Trinity and St John’s are by far the two richest colleges in the University of Cambridge, boasting a bewildering number of famous alumni, from Isaac Newton (Trinity) to William Wordsworth (John’s), with 40 Nobel Prize winners between them. Among other perks, this means that their libraries are not only in possession of extremely valuable rare books collections, but also that they have the means to look after them accordingly.
The working library at St John’s is the largest and best designed college library I have seen so far, and Chloe (the John’s trainee) did a great job of answering all our questions about how the library is run. Having had a college library that was well-stocked but quite dark and cramped, I was impressed by the large and beautifully lit working areas that John’s have.
From the working library, we went to the Old Library, dating from 1624 and housing rare books, manuscripts, and other archival material. These are stored in special bookcases with their own peculiar card index – on the side of every bookcase, two small wooden doors open to reveal a list of the titles on that specific shelf, handwritten in Latin. These were, in a way, a metaphorical bridge into the past, as I suddenly realised not just how old these books were, but also that they’d been sitting patiently on the exact same spot on the shelf as they were now, for hundreds of years. Among the books was also William Wordsworth’s life mask, moulded in 1815 by Benjamin Robert Haydon (more info on it here), a strange half-head with its eyes closed fixed on the library wall. Kathryn, the Special Collections Librarian, then showed us more items relating to Wordsworth; what stood out for me was the comparison between a letter in which he was bequeathing a portrait of himself to John’s – written in beautiful cursive – and a draft of a poem – almost unintelligible from the corrections, scrawled hurriedly and carelessly. Turns out Wordsworth was relatively human after all.
The other two special items Kathryn showed us were both large books whose illustrations have now become more important than their text. One of them was the fourth edition (1688) of Milton’s Paradise Lost — the first, in fact, that was purchased widely in England. After three editions published as small volumes, with no illustrations or preface, the publisher Jacob Tonson put out this large edition, ‘adorn’d with sculptures’ (i.e., engravings), with a portrait of Milton at the start and enough room for the text to breathe and sprawl as the author had intended it to. Paradise Lost suddenly became wildly popular, and it’s fascinating to think that arguably the best epic poem of English literature would have been buried by history, had it not been for the clever marketing of a 17th century publisher. The other was a copy of the Great Bible, the first bible in English to be authorised (by Henry VIII) for reading in churches. Its famous title page (the featured image to this article) ignores the rise of Renaissance perspective going on at the time in Europe, and instead places an unnaturally large Henry in the centre of the page, as the head of church and state, magnanimously offering the word of God to his (somewhat shorter) subjects. In the bottom right corner, prisoners in jail happily welcome the Great Bible; at the top, a tiny God (his whole body the size of Henry’s shoulders) spreads his arms benevolently.
After this fascinating glimpse into early printing, Fiona, the biographical librarian at John’s, gave us a quick presentation of what her unique job involves. St John’s College has kept a record of its students from 1629 until the present day, recording as much information about them as possible, from their mother’s maiden name to the date of their death. Fiona is now solely in charge of curating and updating this vast amount of information. She and Chloe check obituaries daily, and also try to find out if any John’s alumni have recently got married, changed jobs, or had children. This may all seem like just mountains and mountains of data, but Fiona explained that there’s an interesting human dimension to all this: she gets to help people discover their ancestry and also send them letters on behalf of the college for significant events in their lives — this keeps the alumni in contact with their college, and adds a personal touch to the relationship.
From John’s we went to Trinity, where Rosslyn (the trainee there) started the visit with a tour of the Law library and one of the working library. Both were interesting, but pale in comparison to Trinity’s Wren Library. Designed by Christopher Wren (he of St Paul’s Cathedral) in 1676, it’s an exquisite building fit for the exquisite collection it holds.
It would be difficult to offer here even a comprehensive list of the items we saw, let alone one of everything significant that the Wren houses. One category of books I had not heard of before were hornbooks, an Early Modern educational material intended primarily for children: these usually took the shape of a page mounted on bone/wood/leather/stone and covered in horn or mica, with a handle that children could hold it by. We saw a good number of these precious small things, proof that other things besides books can belong in a library. Below, a photo of a certain Miss Campion holding a hornbook, from Andrew White Tuer’s History of the Horn-Book:
From here onward, a wealth of material passed before our eyes and through our hands. An original edition of Shakespeare’s First Folio (we were assured that Trinity has a second copy, as well), Newton’s own copy of the first edition of the Principia, with handwritten notes for the second edition, A. A. Milne’s manuscript for Winnie the Pooh, autographed poems by Milton, and a 14th century manuscript of Piers Plowman. I got to leaf through Wittgenstein’s (in pencil, even less intelligible than Wordsworth’s drafts) and Ramanujan’s famous notebooks — and was generally spellbound by the extraordinary value of the collection.
The manuscripts weren’t even the only modern items on display; in an age where the printed book is infinitely replicable, it’s hard to imagine how anything other than manuscripts would be of value. And yet the Wren exceeded my expectations again, with a display of modern books bound by Jean de Gonet, each individual binding a work of art in itself, each book an artefact.
The entire visit in the Wren felt very much like wandering through the Louvre or some other great museum, where everything you see and touch is not only almost invaluable, but also bears the marks of some of the greatest thinkers and artists that have shaped society into what it is today. Having not one, but two copies of the Shakespeare First Folio is astounding in itself, and another testament to the wonders of the Wren was a large box marked ‘Hockney’ lying on the floor in a corner. When we inquired about it, we were told it was a large art book signed and donated by David Hockney, together with a special table on which it should be displayed. The library staff had tried to add it to the exhibition, but felt like it didn’t fit in, and it was therefore sitting in a bay until a better solution was found for it. This may sound like neglect to some, but it is in fact just an indication of how outstanding the Trinity Wren collection is, when a signed book by David Hockney doesn’t quite make the cut.
To see most of the items mentioned here yourself, you can go to the Wren Digital Library website and admire their digitised equivalents.