Visit Thirteen – Purple Thrones and Circularity at the Divinity Library

Divinity (now called ‘Theology and Religious Studies’ although the faculty has retained its old name) is one of only two subjects to have been taught at Cambridge throughout its history. Despite its age, the faculty has kept up with the times: not only is the curriculum constantly evolving, it is also housed (since 2001) in an beautiful modern building, together, of course, with its library.

The library is a beautiful circular room, getting plenty of sunlight not only from the windows but also from a circular skylight at the centre of its ceiling.  A similar arrangement in the floor/ceiling of the floor below means that the light travels all the way to the ground floor, forming a sort of magical light column that seemed very appropriate for a Divinity library. I found that all the round shapes inside made it feel peaceful and therefore conducive to studying, I imagine. Comfortable seating, both at desks and in more private areas between the shelves, most likely helps with that as well — the highlight was a large and irresistibly-comfy-looking armchair which friends who’d worked here in the past had dubbed ‘the purple throne‘. Amanda, the Library Assistant there, who kindly agreed to gave us a tour, mentioned other changes in the physical space meant to make their resources more accessible to students: moving and re-cataloguing a significant chunk of their collection (but more on that soon) as well as moving some of the computers upstairs, so that students working there wouldn’t have to run downstairs every time they need to check the catalogue.

Commenting on the library space and furniture might sound trivial, but, from my experience of working in libraries, space is essential. My friends who spoke about the ‘purple throne’ would sometimes choose to study in the Divinity Library simply because of these armchairs – because they provide a degree of physical comfort that they couldn’t find elsewhere. A much, much, much more in-depth analysis on this topic can be found on the FutureLib blog, detailing an innovative programme that has looked into the importance of user experience (and often space) in Cambridge libraries – it’s a fascinating read.

Back to Divinity, they use an in-house classification system where the first number denotes the topic of the book (so 1 is Judeo-Christian literature, 2 is the Bible, etc.) and is followed by the first three letters of the author’s surname. Their current re-cataloguing project targets two of the problems that have appeared as a result of this: one, at the moment Islamism, Buddhism and Hinduism are all grouped together under one number (presumably a remnant of the old inclination to simply divide religions into Christian and non-Christian). This, of course, means re-cataloguing, re-shelving, re-labelling, etc. but the flexibility of the classification system also means that a new number can simply be added at the end for a new topic. The second problem is that a lot of authors’ name start with the same three letters, which leads to a large number of books having the same classmark. This leads to students finding the right section quite easily, but then spending an extra 5 minutes finding the specific book they’re looking for.

After the tour, Matthew, the Senior Library Assistant, explained to us how Moodle works and how the library contributes to it. All supporting material for the Theology and Religious Studies courses is uploaded by librarians, who are in charge of managing it, dealing with copyright and generally just juggling this vast amount of information. What was even more interesting for me though was getting a glimpse of Voyager, the library management system used at the moment by the University (and by the Library of Congress, according to wikipedia!), which I’d never seen before.

From Matthew’s office we moved to Clemens’s – the head librarian – office, where I got a glimpse into how a faculty library is run. Many of the things he mentioned were things I had expected: having to catalogue using the in-house system, or having to make decisions on purchasing books that have been recommended by the library users (purchasing is otherwise focused on faculty reading lists), even having to deal with large donations of books. But there were also issues which I hadn’t thought about before and which perhaps show a different side to librarianship: Clemens said he sends between 20 and 50 emails everyday, and this more human dimension of his position is essential in securing funding, pacifying discontented readers, and just generally ensuring that the library runs smoothly. One specific example was that alumnis are not normally allowed to access the collection – unlike, for instance, at the UL. This has of course also meant having to turn people away as politely as possible, but the decision was taken in order to improve accessibility to books for current students. My impression was indeed that the library does its very best to offer their readers everything they need, from a well-curated collection to a comfortable study space — and I’m personally hoping I’ll somehow get the opportunity to lounge on those amazing purple armchairs and read a good book in there soon.


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