The Evolution of the College Library

Books were once so scarce, they were chained to the desks. Now libraries can barely hold all the volumes they have.

University of Cambridge academic James W. P. Campbell and Will Pryce, the award winning architectural photographer, have spent the last three years visiting 84 libraries in 21 countries, compiling a history of library design from the ancient world to the present day. The Library: A World History covers the development of university libraries across the world, as well as public and private libraries. Here we provide a selection of key moments in the history of the development of academic libraries.

While we speak of libraries everywhere being under threat, university libraries are coping with ever greater quantities of printed material created by the digital age. Architecturally they are changing, too.

Trinity Hall, Cambridge, United Kingdom, 1590

The Trinity Hall library is unusual in retaining its original lecterns. Early Medieval University libraries were all fitted out in a similar way, with the books chained to the desks and read at lecterns. The Trinity Hall lecterns are very late, dating from around 1600 and are designed to stand at, with smaller desks sliding out from beneath the shelf. The chains have been removed from the books. The earliest universities in Italy relied on monastic collections and indeed had very few buildings of their own. Although many ancient universities boast library buildings, most have been refitted many times to absorb expanding collections. Lectern libraries had a limited capacity but were perfectly adequate to accommodate the relatively small numbers of books universities had in the Middle Ages. In 1338 the Sorbonne, which boasted one of the richest collections in Europe, had only 358 books available for consultation. In all it had just 1,728 volumes in its catalogue of which 300 were marked as lost. Most University collections were far smaller.

Queens’ College, Cambridge, United Kingdom, Mid-17th Century

In the 17th century the effects of printing began to be reflected in library fittings. The library at Queens’ College, Cambridge had been constructed in the middle of the 15th century to serve the needs of the President, four Fellows, and their dozen or so students who were then resident. Each college in Oxford and Cambridge had its own library to make up for the relatively poor collections kept by the universities. The Queens’ College library was constructed as a lectern library but by the 17th century the lecterns could not store the increasing numbers of books the college had acquired and the desks were raised to become upright bookcases. The room thus became divided into “stalls.” The new arrangement was not entirely satisfactory as the taller bookcases blocked much of the light from the windows leaving the centre of the room in shadow.

Codrington Library, All Soul’s College, Oxford, 1751

The division of rooms into stalls seen at Merton College, Oxford and later in libraries such as Queens’ College, Cambridge, was widely adopted in Oxford and Cambridge in the 17th century. Elsewhere in Europe the normal solution was to place the shelving against the walls. This left the problem of where to put the windows. In the Codrington Library in Oxford the windows are down one side and placed high above the bookcases. The result is a library of extraordinary spaciousness and light. The reading desks were moveable. The front of the shelves projected to act as a bench. The room was designed by Nicholas Hawksmoor and completed in 1751 by James Gibbs.

The Wren Library, Trinity College, Cambridge, 1695

The most splendid academic library of the late seventeenth century was undoubtedly that built for Trinity College, Cambridge. Designed by the great architect Sir Christopher Wren, its interior layout is not apparent from the outside. The floor is much lower than the façade suggests, being level with the springing points of the arches. This allowed Wren to place bookcases both along the walls and at right angles to them, forming a series of alcoves, all generously lit from windows on both sides high above. Foreign visitors made special trips to Cambridge to visit this library and wrote letters home remarking on its size and splendor.

The Radcliffe Camera, Oxford, 1751

Wren’s first design for his library at Trinity was for a round library covered by a dome. This design was rejected, but Wren’s pupil Nicholas Hawksmoor knew it well and revived the idea for a new library for Oxford to be funded by the physician John Radcliffe. Clearing of the site for the intended library took so long that Hawkmsoor had died before construction could begin. James Gibbs took over as the architect and completed the dramatic library that is known as the Radcliffe Camera. Although it is not the first round library in the world, it is one of the best known and most dramatic.

Biblioteca Joanina, Coimbra University, Portugal, 1728

Coimbra is the oldest University in Portugal and can trace its foundation back to 1290. In the early years of its existence it moved several times until in 1537 it finally settled into the Alcáçcova Palace. The magnificent library was a gift of King Joao V (r. 1706-1750) and is thus unusual in being a university library paid for entirely by a reigning monarch. The money for the library came from the gold reserves that had recently been discovered in Brazil. The rector of the university had written to the King asking for a donation to expand the existing poor facilities and was surprised when he got a reply offering not just a whole new building but also the money to buy a fine new collection to go in it. The result was possibly the most lavish university library building ever constructed.

Cambridge University Library, Cambridge, United Kingdom, 1842

Presented by

James W. P. Campbell & Will Pryce

James W. P. Campbell is a fellow and the director of studies in architecture and the history of art at Queens’ College, Cambridge. He is the author of Brick: A World History and Building St Paul’s. Will Pryce is a photographer based in London. Originally trained as an architect, he is the author of World Architecture: The MasterworksBig Shed, and The Architecture of Wood: A World History.

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