Visit Fourteen – The Theatre of Plants and the Stained Glass Hare at Christ’s and Pembroke

After unfortunately missing the visit planned for the graduate trainees (for an account of what their visit was like, check out Kathi’s blog entry), the librarians at Christ’s and Pembroke Colleges kindly agreed to give me a separate tour of their libraries.

My Christ’s visit started with a tour of their working library, given by Beth, the graduate trainee there. The library is welcoming but relatively small, which does however mean that their collection is kept up to date by frequent weeding. They use the Library of Congress classification scheme (as we do at my library) and also have a skeleton in a display case for medicine students; Beth and I spent a good amount of time trying to guess its gender by the size of the hipbones and phalanges, but alas, neither of us is an anatomist.

From there we went into the Old Library, where I was given enough time to admire the Theatre of Plants exhibition put together by Charlotte (Christ’s Assistant Librarian) with Beth’s help. The idea for this exhibition came from the discovery of the book that also gave its title – an Early Modern (1640) herbal, full of delicate drawings and helpful advice, such as what plant to eat for stronger fingernails. More intriguingly, it also held 46 individual plant specimens pressed between its page — which of course raises the question of what should and shouldn’t be kept in a library. Do pressed flowers belong in a library collection? Probably not. Do 18th century pressed flowers that have a strong connection to the material history of a book belong in a library collection? Probably yes. (Photos and more details here.) Other fascinating items were Adam Lonicer’s book about herbs, then-and-now pictures of the Christ’s gardens plus diary entries by its gardeners, plus a letter by a botanist whose name I sadly cannot remember (if anyone knows, do let me know) but who was meant to become the Cambridge Professor of Botany in 1825. Even though he was the protégé of the then-Chair-of-Botany, he somehow lost the position to John Stevens Henslow. Henslow then founded the Cambridge Botanic Gardens and became the mentor of Charles Darwin while the latter was a student at Christ’s – playing a crucial role in the development of the Origin of Species.

The Old Library also has a sort of basement annex, where their music hire collection is kept, together with a large number of rare books, most of which still need cataloguing. I’m almost certain more treasures, like the Theatre of Plants, will be found among these, so I am looking forward to the day when they are all available to search on iDiscover. The visit ended with squash, chocolate biscuits and a friendly chat from the library team – who will hopefully return the visit soon! 🙂

The Pembroke library was the visit I’d been looking forward to the most since the start of my traineeship. Having been inside once before, furtively (since I wasn’t a student there), and declared it the most beautiful library in Cambridge, I was keen to go back and admire it at ease. Charlotte, the Graduate Trainee at Pembroke, and Pat, the Librarian, both showed me around – and Charlotte helpfully gave me her notes at the end of the tour (thank you!!) which means this will be my most accurate report so far.

The current library was designed by Alfred Waterhouse in 1875, with a 2001 extension by the local architect Tristan Rees-Roberts, which includes a Law Library and the Yamada Meeting Room (more on this soon). The 1875 construction is wondrous – large windows, stained glass, a spiral staircase, vaulted rafters and comfortable study spaces. The more modern 2001 side of the building blends in well with the old – it has its own stained glass window by German glass artist Hans von Stockhausen – is well-lit and spacious, but did not take into account the need for silence in a library. Noise from the entrance hallway, where both readers and librarians are more likely to talk to each other, travels easily into the library.

The ground floor reading room is a standard college working library, its books catalogued with in in-house classmark system similar to Dewey. What is remarkable about it, however, is that it leads to the Art Library, a gorgeous room bathed in sunlight (Pat mentioned that they had to cut off the top of the shelves to achieve this). Half of the collection in here was donated by Tom Rosenthal – all new art books on every artist I could think of.

Upstairs, the Victorian reading room mostly holds English literature books. Pembroke is famous for its large number of alumni who went on to become poets and writers (more on that also soon), and is still considered probably the best college to apply to for English students [although it has to be said that in recent years it is Sidney Sussex students that have achieved the top results in the subject]. It was also interesting to hear that this is where the librarian’s desk used to be located, which I found surprising since the space is so open.

Pat then took me to the basement, which is where the rare books and archives are stored. They have an archivist working there, as well as a few volunteers who come in and dust the books once a week. Again, as with Christ’s, the rare books are many and impressive – a Bible with an impressive binding, made of gold and red velvet, stood out.

Finally, we went to the Yamada Room upstairs; Yamada was the founder of the Nihon University in Tokyo and the room bears his name to honour his generous contribution to the library extension. Its most striking feature, however, is definitely the stained glass: a hare, an owl, a shark, a moose, a rooster and a ram are accompanied by relevant excerpts from Ted Hughes’s (Pembroke alumni) animal poems. While I’m a bigger fan of Sylvia Plath’s writing than of Hughes’s, he is an excellent poet and his nature poetry has always been my favourite. In the same room, a bookcase contains copies of his poetry volumes, with personal dedications to his friend on the front page. I was allowed to leaf through these books (all the while squealing with excitement) – and couldn’t help but notice that one of them was a Plath book with Hughes’s dedication, in which he did not mention Sylvia at all – an experience which I think was made even better by my surroundings. Looking back on all these visits, it’s heartwarming to have seen so many places which people have built, maintained, and improved solely for the sake of books and reading. The Yamada room, where even the windows had poetry on them, somehow seemed like a satisfying conclusion to my library wanderings. Here is just a fragment of Hughes’s Crow Goes Hunting:

Decided to try words.

He imagined some words for the job, a lovely pack-
Clear-eyed, resounding, well-trained,
With strong teeth.
You could not find a better bred lot.

He pointed out the hare and away went the words
Crow was Crow without fail, but what is a hare? ”


(Featured image of Yamada room from the Pembroke website).


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