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Cambridge University Library


It is an icon of the Cambridge skyline that has inspired authors from CS Lewis to Stephen Fry – and been an enduring source of undergraduate legend for its mythical collection of Victorian pornography.

From today, the treasures of Cambridge University Library’s fabled 17-storey Tower Collection, chosen from nearly a million volumes, go on public display together for the first time in a free exhibition, Tall Tales: Secrets of the Tower, opened on Tuesday 1 May by Sebastian Faulks (pictured above). More than 90 per cent of the objects have never before been on public display.

The Tower Collection is an Aladdin’s cave for book lovers and historians alike where valuable first editions jostle for shelf space alongside Victorian toys and games, colourful children’s books, Edwardian fiction (beautifully preserved with their original dust jackets) and popular magazines of the day. The oldest items in the Tower date from 1710, with the most recent material dating from the early years of the 21st century.

However, until now, access to our 157ft tower and its collections has usually been limited to a handful of library staff, researchers and academics, with the majority of its hundreds of thousands books remaining unopened. As well as visiting the exhibition, for a limited Cambridge University Library The Hobbit First Editiontime only, members of the public will also have the chance to tour the tower.

Described by former Prime Minister Neville Chamberlin as ‘a magnificent erection’, the Tower was designed by Sir Giles Gilbert Scott (architect of the iconic red telephone box and Battersea Power Station) and became the home of so-called ‘secondary material’ received under the Copyright Act which entitles Cambridge University Library to a copy of every book published in the UK.

While first editions of books such as The Hobbit (pictured above), Casino Royale and The Famous Five series are considered literary classics today, such novels were deemed of little academic value at the time of publication and effectively banished to the Tower. There, they sit alongside the myriad toys, board games, Valentine’s cards, pop-up books and Mr Men cartoons, which have all found their way into the Tower since its completion in 1934.

The women’s suffrage posters, recently featured by the BBC and New York Times, were also housed among the Tower’s eclectic and ephemeral collections.

University Librarian Jess Gardner said: “Now regarded as an archive of global importance, the Tower’s irreplaceable contents tell the story of our national life through the printed word.

“For the first time, we are giving people the chance to explore both the remarkable collections and to glimpse inside this most visible yet mysterious of the city’s landmarks.”

Among the various exhibition themes are those looking at ‘scandalous and libellous books’, ‘curious collections’ and ‘wrapping words’ (looking at the artistry of the dust jacket). 

Cambridge University Library Tower

Other highlights of the exhibition include the first novel to focus on poor, working-class black culture in Britain (Samuel Selvon’s The Lonely Londoners) and an array of delightfully-titled books such as Indoor Games for Awkward Moments and Cupid’s Code (For the Transmission of Secret Messages by Means of the Language of Postage Stamps).


Added Gardner: “Victorian cookery books and Penguin paperback novels were considered of little importance when they arrived – but time and a changing world has made what was once ‘secondary’, one of the greatest book collections of the Western World.

“These collections inform ongoing research at the University Library today including the study of how regional and working-class novels are informing our understanding of a history of place. The Tower Collection is not just some static collection of unread books, but a vast amalgamation of ideas that continues to spark inquiry into the human condition.”

Tall Tales: Secrets of the Tower is now open and runs until 28 October. Entrance to the exhibition is free and open to all.