University Library, Cambridge

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University Library, Cambridge


Main UL building.jpg
Cambridge University Library
Type: Academic library
Grid reference: TL44135841
Location: 52°12’18"N, 0°6’28"E
City: Cambridge
Address: West Road
Built 1931-1934
By: Giles Gilbert Scott
Academic library
Owned by: University of Cambridge

The University Library is the main research library of the University of Cambridge in Cambridgeshire. It is the largest of 114 libraries within the University.[1] The Library is a major scholarly resource for the members of the University of Cambridge and external researchers. Twenty-one affiliate libraries are associated with the University Library for the purpose of central governance and administration.

Cambridge University Library is one of the six legal deposit libraries under British law,[2] along with the Bodleian Library in Oxford, the British Library, the Library of Trinity College Dublin, the National Library of Scotland and the National Library of Wales.

The Library holds approximately 9 million items (including maps and sheet music) and, through legal deposit, purchase and donation it receives around 100,000 items every year. The University Library is unique among the legal deposit libraries in keeping a large proportion of its material on open access and in allowing some categories of reader to borrow from its collections.

The original location of the library was the Old Schools near the Senate House until it outgrew the space there and a new library building was constructed in the 1930s. The library took over the site of a former military hospital on the western side of Cambridge city centre, now between Robinson College and the Memorial Court of Clare College. The current building, designed by Giles Gilbert Scott, opened in 1934.


The first library

Construction of the main building in the 1930s

By the middle of the fourteenth century, the University of Cambridge owned a collection of books. These would have been kept in chests along with other valuables, rather than in a library building as would be recognised today.[3]

A common university library can be traced to the beginning of the 15th century, with the first direct reference to a 'library'. In March 1416 the will of William Loring was proved, which bequeathed three volumes to the library thus: "Item volo quod omnes libri mei juris civilis remaneant in communi libraria scolarium universitatis Cantebrigg' in perpetuum." In the second decade of the fifteenth century, the library found a home on the newly built Old Schools site.

The earliest catalogue is dated ca. 1424, at which time there were 122 volumes in the library.[4] The second earliest surviving catalogue was drawn up in 1473, and denotes 330 volumes. From the 16th century, the Library received generous donations or bequests of books and growth was considerably increased once the privilege of legal deposit had been granted.

The library's space was greatly extended with the building of the Cockerell Building on Senate House Passage in 1837–42.

The new library

Following an initiative by A. F. Scholfield (librarian from 1923 to 1949), it was decided to build a larger facility. The site selected comprised the eight-acre joint cricket field of King's and Clare Colleges. During the First World War, a large part of the site had been requisitioned by the War Office to create the 1st Eastern General Hospital, a facility for the Royal Army Medical Corps to treat military casualties.[5] The hospital had 1,700 beds at its height and treated some 70,000 casualties between 1914 and 1919.[6]

The new University Library building was designed by Giles Gilbert Scott, who also designed the neighbouring Clare Memorial Court (part of Clare College), and was constructed between 1931 and 1934. It is a Grade II listed building.[7] Inside are a number of 17th and 18th century bookcases including the ones designed for the old University Library by James Essex in 1731–34. The funds for the new library were raised by the colleges and private donors. The American philanthropist John D. Rockefeller provided the largest part of the funds for the library's construction. Sensing that it needed a grander entrance, Rockefeller persuaded the architect to add the distinctive front-facing tower.[8] The tower can be seen for several miles around Cambridge.[8]

The building bears a resemblance to Scott's industrial architecture, including Bankside Power Station (now Tate Modern). The library tower stands 157 feet tall, 6 feet shorter than the top of St John's College Chapel and 10 feet taller than the peak of King's College Chapel.

The library has been extended several times through ground annexes and underground extensions which allowed for new legal deposit documents to be stored. The main building houses the Japanese and Chinese collections in the Aoi Pavilion, an extension donated by Tadao Aoi and opened in 1998.

The University Library has also built a large storage facility in Ely which has more than 62 miles of shelving for future legal deposit books and periodicals. Work on a £17.1 million off-site facility to house the growing collection finished in 2018 and provides Cambridge University with one of the largest library storage buildings in the world.[9]

Legal deposit library

Cambridge University Library is one of the six legal deposit libraries under British law, the others being the British Library, the National Library of Scotland, the National Library of Wales, the Bodleian Library, Oxford, and the Library of Trinity College Dublin.[2]

As a legal deposit library, the University Library is entitled to claim without charge a copy of all books, journals, printed maps and music published in the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland. This has contributed to the library's large holdings of over seven million books and 1.5 million periodicals. Between 800 and 1,200 books a week are received through legal deposit.

From 6 April 2013, legal deposit also covers material published digitally and online, so that the Legal Deposit libraries can provide a national archive of the UK's non-print published material, such as websites, blogs and ejournals. Significant digitisation efforts continue as more manuscripts and early-modern books are acquired and scanned by the University of Cambridge.

The University Library behind Trinity College's Wren Library


The library is open to all members of the University of Cambridge. As is traditional among British university libraries, postgraduates and academics from other UK universities are allowed reference-only access to the library's collection, and members of the public may apply for access to use the Library for reference if their research requires access to materials held there. Students and academics from other libraries and institutions must submit a request to access prior to using the facilities in Cambridge.

The library is unique among the Britain's legal deposit libraries in keeping a large proportion of its books on open access and in allowing some categories of reader (for example Cambridge academics, postgraduates and undergraduates) to borrow from its collection. It has a Tea Room in which meals, snacks and beverages are available. The library regularly puts on exhibitions, free to the public, and featuring items from its collections.[10]


In 2002, the library began a special project termed Janus (after the Roman god of doorways) to provide a single point of networked access to catalogues of archives and manuscript collections held throughout Cambridge. This is a major development for the Cambridge Universities Libraries, especially because Cambridge is home to more than 100 libraries and research institutes, each with their own mandate and organisational structure. A widening number of participating repositories, both University and non-University, are working together to provide comprehensive coverage of archives in the city and surrounding area. Janus can be accessed by students and members of university both online and in-person.[11]

Digitisation project

Newton's personal, annotated copy of the first edition of Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica

In June 2010, Cambridge University announced that a £1.5 million donation would allow them to start digitising some of the collections in the University Library and eventually provide access to them free of charge over the Internet via the Cambridge Digital Library website. Initially the project will focus on two collections called "The Foundations of Faith" and "The Foundations of Science", which includes writings by Isaac Newton and his contemporaries, as well as documents from the Library's archives of Christian, Jewish and Islamic texts.

Friends of the Cambridge University Library

The Friends of the Cambridge University Library was established by a group of individuals, organisations and private donors who are committed to supporting the growth and development of the library. Members of the Friends regularly raise funds for future construction projects and archival restoration efforts, as well as the acquisition and purchase of rare books or manuscripts. Membership in the group is open to all alumni and members of the public interested in the preservation of knowledge and literature. Special events and tours are organised to recognise the contribution of the membership. The Friends of the Cambridge University Library has raised more than £150,000 through regular and special donations over the past five years.[12]

Special collections

Interior of the main reading room
Bronze book bollard in front of Library

As part of its collection of more than 8,000,000 volumes, the library contains a wealth of printed and manuscript material from earlier times. This includes:

  • A copy of the Gutenberg Bible from 1455, the earliest European example of a book produced using movable type.
  • Library of Lord Acton, Catholic historian and Regius Professor of Modern History in 1885–1902. The extensive library (around 60 000 volumes) collected by Lord Acton for research was bequeathed to the University Library on his death. The collection contains books from the 15th to 19th centuries, with emphasis on European history and church history. Many of the books contain annotations in Lord Acton's own hand.
  • An archive of Charles Darwin's correspondence and books from his working library (including copies of his own works). In November 2020, the library announced that two of Darwin's notebooks had been lost, probably stolen, around December 2000.[13]
  • The Hanson collection, containing important books on navigation and shipbuilding, as well as maritime atlases, some dating from the 16th century.
  • The Bradshaw collection, containing more than 14 000 books relating to Ireland, printed in Ireland, or written by Irish authors. This is one of the most important collections of its kind in the world. The collection was formed by Henry Bradshaw, d. 1886. At present, the emphasis is on books printed in Ireland before 1850.[14]
  • The library of the typographer Stanley Morison, who had close links with Cambridge University Press.
  • "The Royal Library", an important collection of more than 30 000 books assembled by John Moore (1646–1714), Bishop of Ely. The collection was bequeathed to the University Library by George I of Great Britain|George I in 1715, hence the name.
  • The library of the Royal Commonwealth Society, containing books, periodicals, pamphlets, photographs and manuscripts relating to the British Empire and the Commonwealth.
  • South Asian, Southeast Asian and Tibetan collections.
  • The Bible Society library and the library of the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge (SPCK).
  • The Taylor-Schechter Genizah Collection, a store of 140 000 manuscripts and manuscript fragments, mainly in Hebrew and Arabic, from the Ben Ezra synagogue in Cairo.
  • Codex Bezae Cantabrigiensis, an important codex of the New Testament dating from the fifth century, written both in Greek and Latin. The Greek text is unique, with many interpolations found nowhere else. It was given to the University of Cambridge by the Protestant scholar Theodore Beza, friend and successor of Calvin; hence the name.
  • Codex Zacynthius, a Greek New Testament codex dated paleographically to the 6th century CE.
  • The Cambridge Songs (Carmina Cantabrigiensia), a collection of Goliardic mediæval Latin poems, preserved on ten leaves of the Codex Cantabrigiensis.
  • E.G. Browne's collection of around 480 codices in Arabic, Persian and Turkish.
  • Several composer archives: William Alwyn, Arthur Bliss, Roberto Gerhard, Peter Tranchell.
  • Papers of Isaac Newton, Lord Kelvin, Ernest Rutherford, George Gabriel Stokes, Joseph Needham, G. E. Moore and Siegfried Sassoon, among others.
  • Archives of the Royal Greenwich Observatory.
  • Material and archives of the University of Cambridge, from probates and graces to records of various student societies.
  • Around 1.5 million maps.

Outside links

("Wikimedia Commons" has material
about University Library, Cambridge)


  1. "Facilities and resources | Undergraduate Study". 
  2. 2.0 2.1 "Introduction to legal deposit". British Library. 
  3. History of Cambridge University Library
  4. Higgins, Hannah. The Grid Book. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 2009. p.180. ISBN 978-0-262-51240-4
  5. "From the Front to the Backs: Story of the First Eastern Hospital". 1 July 2014. 
  6. "First Eastern General Hospital". 
  7. National Heritage List 1126281: University Library (Grade II listing)
  8. 8.0 8.1 Gardner, Jessica (1 May 2018). "The mysterious Cambridge library tower, supposedly full of banned books, is opening to the public". The Independent. 
  9. Savva, Anna (3 April 2017). "Cambridge University Library has run out of space for all its books and manuscripts". 
  10. Exhibitions at the University Library
  11. About Janus, Cambridge University Library
  12. Waldoch, Laura (16 December 2014). "Friends of the Library". 
  13. "Charles Darwin: Notebooks worth millions lost for 20 years" (in en-GB). BBC News. 2020-11-24. 
  14. Sayle, Charles (1916) A Catalogue of the Bradshaw Collection of Irish Books in the University Library, Cambridge. 3 vols. Cambridge: Printed for the University Library
  • Alston, R. C. (winter 1989) "Cambridge University Library", in: Research Libraries in OCLC; no. 89, pp. 2-8
  • Bradshaw, Henry (1889) Collected Papers. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press Textus
  • Fox, Peter (ed.) (1998) Cambridge University Library: the Great Collections. Cambridge University Press ISBN 0-521-62636-6 (Paperback ISBN 0-521-62647-1).
  • Oates, J. C. T., & McKitterick, D. (1986) Cambridge University Library: a History 2 vols.
    • Oates, J. C. T. Cambridge University Library: a History; [Vol. 1]: From the beginnings to the Copyright Act of Queen Anne. Cambridge: University Press ISBN 0-521-30656-6
    • McKitterick, David Cambridge University Library: a History; [Vol. 2]: the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Cambridge: University Press ISBN 0-521-30655-8
  • Ratcliffe, F. W. (2007) Books, Books, Just Miles and Miles of Books: across the library counter, 1950–2000. Cambridge: F. W. Ratcliffe (autobiography)
  • Sayle, Charles (1916) Annals of Cambridge University Library 1278–1900. Cambridge: University Library

Descriptions of collections

Legal deposit libraries

Bodleian LibraryBritish LibraryUniversity Library, CambridgeNational Library of ScotlandLibrary of Trinity College DublinNational Library of Wales