Visit Ten – Elephants and Dragons at the Parker Library and the Judge Business School

Matthew Parker, Archbishop of Canterbury from 1559 until his death in 1575, was a librarian before librarianship was a profession. Tasked with finding Medieval foundations for Anglicanism by Elizabeth I, he collected and managed (in a very forward-thinking way – looking after its cataloguing, administration, finances, and preservation) a large collection of manuscripts which he then bequeathed to Corpus Christi College, Cambridge (of which he was a fellow). As a result, the Parker Library of Corpus now holds over 600 manuscripts, the largest collection of Anglo-Saxon writing in the world.

After an engrossing historical introduction given by Alex Devine, Sub-Librarian at the Parker, we were given some time to admire some of these invaluable items, together with their digital equivalents at Parker on the Web. Each book has its own amazing history  — such as the Bible Thomas Becket would’ve had in his pocket when he was murdered in the cathedral — as well as its specific material beauty, whether due to gorgeous medieval illuminations or barely intelligible scripts. My favourites were the bestiaries, which I studied in depth at university, strange zoological dictionaries which perhaps bear the mark of idiosyncratic Medieval thought more than any other surviving works. The featured image of this article, in fact, is an ‘elephant rat’ (‘Hours of Joanna the Mad’, Bruges 1486-1506 / BL, Add 18852, fol. 203r). Here is a video of the Corpus Christi Fellow Librarian explaining more about bestiaries and specifically about elephants. It was thought, in the 12th century, that elephants do not have knee joints, meaning that if they fell over they could never get up:

Downstairs, we went into the reading room, where Library Assistant Charlie gave us a quick talk about manuscript handling and paleography. We had a quick look into the safe holding the rarest manuscripts, we learnt to identify the letter g in different medieval scripts and also found out (at least it was new information for me!) that quite a few people advocate not using any sort of special gloves when handling manuscripts, since they mean you lose sensitivity in your fingers and may in fact treat the pages with less care as a result. The shelves there were packed with new books relevant to the collection upstairs, which I think is an excellent decision; too often rare book collections are not supported by helpful material that will make them intelligible to a 21st century reader. (I noticed one called Cognitive Approaches to Old English Poetry and swiftly added it to my reading list.)


From the Parker Library, we moved to the Judge Business School library; if there was such a thing as a library spectrum, the Judge would be at the opposite end from the Parker. Housed in a fascinating building that would have confused Gaudí, its oldest book dates from 1954. Consequently, their focus is much less on engaging with the collection, shifting instead to engaging with the readers, helping them make the most of the library resources, making sure these resources are what they need. There is, for instance, an entire shelf area dedicated to Game of Thrones books and DVDs — dragons can apparently be successful business models.

They have a UX (user experience) librarian, and generally what came across as a very close-knit, friendly library team. This is visible everywhere in the library, in the different types of working spaces, activities that students have been involved in, posters, seat cushions with motivational messages, or the fact that you can borrow things like ‘story cubes’ to improve your study group’s creativity. We also had a look at Bloomberg, the library’s expensive but infinitely useful app, which the librarians run ‘Bloomberg Breakfast’ training sessions for. I didn’t understand most of the numbers and symbols on it, being a bit of a business ignoramus, but it shows stocks, shares, the movement of cargo ships, as well as some sort of billionaire eBay. We checked the pound versus the euro for the past decade or so, and shed a tear at the colossal Brexit-induced dip.

Finally, we had cake and soft drinks on the Judge’s outside terrace, where Ange, Andrew and Katie gave us a more general view of what it means to be a business librarian. Students are often slightly older than in other departments (there is no business undergraduate degree at Cambridge) and as a result have different needs: less hand-holding, more DVDs for their children, less ivory-tower-academia, more practical skills (they’re equally vulnerable to cake, though). As a librarian, liaising with vendors seems to involve a lot more glamorous dinners than usual, but also a lot more keeping-up with a quickly evolving world.

While I initially thought visiting the Corpus Christi Parker Library and the Judge Business School Library was a bit of an odd grouping, by the end I was happy this had happened. It was a good reminder of how different academic libraries can be; how the Parker needs to look towards the past and the Judge towards the future; how they can work well yet differently and, in fact, can only work well if differently.


(Here is another confused medieval elephant carrying a castle; origin of London’s Elephant and Castle area.)


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