly led for us by Debbie. Newnham really is very beautiful, and it will be even more so when the roses in the rose garden start to bloom. It’s definitely a hidden gem, and one I would definitely recommend visiting if you ever get the chance.


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