Visit Four – Ferns and Action Men – Cory Library and the Scott Polar Institute

It was a bleak and tangibly humid February morning when I set off for our two Graduate Trainee library visits yesterday – and it’s proof of the magic libraries can conjure that, by the end of the day, we were all very much in awe of the natural world. (And in a warm, dry place.)

After navigating the straits of 9 am Cambridge traffic, I arrived at the Botanic Gardens just as the group was moving to what will be the new home of the Cory Library. At the moment, the library is located in a beautiful old house at the centre of the Gardens. It was unstaffed for years, but open to the gardeners, which is why a particularly large part of the collection is practical horticulture. Attached to this article is an old photo, taken from here, of a gardener consulting a book in what seems to be the previous home of the library (i.e., soon to be previous previous). At the moment, the library is closed to students and other researchers – which means we didn’t find out much about the way it will function – but will open again once it relocates.

Jenny, the Cory librarian, has had the task to organise and catalogue the entire collection – to basically turn a large number of books into a library again, with only a little help from volunteers. It sounds like a tedious task, to be ‘squirreled away’ (to quote Jenny) in a house on your own, having to go through thousands of books; but the large windows that open onto the gardens and the gorgeous books themselves suggest that it may have actually been a very enjoyable experience.

And there are, indeed, many hidden diamonds in the Cory collection. Maps of the old Botanic Gardens (I’d never thought about how one would map trees and flowers!), Victorian books whose (often leafy green) binding is adorned with golden twirls, flowers, shoots and branches, periodicals with striking floral illustrations, books with Charles Darwin’s marginalia and – what stood out to me the most – a few examples of nature printing.

Nature printing is a process that creates impressions of plants on a soft material (lead, for instance), which is then used for printing. The result is incredibly accurate. The picture we were shown was of a couple of ferns, whose seeds were thinly visible through the leaves, and whose intricate roots still showed bits of mud. A quick google search led me to this 18th century volume of nature-printed botany, entirely digitised for the University of Cambridge Digital Library.

Returning to the library’s future location, it is a new room in a new building which mostly holds uncatalogued items in rolling stacks at the moment. It’s next door to the Herbarium, described to us as a ‘library of plants’, and I have to say I look forward to the two collaborating for exhibitions in the future. Other than that, we’ll have to wait and see what the Cory Library becomes in its new home, and I’d be keen to follow the developments since our own library will be going through a refurbishment soon.


We then walked to the Scott Polar Research Institute, and managed to take a peek at their museum (including a barrel organ taken on a polar expedition!) before we were welcomed into the library. Over 140,000 volumes about the Arctic, the Antarctic and roughly everything covered in snow can be found here – I was glad to be able to leaf through the latest issue of Iceland Review before leaving. There is clearly a strong tie between the library and the museum, with fascinating items displayed in all the rooms and generally a very ‘polar’ (but not cold!) ambience. One of the highlights was a bell taken from one of the ships, now used to announce tea breaks at 10.30 and 4 every day.

As usual with collections centred around one topic, the SPRI library is delightfully heterogeneous. Its subcategories ranged from ‘Geocryology’ to ‘Body temperature’, its languages from English to Inuit, its items from in-depth scientific studies of ice to a winter edition of the Action Man magazine. There is fiction about the Poles, from Edgar Allan Poe to Mills and Boon volumes. We even found a Monty Python DVD in the Antarctic section, as it includes a skit about Scott; we were sad to hear they don’t have Frozen on DVD.

The basement also holds a large collection of maps (and a rather frightening mannequin in a corner) – as with the UL and the Cory, we were reminded of how hard it is to catalogue these. Some of them are not accurate, some of them are meant for geographers, some of them are meant for tourists. And another difficulty I hadn’t thought about – even the space to unroll the map and study it properly can be an issue, and can mean that only one map can be studied at a time.

There is clearly a wide scope for both scientific and humanities research at the SPRI. Even more, it seems to be the ideal place for browsing, a lovely library where most readers – and indeed they have readers from all over the world – will find something that interests them. Possibly something they didn’t even know they wanted to find.



One Comment Add yours

  1. Gerry Meeten says:

    All very interesting. I particularly liked the carved lettering in oak around the tiny window marked REFERENCE BOOKS exhorting the borrower not to take the books to other parts of the building.

    Liked by 1 person

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