Readers' Newsletter


Mellon million to reveal the secrets of the tower

Have you ever wondered what is in the Library tower? It will soon be easy to find out. The Library is celebrating the award of a million-dollar grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation towards the cost of creating online catalogue records for the nineteenth-century British publications that are stored in the topmost floors of the tower. The collection is of major national and international importance as a source of primary material for historical and literary research. It reflects the Victorian view of the world, from their most ephemeral and controversial opinions to those read every day in the parlour and the schoolroom.

Originally acquired by the Library under legal deposit legislation, the collection consists of 170,000 publications – books, pamphlets, school textbooks, calendars, games, timetables, trade catalogues – that were relegated to the ‘secondary’ sheaf catalogue, being considered unsuitable for inclusion in the ‘primary catalogues’ of an academic library. Many of the books are in mint condition, with their original bindings. There are popular science titles, travel guides, children’s books, religious tracts, works by and for women, pamphlets on social issues and thousands of ‘penny dreadfuls’ - the hugely popular, luridly illustrated tales of adventure and romance.


As the definition of ‘academic’ in the nineteenth century was extremely restricted – all translations of foreign and classical literature and authors not studied by Cambridge undergraduates, were excluded – the collection is rich in early editions of nineteenth-century literature. Successive editions of standard works aimed at the general public provide an invaluable insight into the development of ideas during the century. However, it is the everyday ephemeral material of the period that will be a goldmine for historians in various fields.

A random glance along the shelves yields titles such as

  • The fairy land of science (1879)
  • Our homeless poor (1860)
  • Grammar in rhyme (1847)
  • Tales from Shakespeare in verse: The taming of the shrew (1882)
  • How to mesmerise (1893)
  • Map of the route of the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee procession (1897)
  • Wasps have stings: or, beware of tight-lacing (1861)

Whilst the nineteenth-century collection is at present ‘serendipity heaven’, the limitations of the handwritten and now increasingly illegible sheaf catalogues have meant that a vast amount of nineteenth-century publications is currently ‘invisible’ to scholars. The University Library’s online catalogue offers a sophisticated search facility that will enable readers to search the collection effectively for the first time.

Work will start in the next few months and will be completed by 2010.

For more information, contact Vanessa Lacey at


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The visit of the President of the Dominican Republic

Dr Leonel Fernández Reyna, President of the Dominican Republic, visited the Library on 23 March as part of his official visit to the United Kingdom. He toured the building and was shown a selection of manuscripts, rare books and maps before attending a meeting with Cambridge University Press, Cambridge Assessment and other representatives of the University. His visit was the occasion for the signing of a cooperation agreement between the Universidad Autónoma de Santo Domingo and Cambridge University Library which will facilitate the exchange of information and expertise.

John Wells of the Manuscripts Department shows treasures of the University Library to President Fernández Reyna and his party.

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Archiving of chemistry data

The Library's work in developing the DSpace@Cambridge ( digital repository service (see Readers’ Newsletter 31, October 2005) has now led to a further project, SPECTRa ( S ubmission, P reservation, and E xposure of C hemistry T eaching and R esearch Dat a ), exploring the use of institutional repositories for chemistry data.

Funded by the JISC under its Digital Repositories Programme as an 18-month project ending in March 2007, SPECTRa is a partnership between the university libraries and the chemistry departments of the University of Cambridge and Imperial College London, with Cambridge University Library as the lead institution.

Chemical information is essential to many sciences outside chemistry, including material, life and environmental sciences, and supports major industries including pharmaceuticals. The reporting of the synthesis and properties of new chemical compounds is central to this. However, it has been reported that at least 80% of chemistry data is never published. The SPECTRa project addresses this problem. Its specific aims are to investigate the needs of the academic chemistry research community in archiving and publishing experimental data; demonstrate how these needs may best be co-ordinated with emerging institutional strategies for repositories handling both data and publications; facilitate routine extraction of data in high volumes and their ingest into institutional repositories; investigate the cultural issues in capturing and re-using scientific data; and explore interoperability issues involving archiving data in repositories.

Requirements in a number of different user-disciplines (X-ray crystallography, computational chemistry and synthetic organic chemistry) will be determined by interview and survey. A customised version of the DSpace repository platform will be developed and tested using the institutional DSpace installations managed by the libraries at Cambridge and Imperial, and additional tools and context-specific metadata will facilitate the subsequent re-use of the deposited information. In the early stages, work has focused on crystallography, building on earlier work by the eBank UK project (, and later in the project a similar approach will be applied to other chemistry disciplines. The project will also test researchers’ willingness to embrace Open Access principles in making their data available, recognizing that in some circumstances data may have to be embargoed. While the basic development and testing programme is being conducted at Cambridge and Imperial, the eventual outcomes are intended to be capable of implementation by other chemistry departments and institutional repositories. Similarly, within Cambridge the lessons learned will be valuable in helping to develop a better understanding of how DSpace@Cambridge can further support scientific research within the University.

Further information is available on the project website:


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Having invested heavily in electronic journals, the Library is participating in a project to ensure their long-term preservation and accessibility in partnership with an alliance of university libraries in the UK and USA. Most e-journals are in effect leased to libraries rather than purchased outright, with access being provided through the publisher’s web site. Valuable content may therefore be lost when a subscription ends or be placed at risk when a journal ceases publication or a publishing company changes hands.

The Library is a pilot site for the LOCKSS system (Lots of Copies Keeps Stuff Safe), developed at Stanford University, which collects e-journal content using a web crawler and then archives and preserves copies locally under agreements with publishers. In the event of a title or individual issues becoming unavailable through the publisher’s web site the Library is licensed and able to provide access to the local copy. The LOCKSS alliance of libraries, of which Cambridge University Library, was an early member, ensures that the list of titles selected for collection reflects the research and teaching interests of their universities.


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Genizah research funding secured

The work of the Library’s Genizah Research Unit has received a magnificent boost in the form of a grant of over £475,000 from the Arts and Humanities Research Council. This award will fund the Unit’s ongoing work of decipherment and description, the preparation of several new catalogues, and the digitisation of some 16,000 Genizah manuscripts. This, the largest single sum ever received by the Unit, will ensure the continuation of its projects for the next three years and their successful completion. It represents a massive stride towards the ultimate goal of describing and digitising the entire corpus of Genizah manuscripts at the University Library.

The sum was awarded under the AHRC’s Research Grants scheme, which was established to provide major financial support to well-defined and high-quality research projects and for which competition is fierce. The international reputation of Cambridge University Library, the importance of the Genizah manuscripts and the Genizah Research Unit’s superb record of successful research projects all combined to give the current proposal the scope, quality and credibility required.

When supplemented by existing and promised funding, such as the major awards made by the international Friedberg Genizah Project, the grant will meet the cost of three full-time researchers in the Unit, a digitisation technician in the Imaging Services department, and the necessary digitising equipment. It will thus fund the compilation of the new bibliography of Genizah material, the description of the Arabic and Judaeo-Arabic fragments in the Additional Series, the cataloguing of liturgical texts (in a joint project with Beersheba’s Ben-Gurion University in Israel), and the listing of Hebrew documents throughout the Collection.


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The retirement of three members of the senior staff in the early months of 2006 will deprive the Library of over 120 years of accumulated experience.

In January, Dr John Hall retired from his post as deputy head of the Rare Books Department. John started in 1965 in the Special Cataloguing Department, a precursor of today’s Rare Books, where he was involved in the purchase of early printed books and was responsible for the maintenance of the Library’s cataloguing rules. He developed an encyclopaedic knowledge of the Library’s collections, especially those in his areas of particular interest – classics and Irish studies - and, since his retirement, is continuing to work in the Library as a volunteer.

At the end of March, Professor Stefan Reif left after 33 years as head of the Genizah Research Unit. Over that time, Professor Reif turned the Genizah Unit into a major research organisation, employing ten staff and producing catalogues, newsletters, and a range of other material. During his tenure, the entire collection of 140,000 documents was conserved, and a high proportion has now been catalogued. There are major programmes of digitisation and a newly designed website is envisaged for the near future.

Later in April, Barry Eaden will also retire, after a record-breaking 51 years on the staff. Barry was for many years responsible for the Current Serials list, the various finding lists and notices around the building, and the Readers’ Handbook. In recent years he has been running the Inter-Library Loans Department as well as acting as deputy to the Head of Reader Services.

Going, going, gone. Celebrating Stefan Reif’s retirement, from left to right: John Hall, who retired in January, Stefan Reif and Barry Eaden who leaves in April.

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Library’s IT facilities expand

The Digital Resources Area is proving to be so popular with users that it is being equipped with more computers. The existing forty-six PCs will be replaced with upgraded machines and a further eighteen will be added to fill all available spaces. The Microsoft Office software will also be upgraded and the screens replaced in the light of feedback from readers on different models tested last term. The current PCs will be redeployed elsewhere and more new computers will be installed in other reading rooms in the course of the year. The Digital Resources Area now opens earlier, at 9.00, in response to demand.


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The fleas that tease …

Staff at the Medical Library were intrigued to discover an unusual non-book item when sorting some elderly material. A case of (dead) fleas would be surprising in itself, but these were posed in costume, some holding bats and sticks and one dressed as a toreador, sporting a cape and red hat. They were accompanied by an explanatory note, quoting from a letter written by Zelia Nuttall in 1909:

‘The inquiries I have made about the pulgas vestidas have yielded the following results:- No one knows who first invented them, but they have “always been made” just like carved nuts and other curiosities. Those I sent you… are made by a middle aged Hispano-Mexican woman, the mother of a large family, who lives in Queretaro. It seems that she often sits up at night so as to be undisturbed by her children, and dress the fleas which they probably catch for her in the day-time!… I shall make further inquiries about the origin of these curiosidades. I imagine they originated in some convent, for the nuns excelled in making miniaturas of all kinds.’

Mrs Nuttall was one of the great pioneers of Mexican archaeology and for 25 years Honorary Professor of Archaeology at the National Museum of Mexico. Her work is commemorated in the name of the Codex Nuttall, the great Mixtec manuscript. She donated the ‘dressed fleas’ to the Parasitology Library (a more obviously appropriate home) which was eventually absorbed into the Medical Library. The further enquiries she mentioned have now been undertaken by staff there who have uncovered a long history of flea art originating in Mexican convents and taken up by the general tourist trade. Further research has to contend with the dubious hits resulting from Internet searches on ‘fleas nuns Mexico’. Challenges remain. How should the fleas be catalogued, where should they finally reside and how best can they be preserved? Perhaps most challenging is discussing this without using the phrase ‘up to scratch’.


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Exhibitions current and forthcoming

Visible language: Dante in text & image, an exhibition celebrating the ways in which the works of Dante Alighieri (1265-1321) have been interpreted in text and image over seven centuries of book production, remains on view in the University Library’s Exhibition Centre until 1 July. It is open between 9.00 and 18.00, Mondays to Fridays, and from 9.00 to 16.30 on Saturdays.

A new exhibition, Unregulated printing, will open on 18 July and run until 16 December (closed 28 August and 18-25 September inclusive) with the same opening hours. It will feature the work of private presses from all over the English-speaking world from 1950 to date, with particular attention to the Rampant Lions and Gehenna Presses. A full description will appear in the October Readers’ Newsletter.


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The Friends of Cambridge University Library

Forthcoming event, to be held in the Morison Room, University Library:

Wednesday 17 May 2006, at 17.00

George G ömöri

‘Hungarica in the University Library and college libraries before 1800’

George Gömöri, lately a University teaching officer in Polish and Hungarian, will examine collections of printed books from Hungary in Cambridg e libraries.

Members pay at a special rate of £2.50 a head. Non-members are welcome; the admission charge is £3.50. All talks are free to junior members of the University of Cambridge. Tea will be served at 16.30.


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The Sandars lectures 2006

This year’s Sandars lectures in bibliography will be given by Professor James H. Marrow, Professor of Art and Archaeology at Princeton University and Honorary Keeper of Northern European Illuminated Manuscripts at the Fitzwilliam Museum. His lecture series is entitled 'Word – Diagram – Picture: the shape of meaning in medieval books'. The individual lectures all take place at 17.00 in the McCrum Theatre, Corpus Christi College. Their titles and dates are: The sacred book: In principio erat verbum (11 May); Diagrams of meaning: the architecture of thought (16 May); Picturing meaning in the late Middle Ages (18 May).


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Editor: Stephen Hills ISSN:1360-9033