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At the beginning of the seventeenth century, then, hopes were high though funds were low. Plans to build a new library to rival Sir Thomas Bodley's at Oxford were actively canvassed, but when at last the university found in the Duke of Buckingham, whom it elected to be its chancellor in 1626, a man who it might reasonably hope would forward and finance the project, assassination removed him before he could be persuaded to the point of opening his coffers. Thus for the first quarter of the century the library's history is one of frustration and trivial incident, the only accessions of consequence being presentation copies from their authors of King James's Works [Sel.2.83] in their Latin translation (1620) and Bacon's Instauratio Magna (1620) [Sel.2.85] and De dignitate et augmentis scientiarum (1623). In 1629, however, things took a turn for the better with the appointment as University Librarian of Abraham Whelock, a man of modest and nervous disposition but a good scholar whose abilities won him a reputation in the learned world beyond Cambridge and the friendship especially of Sir Henry Spelman and Sir Thomas Adams, on whom he prevailed to establish in the university its first lectureships (to which he himself was appointed) in Anglo-Saxon and the Oriental languages. He enjoyed too in the library the intermittent assistance of young men who had been his pupils, and the last year of his regime (he died in 1653) saw the official appointment of an Under Library-Keeper, Jonathan Pindar by name, of quite remarkable competence and industry.

Whelock's talents and personality and his obvious devotion to the library over which he presided thus began not only to give it a certain respectable status in the world of scholarship but also to attract to it donations of books which it was too impoverished to buy. As the friend and correspondent of public men he knew how and where to drop a hint or proffer a suggestion, and though excessively shy and timorous he pursued potential donors—or set other men pursuing them—with resolution and tenacity. He procured many small gifts from his contemporaries at Cambridge and from members of the learned book trade there and in London, and presentation copies of books from their authors—they included Herbert of Cherbury, Caleb Dalechamp, Pierre Delaune, Johannes Hevelius, Christoph Arnold, and G.J. Vossius—witness the respect in which he and his library were held at home and abroad. But it was, of course, to the procuring of Oriental books that he first addressed himself: he obtained from William Bedwell a Koran, having cleverly informed him that his old college Trinity already possessed one, and from his heirs the Arabic–Latin Lexicon in nine volumes which he had spent much of his life compiling; and he set Richard Holdsworth, himself a future benefactor of the library, to coax from the widowed Duchess of Buckingham in London the library of Oriental manuscripts which her husband had bought in conditions of great secrecy from the widow of Thomas Erpenius in Leiden in 1626 with the avowed intention of presenting them to Cambridge, though it was not until 1632 that the Duchess was finally persuaded. They numbered eighty-seven volumes (one of them not being a manuscript, but a Chinese printed book, the first to come into the library's possession) and included some of the oldest surviving manuscripts in Malay, an important commentary in old Persian on the Koran (MS. Mm.4.15), and a short but unique chronicle of events in Sicily, A.D. 827–965, appended to a text of Eutychius. Several of Erpenius's manuscripts were sent from Cambridge for the use of Brian Walton and other editors of the Polyglot Bible and of Edmund Castell in the compilation of his Lexicon heptaglotton.

The middle years of the century saw larger events in the library's history. In 1647 Parliament, prompted by John Selden, voted to buy for the library at a cost of £500 a collection of Hebrew books, including a few manuscripts, which the London bookseller George Thomason had imported from Italy. The number of volumes was 167 and they contained more than 400 items covering a wide range of subjects from liturgies, codes of the law, and biblical commentaries to history, medicine, and poetry.

Nor was this the only occasion on which Selden earned the university's gratitude. In 1610 Richard Bancroft, Archbishop of Canterbury, had bequeathed the library which he had formed in his palace at Lambeth to his successor in the See provides he gave assurance that he would continue the inheritance to successive archbishops for ever; otherwise the library was to pass to the projected College of Divinity at Chelsea, if it should be built within six years, or, if it should not, to the Public Library of the University of Cambridge. The Lambeth Library then passed from Bancroft to Abbot and from Abbot to Laud. In 1640, however, Laud was impeached and his possessions appropriated by the State, and with the abolition of episcopacy in 1643, the projected college at Chelsea still being no more than a project, the university had a good claim, which the Commons were persuaded by Selden to admit early in 1647; and so, the Lords having concurred, the Lambeth Library of some 10,000 volumes—about eight times the number held by the University Library—was delivered to Cambridge sometime during the academical year 1648–1649. Nineteen bookcases to receive them were quickly supplied, the work of a local joiner and the gift of Sir John Wollaston (an Alderman of the City of London), and were set up in the south room. A scheme of college contributions was also inaugurated to provide the University Librarian and his newly acquired Under Library-Keeper with stipends suitable to their new responsibilities.

Whelock himself died before work on the collection was begun, but his two immediate successors were both men of energy and distinction and under their direction the admirable Pindar arranged and catalogued books with all the efficiency the occasion demanded. The rare books and manuscripts from Lambeth were set up in the east room, which was so arranged that Lambeth books stood on one side of it and Cambridge books on the other, while in the south room the books of the old Common Library were stored in with the other newcomers on Wollaston's bookcases. In both rooms each bookcase was denoted by a letter of the alphabet, those in the south room being additionally distinguished by a sign like a musical sharp placed before the letter; the shelves in each bookcase were given a Greek letter, and each book was given a number on its shelf. Its complete class mark—B.a.12, for example—was written inside the front cover of each book, and since the books stood in the fashion of the time fore-edge outward, a small label bearing the book's running number on the shelf was affixed to one of its covers at the front edge. All this was the work of Thomas Pindar, who also wrote the necessary shelf lists and compiled an author catalogue (and other indexes) which he clearly modelled upon Thomas Jame's published Bodleian catalogue of 1620. At last, it appeared, Cambridge could claim without fear of ridicule that its library rivalled those at Oxford and the Vatican.

All this work was to be undone almost immediately. With the restoration of the monarchy in 1660 came the restoration of episcopacy also, and the new Archbishop William Juxon, heir and successor to Bancroft, Abbot, and Laud, claimed the return of his library, proposing that the university should receive in its stead the library of Richard Holdsworth, Master of Emmanuel, who died in 1649, leaving his executors a complicated set of "Directions" in which he tried to foresee all possible eventualities: his library was to go to the university if it pleased God to make a resettlement of the Church within five years and if the university returned the Lambeth Library; otherwise it was to go to Emmanuel College, provided they built a library room to receive it; otherwise it was to go to Trinity College, Dublin; and if his executors chose not to bestow his library on any of these places, then they were to sell it and employ the money so raised on pious uses. Juxon's suggestion thus ignored the fact that, God having failed to resettle the Church by 1654, the college had an arguable claim, which it now advanced. Eventually, however, in December 1664, Holdsworth's library was adjudged to the university, the Lambeth Library having been returned to the Archbishop the previous February.

Holdsworth's library contained 10,095 printed volumes and 186 manuscripts and must have been numerically the largest private collection in England of its time, though Selden's surpassed it in quality. It was the library of an academic, its great strength lying in books of divinity, which accounted for more than half of it. It contained more than 200 incunabula, including for Caxtons (the first to come into the library's possession), and of course many hundreds of English books of the period which we now call S.T.C. (Short Title Catalogue of English Books 1475–1640). Its manuscripts included a fine twelfth-century Boethius, De arithmetica and De musica (MS. Ii.3.12), a thirteenth-century Bestiary of great artistic interest (MS. Kk.4.25), a Latin Josephus written ca. 1125 and containing some of the most accomplished illuminations of its period (MS. Dd.1.4), an important manuscript of Chaucer written ca. 1430 (MS. Gg.4.27), a number of other earlier literary texts in English including the manuscript from which William Bedwell had published in 1631 The Tournament of Tottenham, and (textually perhaps the most important of Holdsworth's manuscripts) the famous ninth-century Juvencus with near-contemporary glosses and added verses which are reputed to be the oldest written remains of the Welsh language (MS. Ff.4.42).

Simultaneously with the acquisition of Holdsworth's books the library was further augmented by the bequest of nearly 4,000 volumes (all of them printed) from Henry Lucas, the university's Member of Parliament. The collection proved an excellent supplement to Holdsworth's, containing many books of contemporary history, political memoirs, travel, genealogy, archaeology, and antiquities, a few books of genuine scientific importance (including Galileo'sDialogo or 1632 [T*.4.18(D)], and many more of near-scientific curiosity, and (for the first time in the library's history) some hundreds of books in French and Italian. Other benefactions followed in quick succession. In 1666–1667 Tobias Rustat, Yeoman of the Robes to Charles II, whom he had followed devotedly throughout his exile, gave the university £1,000 to endow its first fund for the purchase of books, thus removing what had so far been its greatest disability, the lack of an annual income to be spent exclusively on the library. In 1670 John Hacket, Bishop of Coventry, bequeathed 1,000 volumes, manuscript and printed, with the sensible provision that duplicated works already in the library might be sold and others bought with the proceeds. Several other not inconsiderable gifts of money, to be spent outright on books, came in before the end of the century, and many hundreds of book were also received into the library under the provisions of the Licensing Acts of 1662–1679 and 1685–1695.

Thus all seemed set fair for a period of expansion and greater usefulness; but the university, alas, proved grievously unequal to the challenge. The Regent House did not fail to pass solemn resolutions that certain things were to be done by certain dates, to issue from time to time minatory notices, and to appoint committees of learned men to draw up orders and regulations for the better government of the library. But its staff still consisted of one University Librarian and one Under Library-Keeper, and even though local booksellers were called in to help them, they could hardly be expected to deal effectively with so vast a problem. One librarian proved so idle that he was persuaded in 1668 to retire, and his successor after fifteen years' toil announced that he did "most thankfully and willingly" recede from his place. Eventually the books were sorted and set up, after a fashion. Holdsworth's printed books and the printed books of the pre-Holdsworth collection were shelved in the south room, where the bookcases continued to be denoted by letters as in the "Lambeth" period, though the shelves in each case were now given numbers instead of Greek letters. The manuscripts, Rustat's books and Hacket's, and certain books in small formats were placed in the east room, where the bookcases were given numbers instead of letters. Shelf lists were eventually written and, one must hope, an author catalogue, though none survives. And so, with ever-increasing pressure on staff and space, the library fell into a confusion that persisted for more than a century.

Image: The beginning of Chaucer's Pardoner's tale in MS. Gg.4.27, from the library of Richard Holdsworth.