Dr Jessica Gardner has been the Cambridge University Librarian since April 2017 and is a Fellow of Selwyn College Alice Boagey / Alice the Camera © University of Cambridge with permission for Varsity

Name: Jessica Gardner

Job: University Librarian & Director of Library Services

Hometown: Cambridge

Years working at the UL: 6.5 years

What does your job as the University Librarian entail?

My job is leadership for the University and Faculty Libraries with responsibility for a team of amazingly skilled people who preserve and enable access to information and knowledge – spanning thousands of years of human history in more than 4,000 languages – to advance learning, teaching, research and public engagement.

What was your route into a career as an academic librarian?

As a student at the University of Leeds I needed to work to support my studies, and being a lark rather than an owl I ended up employed in their university library rather than in the student bar. After my PhD I had the opportunity to combine my research interests and early library career by working with literary archives and my career kept building from there.

“Go read and dream your way in this watery landscape”

What is your favourite fiction and non-fiction book?

What an impossible question for a librarian who “lives” in the giant story house that is the UL! Because it is set in the Fens, for a novel I’m picking Graham Swift’s Waterland (1983), and for non-fiction, because it has such a beautiful chapter on swimming in the River Cam, Roger Deakin’s nature writing classic, Waterlog (1999). Go read and dream your way in this watery landscape.

What makes the UL special?

Studying there, working there, you feel part of the University and its history. It’s a space to get lost in, sometimes literally, but also through your own imagination and thought. And I want to make that an experience that is accessible for as many people as possible.

How does the UL compare to other libraries you have worked at?

It’s the only place I’ve worked where the sound of my summer is the call of peregrines hunting round the seventeen-storey library book tower!

What is your favourite and least favourite part of the job?

Honestly I do have the best job in the world, but when you lead an organisation you know all the good bits are because of the skill and talent of the staff team you work with. The worst? Actually it was when I had to make the announcement on the UL public speaker system on the 18th of March 2020 to announce the library was closing because of the COVID-19 pandemic and we didn’t know when we would be able to open again.

“We didn’t know when we would be able to open again”

What is the most borrowed book from the UL?

So much of our collection today is electronic, and the most borrowed book in recent times is an e-book, Public Law (4th edition) by Mark Elliott and Robert Thomas (OUP, 2020), which had 5481 unique requests in one year. Last year the most borrowed print book from the UL with 107 loans was Mathematical Methods for Physics and Engineering by Riley, Hobson and Bence (CUP, 2006). Pleasingly, both books are by Cambridge academics.

Favourite historical item in the UL?

Can I cheat and choose a whole exhibition? In 2019 the UL hosted “The Rising Tide” exhibition about the long struggle for educational equality for women at Cambridge. Every object told a story, from confetti and rockets thrown at a protest in 1897 against women being awarded formal degrees to a “Behave Badly” badge from 1984 given to female students by Professor Lisa Jardine. You can see some of the objects and their stories at: https://cudl.lib.cam.ac.uk/collections/therisingtide

What is something about the UL that we wouldn’t know?

Behind the scenes at the UL there is a Conservation Studio where the team work on our historic collections, applying heritage and science techniques to help preserve texts on paper, papyrus, bone and vellum and so much more. And, because it is the 21st century and we are in a digital age, we also have a forensic digital preservation lab to help us look after digital records. So much of what we do is hidden, but it helps to deliver our purpose to preserve and make as widely available as possible the knowledge we hold.

“Honestly I do have the best job in the world”

Who has been the best guest on the Really Popular Book Club?

The joy of the Really Popular Book Club is that it is open to everyone and has a brilliant range of speakers. Highlights include Professor Lucy Delap from the Faculty of History on “The Diaries of Adrian Mole”; writer Dr Malachi McIntosh on “The Mermaid of Black Conch”; and a discussion of the children’s book Wonder with Lotte Mills, then a second-year English student at Newnham College and BBC Young Writer of the Year 2020.

What did you want to be when you grew up?

I think I wanted to spend my days climbing trees and reading books, so I guess I sort of lived up to that with a degree in English Literature and then a life in libraries!

What is your favourite spot in Cambridge?

The stretch of river meadows between Stourbridge Common and Fen Ditton, where you begin to nudge out of the city and can keep walking for miles.


Mountain View

What your favourite Cambridge library says about you

What is your favourite library in Cambridge (other than the UL)?

You know that question could get me into so much trouble with all my brilliant colleagues across Cambridge! Ever the diplomat I’m going to choose Selwyn’s new Bartlam Library, where I’m a Fellow, in honour of the important role all the College libraries play to support students, especially when they first come to Cambridge.

Memorable anecdote from working at the UL?

The day the Charles Darwin “Tree of Life” manuscript notebooks were returned to the UL after our public appeal for help to find them. They had been missing and believed stolen for over 20 years. It is an extraordinary story… they were returned in a bright pink giftbag: see https://www.cam.ac.uk/stories/TreeOfLife

If you could send a message to all the students here, what would it be?

“When in doubt, go to the library” (Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets).