Hidden away behind a small black door on Free School Lane, the Cambridge Colleges’ Conservation Consortium (CCCC) is a small but very exciting place. Founded in 1987, its mission is to conserve and preserve valuable manuscripts and books from the libraries of member colleges. Eleven Cambridge colleges are permanent members at the moment, with another four memberships given on an annual base to other colleges. The influx of manuscripts seems to depend greatly on the budget colleges allocate towards conservation – most items we saw during our visit were from St John’s and Gonville and Caius, both renowned among students for their wealth – but, of course, this is not necessarily representative of how things are in general.
In a sunny office-laboratory-general working space, three conservation specialists work on various projects, depending on the demand from colleges. The conservation process seems to be an incredibly complex one: different materials require an array of different techniques, and the conservator must know exactly how to treat each document and to have knowledge of both chemistry and textual culture/history.
The chemical composition of ink was a topic that came up more than once. We were shown a manuscript where the iron-based ink had rusted on the paper, one where ink had burned through the paper – I can only imagine how hard it must be to restore that – as well as a fascinating collection of Chinese manuscripts (thankfully) written in water-insoluble ink. Françoise, who worked with this small collection, told us about how difficult it was to find a cleaning method that was gentle enough for these delicate documents. Eventually, she settled on something called (if memory serves) ‘table cleaning’: a thin layer of water is placed on a flat surface, then each thin page is left to float on the water. This would have obviously been impossible had the ink been water-soluble: it was a good reminder of how important it is to preserve these manuscripts with the utmost care, since each item is so unique. If I accidentally spilled water on one of my books, I would simply go out and buy another copy; however, if the water had washed the ink off any of these manuscript, that object – with or without the information it holds – would be lost forever.
From the CCCC, we crossed the street to the Whipple Library, which (I thought) I already knew well from my time as a student. Dedicated to that wonderful overlap between sciences and the humanities – the history and philosophy of science – I knew it was the go-to for a lot of more abstract issues that interested me (categories, patterns, the language of science, etc.) and also that it had no fines, which is a blessing when you’re student. But there was a lot about its history and Special Collections in particular that I wasn’t aware about, and Anna Jones, the Whipple Librarian, did an amazing job of talking us through the most interesting stories about her library.
Founded in 1944 by Robert Whipple, the library is now the largest library for the history and philosophy of science in the UK. Whipple’s interest not only in science, but in scientific instruments as well, is still visible now: books on both theory and practice sit beside various artefacts from the history of science. The library still holds Whipple’s catalogue of purchases, with title, author, date and price – the most valuable book in it is a first-edition copy of Newton’s Principia. Other delightful things included an architecture book with a bright, hand-painted cover (watercolour trees with big red splashes in their branches, red and blue dots drawn over the page edges, like the work of some precocious child-artist), a book with volvelles (about which I had tweeted excitedly only a few weeks before our visit) and a small book by Carl Freidrich von Weizsäcker printed in Paris during German occupation (all such books were systematically destroyed after the war, which makes this copy rare if not unique).
My favourite, however, was a first edition of John Wilkins’s An Essay towards a Real Character, and a Philosophical Language (1668). I’d heard about Wilkins through Borges’s ‘Analytical Language of John Wilkins‘, a superb essay that was basically the starting point for my Master’s thesis. Wilkins’s work is a surreal/brilliant mix of linguistics, semiotics, biology and philosophy. I’ve sadly only read bits of it so far, but was very excited to see such an old copy of it in front of me. Anna also drew our attention to a section about Noah’s Ark, where Wilkins tries to figure out how many animals would’ve fit on the ship, and where. He clearly gave this problem a lot of thought, drawing tables, excluding the mule, for instance, ‘because ’tis a mungrel production’, while including mosquitoes since they didn’t need their own stalls. The result is the picture attached to this article: the entire middle section of the Ark is filled with sheep, since he calculated that 77 of these would be needed in order to feed all other carnivorous animals on board.