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Cambridge University Library


The Great Collections

25 July to 24 October 1998 (closed 16 to 23 September inclusive)

Cambridge University Library probably began life in the fourteenth century as a collection of manuscripts stored in chests; it has now become one of the world's great research libraries, holding more than 6,000,000 books, 135,000 manuscripts and 1,000,000 maps. It contains works on every known subject, in literally thousands of languages, including children's books and popular works in addition to academic material.

The exhibition The Great Collections was the first exhibition held in the Library's new exhibition centre, opened in 1998. It was a celebration of the treasures of the Library and aimed to illustrate, by means of a few selected items, the vast range of its holdings. Through the centuries it has acquired, through purchase and gift, many collections of special significance, some of which were represented in this exhibition.

Items on display included:

  • a first edition of Newton's Principia, with his manuscript notes and annotations, and a manuscript of his optical lectures, delivered in 1669
  • Chinese oracle bones from 1400-1200 BC, the oldest known specimens of Chinese writing
  • a copy of the "Gutenberg Bible", a 42-line Latin Bible published circa 1455
  • Charles Darwin's copy of the first edition of On the origin of species ..., one of his manuscript notebooks and a letter to his sister
  • the typescript of Stephen Hawking's A brief history of time
  • items from the collection of the Royal Commonwealth Society Library - which came to Cambridge following a £2,000,000 appeal launched in 1992 - including a pocket globe, a rare Jamaican periodical and water-colours by a missionary in East Africa
  • a sixteenth century map of Zeeland, which may be unique
  • the only surviving copy of an edition of Walter of Henley's Boke of husbandry printed by Wynkyn de Worde around 1508
  • a Sanskrit palm leaf manuscript of The perfection of wisdom in 8000 lines
  • one of the oldest manuscripts of Bede's Historia ecclesiastica, dating from the eighth century
  • a sketchbook kept aboard H.M.S. Beagle
  • the Book of Cerne
  • a Hebrew medical manuscript

Additionally, a computer screen provided digital images from MS Ee.3.59 ("King Edward the Confessor"), and from the collections of the Taylor-Schechter Genizah Research Unit.