Over the course of my academic career – comprising of school, an undergraduate degree and two dissertations – I have used 14 libraries on an average of 3 per week, been thrown out of 1 and walked the length of the Trans-Siberian railway in going to find a book and forgetting to take the sheet with the reference. These have included public libraries, departmental ones and central university collections, in both old and ultra-modern buildings. So I think I’m pretty well qualified to chunter on for a bit about such book-storage sites. Really I consider myself a bit of a connoisseur: I’ve spent enough time in libraries to judge what I like and think works best.
Consequently I have become very familiar with my sections of the Dewey Decimal system, or to quote Sabrina the Teenage Witch, the “dewey-find-it or dewey-not?” system.
It is a system with its own peculiarities: for instance, as I write this in my home public library, I’m delighted to notice that the system has numbers for “paranormal”, “philosophy”, “religion” and “computers” close together, creating a “stuff we don’t understand” aisle. Most university and departmental libraries operate on their own numbering systems, just to be different. However, these usually had one thing in common with their layouts, in that history books had lower numbers and so were situated on lower floors, while science texts took the floors above. I frequently had to descend into airless cellars to get the books I needed. Perhaps this is intentional, perhaps reflecting that scientists are climbing to dizzying heights in their research while historians by their very nature are buried in the past.
An exception to this was Cambridge’s English library. I should explain that though my Anglo-Saxon department teaches history and old languages, by some historical quirk it is part of the English faculty, and so shares their library. This was fine for most of the year until exam term, when suddenly lots of English students appeared out of the woodwork and monopolised all the desks, including the snug upstairs corner where my books were. Grr.
Of course, the first Cambridge library I was introduced to was my college’s, the Taylor Library. On the open day, the older students were keen to stress that its 24 hour key card access allowed one to come in and work in one’s pyjamas. I never indulged, but apparently others did. Notable also is the college’s strange clock that backs onto the library. On the hour, the sound of the pendulum lowering into a coffin below the street can be heard all through the bookshelves. Personally, I don’t like being reminded of my own mortality while reading for an essay in the early hours of the morning.
However, the Taylor Library pales into significance next to the sheer awesomeness of Corpus’s other library, the Parker. This contains Archbishop Parker’s (1504-75) collection of Anglo-Saxon and later medieval manuscripts that he rescued/nicked during the Dissolution of the Monasteries in the 1530s. His main motive was to find evidence that the earlier English church had not been under the stringent direct control of Rome, thus providing precedence for Henry VIII’s split from the Pope. You can still see his red chalk underlinings and annotations. I didn’t really work in here but I loved coming in for a mooch when it was open, particularly to see the Winchester Tropher (early music notation) and a collection of early pictures of elephants. There’s an old belief that once elephants fall over, they can’t get back up, so there are a few manuscript pics of elephants stuck on their backs, like flailing tortoises. The Parker library also houses the St Augustine Gospel. This manuscript is bloody awesome. It’s thought to be the first book in England, brought from Italy by missionaries in 597. When a new Archbishop of Canterbury is enthroned, he takes his vows over these gospels. That’s right, he borrows MY book (shared with a couple of hundred other students). Even the Pope wanted to have a good look at them when he visited England last year. Yeah.
My other favourite libraries in Cambridge were a bit more modern – Edwardian and 1930s respectively. The Haddon archaeology and anthropology library is full of old school charm, with tall windows, slidy ladders to reach the top shelves and chairs that don’t quite fit under the desks. It does feel like the sort of place where Indiana Jones could be hanging out. Similarly, the 1930s imposing University Library was once described as the perfect place to hide a body. This adds to its charm for me. I loved the miles of deserted shelves, slightly buzzing reading room and hidden nooks. It is still my ambition to have a building-wide game of live Cluedo here.
The UL also benefited from a well-stocked cafeteria, but the prize for library food has to go to Durham. Just by the university’s Bill Bryson library is a circular faculty building that is home to the finest pork and stuffing baguettes and funny-flavoured coffees I have come across on my many study-sustenance searches.
The Bill Bryson library is also the most modern library I’ve used; its glass extension was built only a couple of years ago. I’ve noticed that most central university libraries have their major refurbishments during summer – makes sense so as not to inconvenience their own students, but it’s a bit awkward for locals like me writing our dissertations. Durham’s recent innovation is individual study booths. A great idea, but unintentionally very well suited to quality nap time, helped by the lights turning themselves off after 20 minutes of inactivity (of course I’m not going to be moving around the booth, I’m reading!).
So there’s a whistle-stop tour of my memorable libraries. If I’ve learnt one thing, it’s that the age of a library is no barrier to providing ample napping opportunities, be they in booths, beanbags, or hidden corners of dusty shelves.