Varsity gets a rare glimpse into the behind-the-scenes workings of Cambridge's University Library

The UL: the building that welcomes over 1,100 of us every day and expands below the surface at a shelf rate of 3km per year. It reduced our fresher selves to tears when we contemplated the collective IQ of the people sharing our desk. It frustrates us daily during the hot but vain pursuit for a book on the desolate sixth floor of the North Front – or was it Wing? While so many of us feel we know this place inside out, Varsity’s intimate tour reveals a new world unseen by the average Cambridge undergraduate. Have you ever wondered what happens to the book you just gave back? Or even who works in those many rooms where no student treads? What actually goes on in that tower? 

It’s right up to the 17th floor where Vanessa Lacey, Head of the Tower Project, revels in the musty smell of 19th century ‘trash’, which she has been inhaling daily for the last few years. Trash? The recently acquired Peter André autobiography is perhaps the modern equivalent of the texts that suddenly started flooding into the UL’s

former buildings, after it first became a legal deposit library in the early 1800s. ‘You can imagine the sort of chaos there was. The students were all sitting there reading their Greek and Theology, and suddenly they’re getting Little Martha’s Book of Geography and all these children’s books that nobody really knew what to do with. So when we moved here in the 1930s, they dumped them all up in the tower.’ What of the explicit images rumoured to be lurking somewhere among these dusty tomes? ‘Well, so far we’ve managed to unearth a few racy catalogues of electric and magnetic corsets made by a certain Mr. Harness. Could be a sex toy, or possibly a slimming aid. Who knows?’ 

A glimmer of hope still remains, though, for Cambridge’s best-loved rumour; a glimmer – or a desk lamp. Students have mythologised the light on the top floor which stays on after nightfall, maintaining that it illuminates the smutty literature over which ageing professors stoop into the early morning. Maintenance denies its existence. Suspicious. Downstairs, we’ve managed to steal a few precious minutes of Larissa Erzinclioglu’s time, one of the library’s book fetchers. Eight to ten fetchers are on duty at any moment, with extra conscripts over exam term to cope with the increased onslaught of requests launched by students. ‘Seventeen minutes is our average fetching time. Pretty good compared to other legal deposit libraries: the British Library has deposits in Yorkshire, where books are located by robots and sent down to London by lorry. Even the Bodleian can take up to three days. There are stories of Oxford professors driving to Cambridge to read books here because we’re so much quicker. 

When you hand in your book to the desk, it normally takes a maximum of two days to be digested through the system and put back on the shelves: quite a feat considering that an average of 821 loans are made each day. Manned by humans alone, with all its deposits stored on site, faster than anywhere else – the UL is truly the crème de la crème. 

And, as we discover as the afternoon goes on, there’s more to the University Library - even more than its role as the grand site of desperate attempts to come up with a sexy dissertation title, or to grasp the intricacies of 18th century economic policies. The UL also houses some of the best craftsmanship in the country, and is one of the very few places where book conservation is carried out in the UK. Lucy Cheng, a conservator, shows us the intricate work of repairing old manuscripts, a rare but essential skill when faced with the Taylor-Schechter Genizah Collection that she is currently working on. Its 190,000 manuscript fragments, mainly in Hebrew, Judaeo-Arabic and Arabic, are an unparalleled resource for the study of Jewish history in the Middle Ages. 

The work of the industrious bookbinders happens next door. Tools and noisy machines fill the room as they sew and chop, cover and emboss titles onto the books. Jim Bloxam, senior Book Conservator, explains that with the advent of online material, the skills in this room are becoming rare indeed. He talks also of the difficulties that are prone to arise when sharing their resources with other academic institutions. Shipping their delicate material to other countries “can be a bit of a nightmare”– especially considering the recent terrorism scares.The UL might seem like a rigid, static building – but this is a place of movement and transition, of international exchange and flux. People come from all over the world to use the library that we casually stroll to after lunch.

That being said, there are their loyal members: Professor MacCaffery, now in his early nineties, can still be seen industriously working away in the Reading Room most days of the week. 

Next time you visit the library, then, forget for a moment about your weekly essay, cast aside the tempting Tea Room, and explore its majestic realms a little further. Visit the exhibition centre to view some of those treasures that lie hidden in its depths. Delve into the manuscripts room and request to see the famous Gutenberg Bible. Or even check out one of the other numerous UL blogs on the library website (the tower project blog is quite a treat).Throw away your academic insecurities and remember that while you are here you are one of the few people in Europe to have access to so many priceless treasures, such a vast array of literature, and so much trash. From the sublime to the ridiculous: Cambridge University Library welcomes us all.

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