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80-year old photograph albums throw light on the building of the iconic University Library

29 July, 2014

Photographic albums uncovered at the University Library (UL) offer a unique view of the huge removal job which 80 years ago this week saw one million items successfully moved to their new home.

In the 1920s it was noted that the University of Cambridge’s old library was in danger of bursting at the seams with its contents occupying 20 miles of shelves.

More than a decade of talks and fund-raising led to the building of the UL with its iconic 157 feet tall tower, designed by the renowned Sir Giles Gilbert Scott, father of the K2 telephone kiosk.

On July 26, 1934, the contracted porters took the final box of books by horse and cart from the home they had lived in for 500 years to the new building.

The monumental undertaking was captured by member of staff R. G. (Robert George) Pilgrim, who spent three years painstakingly recording the building of the library.

He took more than a hundred black and white images of the construction work. Pilgrim also captured the moving of books and informal images of staff during their breaks.

His volume, along with another album created by several members of staff, and a third more formal album donated to the University by the Consulting Engineer, Burnard Geen, give a detailed image of how the new UL grew up out of necessity and how staff undertook the task of relocating its treasures.

Liam Sims, Chief Library Assistant in the Rare Books Department at the UL, researched the albums in the run up to the 80th anniversary. “These volumes are so special because they document a very important part of the UL’s history. I was delighted to find them in the year of the 80th anniversary of the move and the opening of the library.

“What makes two of these unique is the fact they are albums created by staff and I cannot think of anything else quite like them in our collections.”

“A few of my favourite images are by Pilgrim – such as staff enjoying lollipops given by the librarian. He also captured the last box being lowered into place before its move to the new UL building.”

Mr Pilgrim worked at the library from the 1920s to the 1950s and became the Superintendent of the Anderson Room.

At the beginning of his remarkable and detailed album, which contains more than 100 images, he thanks other staff for their help and states that his photographs should “be regarded only as the efforts of an amateur”.

“They might not be the work of an expert but his small images show the work in great detail – much more than the more formal images taken for Geen’s album, and show details including the preparations for the King’s speech to mark the opening of the library.

“He must have had privileged access to the site though some of his colleagues might have wondered how much of his work he was getting done during the building, as he took a huge number of photographs,” said Mr Sims.

As well as detailing the library and its iconic tower’s creation the albums also depict staff playing cricket outside the old library, some of the 23,725 boxes of books being moved to their new home, and porters relaxing over tea with the ‘Head Charwoman’.

Mr Sims said: “They are a window onto a very different but significant time for the library.”

Cambridge University Library’s history spans six centuries. Manuscripts were originally kept in chests within the University buildings until, in the 1420s, a place was created for the more than 100 volumes in the collection in the Old Schools. Over time the collection grew with major additions in the 17th and 18th centuries and by the 19th century new buildings were required to help contain the library.

But the addition of the Cockerell Building was not enough and by 1921 it was decided that there was no further room for expansion. Playing fields belonging to King’s and Clare Colleges were eventually chosen as the new site.

The Geen volume uncovered by Sims, as well as containing many images of the library’s construction, details the necessity for a new library: “The scale of accommodation necessary for books in the library is largely dependent upon the fact that the university uses its right to a copy of every work published in the United Kingdom,” Geen says, adding, “Acceptance of these publications leads to a heavy liability in the provision of space, cataloguing and staff.”

Geen adds that Sir Giles Gilbert Scott – father of the iconic telephone kiosk – was chosen as architect but funds for the project were an issue. However a £250,000 donation from the USA ensured the £350,000 price tag could be met – with another £150,000 going towards upkeep and endowments.

Along with its one million volumes the library was estimated to have 10,000 manuscripts, and 160,000 maps, along with a stream of periodicals constantly adding to the problems of space.

“It was then [in the 1920s] estimated,” says Geen, “That the total annual increased demand for shelf space was approximately 1,500 lineal feet.

Construction of the UL began in 1931 and in the summer of 1934, the entire contents of the library – packed into 23,725 boxes and transported by horse and cart – were moved across the river, leaving their medieval home. Eaden Lilley and Co porters were employed to move the books with library staff packing and labelling at one end and unpacking at the other. The library staff and Lilley's porters worked daily from 8am to 6pm and completed the move in eight weeks.

The hard work paid off and on October 22, 1934, King George V said of the library at its opening ceremony: “It is a workshop of new knowledge and a storehouse of seasoned wisdom.” He added: “I declare this library open, in the confident hope that it will be a centre of light and guidance for the civilisation of mankind.”

The library has continued to grow and now holds approximately eight million items, occupying 93 miles of shelves, increasing by just less than 2 miles per year. In the twenty-first century the Library's digital growth is equally prodigious - future librarians will be as concerned with terabytes of virtual space as with metres of physical.

To commemorate the 80th anniversary, the University Library will be displaying the albums, alongside other related material, in the Library Entrance Hall exhibition cases. The pages of each album will be turned regularly to allow visitors to see as many images as possible. The Entrance Hall is open to any member of the public, Monday - Friday, 9am-7pm, and Saturday 9am-4.45pm. The exhibition will run from 10 November 2014 for four weeks.

Image credits: All images reproduced by kind permission of the Syndics of Cambridge University Library except for top right-hand image of the present day library which is copyright of Steve Cadman:

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