Cambridge University Library

Cambridge University Library

Cambridge University Library
Country England
Type Academic library
Established 15th century (before 1416)
Location West Road, Cambridge
Coordinates 52°12′18.6″N 0°6′29″E / 52.205167°N 0.10806°E / 52.205167; 0.10806Coordinates: 52°12′18.6″N 0°6′29″E / 52.205167°N 0.10806°E / 52.205167; 0.10806
Items collected
Size eight million items (approx.)
Legal deposit Yes
Access and use
Population served University of Cambridge, and others
Members University of Cambridge (and some other groups on application)
Other information
Director Anne Jarvis

Cambridge University Library is the main research library of the University of Cambridge in England. It is also the biggest of 114 libraries[1] within the University.The Library is a major scholarly resource, not only for the University of Cambridge’s academic community, but also for researchers nationally and internationally. Organisationally, Cambridge University Library comprises the main University Library and its affiliated libraries. As of 3 August 2015, there are currently twenty-one affiliated libraries associated with the main University Library, which is often referred to within the University as "the University Library" or just "the UL."

The main University Library is one of the six legal deposit libraries in the United Kingdom and Ireland, the others being the British Library, the Bodleian Library in Oxford, the national libraries of Scotland and Wales, and Trinity College Library Dublin.

Through legal deposit, purchase and donation it receives around 100,000 items every year. The main University Library is unique amongst the Legal Deposit libraries in keeping a large proportion of its material on open access and in allowing some categories of reader (for example Cambridge academics, postgraduates and undergraduates) to borrow from its collections. The main University Library holds approximately 8 million items (including maps and sheet music).

Its original location was the University's "Old Schools" near 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, the "First Eastern General",[2] on the western edge of Cambridge city centre, now between Robinson College and Memorial Court, Clare College.

The current acting librarian is Professor Christopher Young.


 The Cambridge University Library
Construction of the current main UL building in the 1930s.

As early as the fourteenth century, Cambridge University owned a collection of manuscripts and some printed 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 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."

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 onwards it received generous donations or bequests of books and growth was considerably increased once the privilege of legal deposit had been granted.


The University Library (background) and Trinity College Wren Library (foreground), as viewed from St John's College chapel tower

The current main University Library building was constructed between 1931 and 1934 under architect Giles Gilbert Scott, who also designed the neighbouring Clare Memorial Court (part of Clare College). It bears a marked resemblance to Scott's industrial architecture, a famous example of which is Bankside Power Station (the home of the Tate Modern). The library tower stands 157 feet (48 metres) tall, six feet shorter than the top of St John's College Chapel and ten feet taller than the peak of King's College Chapel. Contemporary reports stated that in opening the building, Chamberlain referred to it as "this magnificent erection", although this phrase is also attributed by tradition to George V. The fictional "Dark Tower" in the novel of that name (attributed to C. S. Lewis) was a replica of this building. Contrary to popular belief, pornographic material is not stored in the tower.[5]

The library has been extended several times. The main building houses the Japanese and Chinese collections in the Aoi Pavilion, an extension donated by Tadao Aoi and opened in 1998.

As a legal deposit library, the main University Library is entitled to claim without charge a copy of all books, journals, printed maps and music published in Britain and Ireland. This has contributed to the library's large holdings of over seven million books and 1.5 million periodicals. Between 800 and 1200 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, ejournals and CD-ROMs.


The library is open to all members of the University of Cambridge. As is traditional amongst British university libraries, research 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.

The library is unique amongst the UK'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 well-used "Tea Room" in which full meals, snacks and beverages are available. The library regularly puts on exhibitions, usually free to the public, and featuring items from its collections.

University Library
The Squire Law Library.


In 2002 the library began a project called "Janus" (after the Roman god) to provide a single point of networked access to catalogues of archives and manuscript collections held throughout Cambridge. A widening number of participating repositories - both University and non-University - promises in due course the near comprehensive coverage of archives in the city and surrounding area.[6]

Digitisation project

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, Islamic and Jewish texts.

Bronze book bollard, by Harry Gray


The official office of Librarian of the University was not established until 1577, when William James was appointed Librarian. The first set of regulations “for the Office of keeping the Library” were then formed in 1582.[7] Little is known of the administration before the late sixteenth century. Before 1577 the University Chaplain had overall responsibility of the Library amongst other duties. 16 potential Chaplain-Librarians have been identified.[7]

In 1721 the post of Principal Librarian (Protobibliothecarius) was created for Conyers Middleton "as a mark of sympathy with him in his opposition to Richard Bentley".[8] In 1828 this post was merged with that of Librarian (Bibliothecarius).

Various scholars have held the position. Abraham Wheelocke was librarian of the "Public Library" at Cambridge University, and was also Reader in Anglo-Saxon in the 17th century. Augustus Theodore Bartholomew was a librarian at Cambridge University for over twenty-five years. The classicist A. F. Scholfield was Librarian from 1923 to 1949. More recent University Librarians have included E. B. Ceadel, F. W. Ratcliffe (1980–1994), and Peter Fox (1994–2009). Other notable members of staff include the bibliographer Henry Bradshaw and the Uranian poet Charles Edward Sayle, author of a history of the library.


The main University Library hosts exhibitions in its Milstein Exhibition Centre. These change approximately every six to eight months and are open to all, free of charge. The current exhibition, Curious Objects features some unusual and unexpected items in the library's collections, from an ostrich feather and ectoplasm to an old boot, a boomerang and beard hair sent to Charles Darwin. The curious objects in the second public exhibition of the 600th anniversary year come from all corners of the world and span every era of human history from the Stone Age to the Space Age.[9] It will run until the 21st March 2017.

Special collections

Interior of the main reading room
Interior of the main reading room

As part of its collection[10] of more than 8,000,000 volumes, the library contains a wealth of printed and manuscript material from earlier times. This includes:

See also

Libraries within the University of Cambridge
Some manuscripts


  1. "Facilities and resources | Undergraduate Study". Retrieved 2015-07-09.
  2. "From the Front to the Backs: Story of the First Eastern Hospital". University of Cambridge. 2014-07-01. Retrieved 2015-11-05.
  3. "History of Cambridge University Library | Cambridge University Library". Retrieved 2015-09-10.
  4. Higgins, Hannah. The Grid Book. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 2009. p.180. ISBN 978-0-262-51240-4
  5. VarsityNothing racy in 'tower of porn'
  6. About Janus, Cambridge University Library
  7. 1 2 Oates, J.C.T. (1986). Cambridge University Library: a history. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. p. 491. ISBN 0521306566.
  8. "Protobibliothecarius". Janus. Retrieved 2015-09-09.
  9. Missing or empty |title= (help)
  10. Library Collections
  11. 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


Descriptions of collections

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