Libraries are special places. Nowadays they are often places of entertainment, but my favourite ones are those that are redolent of the traditions of knowledge.

When I was a child I had a troubled relationship with libraries. I had read anything I found remotely interesting in the local branch library’s children’s section well before I could legitimately enter the sacred adult section. The librarians seemed very concerned about the possible corrupting influence on younger minds, so when my mother checked out adult history books, the fearsome librarian behind the counter required that she confirm that the books were certainly not for me. Although the fines were in the pennies, librarians made it abundantly clear that the crime of returning a book even a day late was equivalent to the depredations of a serial axe murderer. Strangely, some years later, after the branch had closed, I had the entire place as my personal office while I worked on some development projects. I suppressed a giggle every day when I walked in – I had the keys, but alas the books were gone, including those titillating books I was not supposed to see as a child.

Years later, I still haunt libraries, but my standards have been raised by one of my favourite places: University Library at Cambridge, the largest of 114 libraries in the university. That is about one library for every 175 students.

I enjoy the entry process, up the impressive front steps, into the foyer, and to the card scanning machine. I am sometimes greeted with a cheery “How nice to see you, Dr. Ellingham. How are the children?” (Okay, so one of the librarians’ son went to school with my son). In 2016, to celebrate the library’s 600th year, the entry featured a banner listing members of the university who have won Nobel Prizes (all 96 of them) and once, as I was entering, a librarian suggested that there was enough room on it for my name. I suppose they said that frequently, but it still inspires. Walking up the stairs, one passes a wall listing significant donors, back into the middle ages. After moving through that process one feels an obligation to produce something significant.

Near the entry is an exhibition area in which some of the delights are on display – the exhibitions change frequently. The prize is perhaps an original copy of Isaac Newton’s landmark Principia of 1687 – with numerous notes. Can you imagine scribbling on such a treasure? But those scrawls are Newton’s own notes. A more recent exhibition was of non-book relics: I remain puzzled about the significance of the one simply labelled “Lithuanian Boot.”

My field rarely involves historical manuscripts but the University Library contains many of them, sometimes on display in the exhibition centre. I was once told by a history student that she had requested a book, expecting the newly issued paperback; instead, to her surprise, she found the library would be happy to provide her with the original mediaeval manuscript.

The earliest reference to the library was in 1416 and it initially grew slowly, largely due to the expense of hand-written manuscripts. In 1500 there were about 600 books, a number that fell substantially through the English Reformation. But with serious printing and gifts from benefactors over the centuries, the collection grew. In 1710 University Library was designated as a copyright library, so it contains many items not usually found in university collections. To test the completeness of the Library’s collection, I asked a librarian if they had a maintenance manual for a 1955 Humber Super Snipe (an extinct British car). The response was “probably,” but that it might take them a couple of days to find it.

The main part of the current building was designed by Sir Giles Gilbert Scott (1880-1960) and built between 1931 and 1934. With its 12-storey tower and ponderous red brick construction, it might be compared to some of Scott’s other notable works, including the Bankside Power Station in London (now the Tate Modern), Liverpool Cathedral and even the traditional red English telephone box, which Scott also designed. Scott’s mix of tradition and modernism may not please everyone, but he did manage to catch what the library is really about.

As materials have poured in, the library is continuously expanding and being rebuilt to reflect new technologies. After a flirtation with the modern, more recent additions have been done in the same materials and forms as the original. One can sense a strong rejection of the post-war modernism that created some of the Library’s less esteemed spaces. Now, the historic spaces and processes are treasured. Even though electronics have long-since replaced the rows of huge catalogue volumes, into which generations of librarians pasted slips of paper, in the most recent renovations those books are preserved – and available. A new lounge area is furnished in an interwar style – I had to check to confirm that the furniture was new, not just hauled out of the basement after decades of storage. Somehow the managers integrate tradition with the most recent innovation, making the user treasure and respect the building and the system, and be inspired by them.

The result is a total experience, not just a stark functionalist place to do research. One can hole up in a nicely panelled corner, with a stack of books, sometimes overseen by portraits of past notables (and the odd painting of a battleship). After numbers of years, I still sometimes find new bits of the library. Sometimes I think of the labyrinthine library in Umberto Eco’s Name of the Rose, but I have never encountered any sinister monks (just the regular friendly kind), although they might well be lurking somewhere. While it is usually quicker to use the stairs, for five-floor trips up, the elevators are an interesting experience. Few buildings in the developed west retain elevators with doors you have to open and close manually.

The typical Canadian university library is a territory of the young, something that makes anyone over perhaps 35 feel almost antediluvian. But not here. Antique academics prowl the stacks and ply the workstations.

The expansion and change leads to an apparent degree of crisis – so much material is now being generated and has to be stored and accessible. While much of it lurks in the extensive basements (hopefully well waterproofed), available on request, the open shelving clearly shows the stress. The stacks can seem endless, with army-green shelving marching into the distance, now often interspersed with plywood units in every bit of available space.

The mushrooming collection leads to some intriguing experiences. I was looking for a recently published book and had the call number, so I went to the appropriate location, and followed the numbers up. I came to a note: “For higher numbers look on the tables by the windows” (many of the former study tables are now full of books). I went to the table and followed the numbers along, then encountered another note: “For higher numbers look under the tables.” So there I was, in one of the great libraries of the world, rooting around on my hands and knees. But I was not alone, and perhaps that individual under the tables with me, also looking for some elusive text, has already won his Nobel prize.

I am not the only one to esteem Cambridge University Library. Germaine Greer offered: “For those of us who have the right to enjoy it, the library is heaven on earth.” 

My thanks to the University Library staff for providing information and allowing photographs to be taken, as well as for their many years of careful stewardship of one of my favourite places.


Cambridge University Library Website: Accessed 2 April, 2017.

Greer, Germaine (2010) My favourite library is being transformed into a beacon of naffness, The Guardian, 4 January, 2010. Accessed 2 April, 2017.