Readers' Newsletter


Advancing by degrees: the University of Cambridge 1209–2009

Coats of arms of the University and the colleges, c.1589

Coats of arms of the University and the colleges, c.158

The University of Cambridge means something to everyone. Whether for the quality of its teaching and research, historic buildings in a riverside setting, or the annual Boat Race against its sister institution, Oxford, the university has a global reputation. But what kind of journey has it made in the 800 years since a migrant band of scholars first reached the town and established their studium? ‘Advancing by degrees’, the University Library exhibition opening on 20 January, explores themes of governance, scholarship, membership and outreach across the centuries to ask at its anniversary: what makes Cambridge?

Showcasing the University Archives, the exhibition opens with documents reflecting on the University’s origins, true and false. Cambridge has had its foundation myths; witness spurious papal bulls from the seventh century and published histories naming as founder prince Cantaber, governor under King Arthur. Roger of Wendover, who died in 1236, provides a more reliable account. In 1209, in the aftermath of local disturbances, scholars at the University of Oxford dispersed to Paris, Reading and Cambridge. Cambridge was no centre of studies, but its group included a local man, John Grim, who had been Master of the Schools: he and several others were simply coming home, temporarily as they thought…

With time, the scholars evolved a system of governance, appointed officers to speak and act for them and codified requirements for degrees. Enshrined then, as now, in statutes, medieval regulations are on display, in a studded volume with a carrying-chain for ceremonial occasions. Teaching and learning remain Cambridge constants, but down the centuries the curriculum and methods of pedagogy have changed considerably. The exhibition includes both an illuminated compilation of philosophical set-texts, dating from around 1260, and a student newspaper report on the launch of the Social and Political Sciences Tripos from 1969. Before the advent of written examinations in about 1800, degree exercises comprised verbal disputations; on view is a rare set of questions posed in the theology, philosophy, civil law and medicine schools in the 1580s.

The colleges are a distinctive feature of Cambridge. The exhibition explores their development and contribution, constructing the cityscape and framing the student experience. A petition of 8,500 signatures for the students of Girton and Newnham to be admitted to examinations and degrees in 1880 recognises the long campaign waged by women for university membership.

The University’s enduring relationship with the town over trading standards, public order and health is also examined. A record of proceedings in the Piepowder Court at Sturbridge Fair in 1568 shows summary justice dispensed by the proctors for breaches such as the sale of unwholesome goods. The prosecution and imprisonment of alleged prostitutes in the University’s prison, the Spinning-House, continued until the 1890s. A prison committal book is on display.

Another theme is the University’s research contribution, illustrated for example by Isaac Newton’s optical lectures of 1669-70, and a 1905 letter from William Bateson in which he coins the term ‘genetics’. The physical setting is also surveyed, including familiar and less familiar images of Cambridge landmarks. Finally, in case university life should be thought all work and no play, student society records are on view; among them a stage set for the Footlights May Week revue of June 1951, and the challenge issued by Cambridge to Oxford in 1829 which inaugurated that famous Boat Race.

‘Advancing by degrees’ runs from 20 January to 20 June (closed 10-13 April), Monday to Friday, 9.00-18.00, Saturday 9.00-16.30, admission is open to all and is free.

Top of document

Librarian to retire

Peter Fox

Peter Fox

Last spring, the University Librarian, Peter Fox, announced his intention to retire at the end of March 2009. Mr Fox has been Librarian since 1994, when he came to Cambridge from Trinity College Dublin, where he had been Librarian and College Archivist for ten years. A modern linguist, whose first degree was from King’s College London, Mr Fox began his library career at the University Library and was for several years the German specialist here.

Professor Richard Hunter, Chairman of the Library Syndicate, said ‘The Library Syndicate wishes to place on record its warmest thanks to Mr Peter Fox for his vision and leadership during the fifteen years that he will have served as University Librarian. During this time he has made a remarkable contribution in the enhancement of the Library's world-class collections, in the development of innovative and forward-looking library services, and in the expansion of the Library's physical space. Much of what has been achieved in recent years is, moreover, the direct result of his success in fund-raising for both buildings and service initiatives. Mr Fox will retire at a time when the national and international reputation of the University Library is higher than ever, and the University owes him a very considerable debt of gratitude.’

Top of document

Review of teaching and learning

During the academic year 2007-8 the University reviewed its teaching and learning support services, particularly those carried out by the University Library, the Computing Service, the Language Centre, and the Centre for Applied Research in Educational Technologies (CARET). The purpose of the review was to examine the University’s provision for the support of teaching and learning, and to make recommendations for the future provision of such support to ensure that Cambridge is at the forefront of teaching and learning in a period of rapid change.

It recommended that the University Library’s role should be expanded and that it should become responsible for the provision and dissemination of electronic materials for teaching and learning across the University. The report noted that ‘The UL can provide the structure necessary for the management of all content. The UL could oversee and focus innovation in CARET and the Language Centre without restricting the ability of the smaller organisations to manoeuvre. In this way, the UL would coordinate the development and maintenance of the necessary pedagogic support to be delivered over the networks maintained by the UCS.’ In order to achieve this, it recommended that the role of the Librarian ‘should be rapidly developed to become de facto Director of Library Services to oversee the broader remit of all the University libraries in pedagogic support’. It is expected that implementation of the recommendations will start during the year 2009-10.

Top of document

Springer e-journals available back to 1869

In line with its strategy to provide high-quality information services in support of research and teaching in science and technology within the University, the University Library has purchased access in perpetuity to the Springer Online Archives Collection, making available every issue and article of 900 journals from volume 1 onwards to 1996. Over 1.5 million articles are included. The collection, which chronicles scientific discovery back to 1869, complements the existing Springer journal subscription taken out by the Journals Co-ordination Scheme, covering the years from 1997 onwards.

Springer is the second largest publisher of scientific, medical and technical journals. All eleven subject collection packages have been acquired - Behavioural Science; Biomedical and Life Sciences; Business and Economics; Chemistry and Materials Science; Computer Science; Earth and Environmental Science; Engineering; Humanities, Social Sciences and Law; Mathematics; Medicine; Physics and Astronomy. Both archive and current e-journals are available through SpringerLink. 

Further e-journal backfiles recently became available to the University through a national agreement negotiated for UK universities. The collections are the Brill Journal Archive, Taylor & Francis Geography, Planning, Urban & Environment Archive, a selection of 80 titles from the Periodicals Archive Online published by ProQuest, and the American Chemical Society Legacy Archive. 

Top of document

Survival of the fattest?

Celebrations of the bicentenary of Charles Darwin’s birth in 1809 got off to a toothsome start with the publication of Mrs Charles Darwin’s recipe book, revived and illustrated by Dusha Bateson and Weslie Janeway, with a preface by Janet Browne and foreword by Nach Waxman (New York: Glitterati Inc., 2008; ISBN 978-0-9801557-3-0). This provides facsimiles and transcriptions of the recipes collected by Emma Darwin in a notebook now held in the University Library amongst the Darwin Papers. These have been tested by the authors for the modern cook and embellished with commentary, botanical illustrations contemporary with the recipes and photographs of the resultant dishes.

Emma (1808-96) was Charles’s cousin and a Wedgwood. Her recipes offer an entrée into the everyday life of the upper-middle-class intelligentsia of the 19th century. Among the predominantly plain, if cholesterol-laden, cooking can be found the occasional exoticism such as Nesselrode Pudding or Turnips Cresselly. There is also one example of Charles Darwin’s own culinary contribution: instructions for the correct boiling of rice, expressed with unsurprising scientific exactitude (‘twelve minutes by the watch’).

Top of document

Genizah manuscripts to be digitised

The collection of nearly 200,000 medieval paper and parchment manuscripts recovered from the storeroom (genizah) of the Ben Ezra synagogue in Fustat, Egypt, is unparalleled in its scholarly importance and research potential. Thus, for a wide community of scholars regular visits to Cambridge University Library’s Taylor-Schechter Genizah Collection have for many decades been a necessity.

More and more scholarship, however, is embracing the digital revolution, and the digitisation of Genizah manuscripts is at the forefront of the trend. Accessing high-quality digital images over the web both facilitates research and helps to preserve the often very fragile fragments from the rigours of daily handling.

For some years the Library has been seeking funding to digitise the Taylor-Schechter manuscripts and now the project will shortly get underway, thanks to a grant of over £1 million from the Friedberg Genizah Project, a charitable organisation founded by the Canadian financier and philanthropist Albert ‘Dov’ Friedberg.

The Library’s Genizah Research Unit and Imaging Services Department will be able to complete this ambitious project in under three years, shooting more than a quarter of a million separate high-quality, full-colour images. Such a project is only possible thanks to the recent rapid advances in digital capture technology. Previous estimates of the time required, made just a few years ago and based on the best technology then available, suggested that it might take 27 years and cost many millions!

The images will be stored in the University Library’s DSpace repository (a kind of digital Genizah of its own) and be made freely available through both the Library’s web-site and the Friedberg Genizah Project’s portal ( The end result will be an archive of over 312,000 high-definition images, depicting every leaf, every fragment and even every minute scrap from Cambridge’s Genizah Collection. Henceforth it will be possible for researchers to call up a picture of any fragment, to examine it in minute detail, to compare it to similar fragments, and by these means, eventually, to complete the dreamed-of task of piecing together the myriad manuscripts that have, till now, been scattered not only in Cambridge’s collection but also in libraries and museums around the globe.

Top of document

Final building phase now under way

Final phase of the UL's building project

Since the mid 1990s there has rarely been a time when there has not been a crane at the rear of the University Library building. It has reappeared again now and will be there until 2010.

Thanks to HEFCE’s Capital Investment Framework, construction of the final stage (Phase 6) of the extension is now assured. This will be a mirror image of Phase 5 and will provide a further 30 km of storage space and release one complete floor of the West Bookstack for open-access collections.

When it is completed, the building development approved by the University in 1993 will have been achieved. As well as storage for about 25 years’ intake of books and printed journals, the development has given the Library four new or magnificently refurbished and much-enlarged reading rooms: the East Asian Reading Room, the Manuscripts Room, the Munby Rare Books Room and the Commonwealth Room; as well as the Digital Resources Area, a superbly equipped digitisation suite, the Exhibition Centre and the Morison Room.

Funding for the various phases has come from a variety of sources, including HEFCE, the Heritage Lottery Fund and Cambridge University Press, as well as private philanthropic sources such as the Atlantic Philanthropies and Mr Tadao Aoi, after whom the Aoi Pavilion is named.

Refurbished Medical Library opens

Medical Library's remodelled entrance

The Medical Library’s remodelled entrance area in festive mood.

The Medical Library opened its refurbished accommodation on 14 November 2008 following a five-month building programme, during which the Library remained open for business with the aid of a temporary entrance and relocated staff offices. Funded by the University with the aid of a grant from Wolfson Foundation's CURL Library Programme, the work has led to a number of improvements, anticipated in Readers' Newsletter 38 (January 2008).

The most visible change is the complete remodelling of the entrance area to provide a more effective focus for interaction between readers and staff, with a redesigned reception desk, improved facilities for the reader-services help-desk, and new public-access catalogue terminals. Allied to a stimulating colour scheme and a more spacious layout, the results have already attracted many favourable comments from readers.

On the upper floor, a new computer room has been constructed in an area formerly occupied by stacks housing printed journals. To release the space it was necessary to remove over 500 non-current backsets of journals, most of them - following extensive consultation - placed in store. The new computer room has been designed to meet the needs of the Clinical School, with places for up to 60 students and the ability to host computer-based examinations.

Complementing this, on the lower floor, part of the staff area has been converted into a new suite of educational facilities for use by the Library and the Clinical School, comprising a 10-seater IT training room and two small seminar rooms, all three fitted with a range of audio-visual media. Behind the scenes, the Library staff offices have been extensively remodelled to provide more efficient workflows and a modernised working environment.

For more information see and

Top of document

The Sandars lectures 2009

This year’s Sandars lectures will be given at 17.00 on 23, 24 and 26 February in the Morison Room at the University Library by Professor Michelle P. Brown, FSA. Formerly Curator of Illuminated Manuscripts at the British Library, Professor Brown is now Professor of Medieval Manuscript Studies at the School of Advanced Study, University of London. She is the author of major scholarly works on the Book of Cerne, the Lindisfarne Gospels and other mediaeval manuscripts. The overall title of her lectures is The book and the transformation of Britain, c.550-1050. The individual lectures are entitled: Conversion: the scribes of scripture and social change; Integration and consolidation: creating communities of reading and After Alfred: language, literature and libraries.

Top of document

Inspection 2009

The Library Syndicate has decided that the Annual Inspection will in future take place during the week that starts with the second Monday in September. This is a change from the traditional fixed period of 16-23 September with its attendant complications when that period began and ended with a Sunday. In 2009, therefore, the University Library will be closed for Inspection from 14 to 19 September.

Top of document

The Friends of Cambridge University Library

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

Saturday 21 February 2009, at 11.30

Bill Martin and Sandra Mason

‘FitzGerald’s Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam: 150 years of book publishing and illustration’

The 150th anniversary of the publication of Edward FitzGerald’s Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam and the bicentenary of FitzGerald’s birth are being marked by an exhibition in the Library. This illustrated talk by the co-curators will be followed by a guided tour of the display.

Friends and junior members of Cambridge University free, others £3.50.

Saturday 28 February 2009, at 11.30

John Naughton

‘Our changing media ecosystem’

John Naughton, Professor of the Public Understanding of Technology at the Open University and Director of the Wolfson Press Fellowship Programme in Cambridge, analyses developments in the modern media environment.

Friends and junior members of Cambridge University free, others £3.50.

Tuesday 10 March 2000, at 17.30

Charles Moseley

‘The exploration of difference: the Travels of Sir John Mandeville and its successors’

The fourteenth-century Travels of Sir John Mandeville had an enormous readership and influence lasting a good three centuries. This talk will examine some of the features of this remarkable book, which broke new ground in more than one sense, and will suggest reasons for its continuing popularity.

Friends £2.50, others £3.50; junior members of Cambridge University free.

Top of document

Back to Newsletters

Editor: Stephen Hills ISSN:1360-9033