Visit Three – Large Glass Plates and Tiny Jam Jars at the Cambridge Central Library

Two and a half months after our Graduate Trainee visit to the University Library, we resumed our library adventures with a trip to the Cambridge Central Library. Located in the Lion Yard shopping centre, the library comprises three floors of shelves, reading spaces, meeting rooms, special collections, a mediatheque and various services to support the community.

Budget cuts were a recurring topic during our visit, and are arguably the biggest difficulty the Central Library is facing at the moment. One way to get around this has been to automatise the book’s circulation through the library as much as possible. Self-service machines are employed for issuing and returning books, as well as for paying fines – and then, of course, there is the famous (at least amongst us mini-librarians) sorting machine. Returned books go on a conveyor belt where their RFID tags are scanned, and then placed accordingly in the basket where they belong. Each basket is then taken to the appropriate floor where the books are shelved by a librarian. Despite our general excitement about the machine, we were told that it is now considered outdated, and will be replaced by a more modern version in the near future.

Similarly, the BFI Mediatheque – a collection of most of the video material in the BFI archive – is thought to have ‘reached the end of its life’. I couldn’t say what this means with certainty: while the technical equipment did look old-fashioned, having access to such a vast collection of material seems to me like an incredibly valuable resource. We were shown a short video of Cambridge in the 60s which we all found fascinating: distant yet familiar, with unknown shops housed in buildings we’ve all walked past so many times, it did nothing but underline the usefulness of the Mediatheque. (NB – Pedestrians were as wary of pavements and unwary of cars as they are today.)

Another aspect that surprised me, probably due to my familiarity with academic libraries, is how involved the Central Library is in the life of the local community. They run reading groups for children 6 times a week. They have a Youth Support service, a Parking Service and an Adult Careers Service. Finally, readers can suggest new purchases online, with each individual suggestion being looked at, replied to and justified (whether the answer is positive or negative) – perhaps standard practice in a lot of libraries but astounding when you how many more people use the Central Library compared to our library or one affiliated to a college, for instance.

After a tour of the library, we entered the Cambridgeshire Collection, which used to be independent of the Central Library and only house there temporarily, but seems to have now become a part of it for good. Founded in 1855, the Collection holds approximately 60,000 items to do with Cambridge and its surroundings, from newspapers to maps, from playbills to political leaflets. Their reading room is relatively small: some books, two microfilm readers, card index boxes and a photo collection. The latter, we were told, is sometimes used by people who want to see what a particular house or area looks like before they visit it – a delightful predecessor of googlemaps from that point of view.

The remainder of the sixty thousand items are held in the basement archive / storage space, many of them in rolling stacks, many of them still waiting patiently to be catalogued. The librarian explained that they had to come up with their own classification system, since the narrow focus of the archive meant any of the major systems (Dewey Decimal or Library of Congress) would have grouped most titles under the same classmark. Having such a large number of such varied items usually handled by one or two people has led to at least two different classification systems being used. It seems like a gargantuan task to handle, but it also has a number of hidden jewels. My favourites were photographer Lilian Ream’s glass plate negatives – large, heavy, kept in special boxes – and a few minuscule jam jars (filled with real jam and marmalade!) from the set made for Queen Mary’s Dolls’ House.

In lieu of a neat conclusion, I have a little anecdote. A couple of years ago, the third floor of the library was nearly bought by a private company. The local community reacted, founding a group called Friends of the Cambridge Central Library, signing petitions and investigating the background of said private company. It turned out that the company’s owner had a history of unethical business practices, so the partnership never happened. However, the comments of the petition signers are still available online and are illuminating as to the role public libraries still play in our day to day lives:

Libraries are part of our cultural legacy.

States one, while another says:

Pretty obvious really – public libraries are public and precious.

Featured image: The library in Queen Mary’s Dolls’ House.


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