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.