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

In the 19th century Cambridge University decided to expand its poor library facilities and held an architectural competition. To say that the process was mismanaged would be an understatement, but finally after two further competitions and changes of brief and site, the architect C.R. Cockerell was finally appointed. The reading room, which now serves as the library of Gonville and Caius College, was a dramatic barrel-vaulted double height space, lit by semi-circular windows along both sides and large windows at each end. It was one of a number of libraries built in this period to use this layout, which was light and airy, with alcoves on the lower level providing useful semi-private working spaces. The adaptation of Trinity College Dublin’s library (which originally had a flat-ceiling) by Deane and Woodward in 1856 is another well-known and much-loved example of this type of library.

The Fisher Fine Arts Library, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, 1891

In 1884 the University of Pennsylvania employed an energetic new librarian, James G. Barnwell, to take over its collection of books. He was so successful in acquiring money for new books that the library soon outgrew its meager premises but it was only on his resignation in frustration that the University took notice and looked to design new premises. They consulted Justin Winsor, who had built new iron stacks in Gore Hall, Harvard, and Mevil Dewey and chose the architect Frank Furness to design the building (completed in 1891). The building was built with iron stacks that could be extended indefinitely to accommodate expansion of the collection. However, subsequent developments blocked the expansion of the stacks and the library was threatened with demolition before being relegated to being the library of the faculty of fine art. Today it is difficult to believe that anyone could have suggested destroying such a fine interior, as loved by current students as it was when first completed.

The Beinecke Library, Yale University, New Haven, 1963

A visit to the Beinecke library at Yale is an experience never forgotten. Externally the library is a severe white box raised on squat concrete stilts. The interior is completely unexpected. The Vermont marble walls which are white on the outside, have a rich amber glow when the sunlight falls upon them, reflecting the color of the leather bindings of the books which are stored in a glass box in the heart of the building. The architect, Gordon Bunshaft, had originally wanted the walls to be made of alabaster or onyx, which would have been yellow on the outside and within. The Vermont marble was a reluctant substitute that turned out to be far more effective than the intended material would have been, creating one of the most powerful spaces in modern library design.

The Grimm Centre, Humboldt University, Berlin, 2009

The Grimm Centre is named after the brothers Jacob (1785–1863) and Wilhelm Grimm (1786–1859), chiefly known for their collection of folk tales, published in various editions between 1812 and 1857. In Germany they are also known as famous academics who began the Deutsches Wörterbuch, the most comprehensive dictionary of the German language. The Grimm Centre is not just the home of the book collection of the Grimm brothers; it is also the library of the Humboldt University of Berlin. The new building, a long-overdue replacement for one destroyed in the Second World War, was designed by the Swiss architect Max Dudler and completed in 2009. Its most important feature is its open-stack shelving: the Grimm Centre is the largest open-shelving library in Germany. The stacks are ranged over six floors on either side of a central, stepped reading room.

Utrecht University Library, Utrecht. Netherlands, 2004

The Utrecht University library by Wiel Arets completed in 2004 is designed to provide the widest possible variety in reading spaces, but there is no shortage of storage for books. It has a capacity for 4.2 million volumes and much of the material is available on open shelving. But these books provide the backdrop for the workspaces, since the shelving is used to create rooms within what is, for the most part, a single huge space, above which sealed storage and specialist reading rooms hover. The books provide color against the black background. On a typical day, students fill the reading rooms. Probably most are here not to look at the books, but to use the space.

Information, Communications and Media Centre, BTU Coutbus, Germany, 2004

The fact that BTU Cottbus felt that it had to give its new library the title of ‘The Information, Communications and Media Centre’ is a sad reflection of the current lack of confidence in the word ‘library’ despite the fact that this is still very much a home for books. Designed by the Swiss architectural firm Herzog and De Meuron, the building commands the entrance to the university, standing on a slight hill above the road. Its façade is a single, undulating skin of glass etched with intertwined letters in white. These merge into a pattern that is particularly visible at night, when the building lights up like a lantern. This continuous glass skin wraps around the whole building, concealing the openings and solid walls behind it and making it impossible to gauge the building’s scale. As a result, it appears much larger than it actually is, resembling a castle tower commanding and protecting the entrance to the campus, placing the library where it should be and has been throughout history: at the very center of university life.