The Best Libraries in Cambridge

A look at the academic prowess of Cambridge

The Best Libraries in Cambridge

Cambridge, a historic city renowned for its prestigious universities, is a haven for bibliophiles and scholars alike. Nestled within its cobblestone streets are some of the world’s most iconic libraries, each housing a rich collection of literary treasures. To give credit to such a reputation we have listed our top picks into a selection of the best libraries in Cambridge.

This list is in no particular order and is not limited in nature, but we believe if you ever visit our historic city,  these libraries should be included in your things to do in Cambridge. Each library has its own character, speciality and unique beauty. Alongisde a punting tour, discovering your favourite library must surely be the most Cambridge-esque activity.

The Cambridge University library

Situated at the core of Cambridge’s academic prowess, the Cambridge University Library has emerged as a distinguished symbol of learning and scholarly exploration. With an impressive collection exceeding eight million volumes, this library serves as a beacon for the pursuit of knowledge and advanced research. The University of Cambridge has been a guardian of a precious assortment of books dating back to the early 14th Century, marking the inception of the library in 1416. In its nascent stages, the Cambridge University Library boasted a modest compilation of books. However, as the 16th Century dawned, the library contained a mere 600 books and a handful of volumes covering limited subjects.

Fast forward to the present, the library has blossomed into a colossal repository, spanning close to 8 million books, manuscripts, maps, and journals. These treasures sprawl across 130 miles of shelving across 17 floors. Remarkably, the library experiences an influx of 1000-1500 items per week, solely in paper form; its digital archives further amplify its scholarly offerings.

Encompassing an extensive range of human achievements spanning over three millennia and articulated in more than 2000 languages, the Cambridge University Library encapsulates the entirety of human endeavors. From ancient Chinese civilizations to the epoch of the English industrial revolution and into contemporary times, the library embodies a diverse array of historical epochs that few institutions can rival in terms of sheer magnitude.

The library warmly extends an invitation to all who seek to become part of its vibrant community, catering to writers, scholars, and leisurely readers alike. The pathway to membership is simple – a straightforward sign-up process. The library facilitates various membership options to cater to diverse needs:

  • One-week temporary card (complimentary, accessible once in a twelve-month period)
  • One-month membership (£5)
  • Six-month membership (£15)
  • One-year membership (£30)
  • Three-year membership (£90)

Whats more, Cambridge University Library also hosts two free public exhibitions a year, open Mon-Fri 9am-6:30pm, Sat 9am-4:30pm, Sun closed. Visit the Cambridge University Library website for details about their year-round public exhibitions and events programme. Exhibition and event ticket holders are invited to visit their café, The Tea Room.

The Wren Library

Nestled within Trinity College‘s revered walls, the Wren Library seamlessly fuses architectural magnificence with literary import. Designed by Sir Christopher Wren, it epitomizes historical grandeur, housing ancient manuscripts, including an original Shakespeare “First Folio.” Its opulent interior, adorned with intricate woodwork and resplendent stained glass, transports visitors to eras of erudition. The library shares the spotlight with Trinity Hall’s Jerwood Library during punting tours, spotlighting architectural brilliance graced by abundant light—a feat pioneered in its 1676 inception, completed in 1695.

This library gains global acclaim for housing 1250+ medieval manuscripts and treasures. Noteworthy pieces include the 12th-century ‘Eadwine Psalter,’ 13th-century ‘Romance of Alexander,’ ‘Anglo-Norman Trinity Apocalypse,’ and an original ‘Winnie the Pooh’ transcript.

Beyond its historical artifacts, the Wren Library features the Capell Shakespeariana collection, editions of Newton’s ‘Principia Mathematica,’ and 70,000+ books, many pre-dating 1820, with a more extensive digital archive.

If you can’t make the trip, you can read more about Trinity College here: https://traditionalpuntingcompany.com/sights/trinity-college-trinity-bridge/  or use their virtual tour to view the impressive interior from the comfort of your own home: https://panoroo.com/virtual-tours/V4jAmZBj

Members of the general public cannot obtain a membership to this library as it is only prohibited to students and staff of Cambridge University. Visiting times however for the general public currently are:

Monday -Friday: 12:00pm – 2:00pm

Saturday: 10:30am – 12:30pm

Pepys Library

Named after at the Member of Parliament and a scholar of Magdalene College, Pepy’s library was a slow but classical construction of architecture of its time. In this establishment you can delve into the personal collection of renowned diarist Samuel Pepy’s and his diverse interests in naval history, ballads, plays, and, most notably, his meticulously chronicled diary offering invaluable insights into 17th-century London life. This library provides an exceptional window into the mind of an impassioned bibliophile and historian.

Built between 1670 and 1703 there were challenges during construction, stemming from financial constraints and evolving trends which delayed it’s completion. Pepys, before his passing in 1703, aspired for his nephew and heir to inherit a thoughtfully curated collection, as he believed in achieving the “greatest diversity of subjects, styles, and languages” with minimal space. Even today, the library remains faithful to his intent, preserving 3000 volumes untouched for posterity. This selection encompasses bound manuscripts of Pepys’ diary, the inaugural edition of Newton’s ‘Principia Mathematica,’ a selection of incunabula, and printed ballads. An intriguing facet of Pepys’ meticulousness lies in his insistence that each book on a shelf maintains uniform height. When any book fell short, a wooden base with a leather exterior was created to align with the spine.

Visiting times are based on ‘Drop in’ visits for the general public and are as follows:

Mondays – Fridays – 2pm – 4pm

Saturdays – 11am – 1pm

Pre-booked tours are also available on Friday mornings for visitors aged 12+.

Magdalene College New Library

This library has made it to the list thanks to its modern and award-winning unique architecture. You’ll catch a direct sighting of the New Magdelene College library if you join us on our punting tours.

From the inside, the building lets a tremendous amount of natural light soak in. The modern layout with a linear build juxtaposes the more classic use of wood within much of the interior.

Study desks are well-spaced and alongside the shared working zones, there are many hidden nooks and crannies with extra desks for students to find.

College members tackling their deadlines within Madgelene New Library have access to blankets to keep them cosy as well as board games to borrow for their well-earned breaks.

This library has won a handful of awards from the Royal Institute of British Architecture in 2022 thanks to its innovative design and eco-friendly use of natural light.

Learn more about Magdelene College and what you will see of it from the river here: https://traditionalpuntingcompany.com/sights/magdalene-college-and-bridge/

Parker Library

Nestled within Corpus Christi College, the Parker Library is an invaluable repository for medieval manuscripts and rare texts. Named after Archbishop Matthew Parker, this sanctuary safeguards a treasure trove including the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and the sixth-century Gospels of St. Augustine. The collection stands not only as a testament to enduring knowledge but also provides insight into the craftsmanship and intellectual pursuits of bygone eras. The library, considered Corpus Christi College’s most significant national heritage, began its journey in 1376. However, Archbishop Matthew Parker solidified its establishment in 1574 during his vice chancellorship at Cambridge University and tenure as Archbishop of Canterbury.

Comprising over 600 manuscripts and around 8,000 pre-1850 printed books, the collection, largely curated by Matthew Parker, holds Europe’s significant Renaissance history. It boasts treasures like the sixth-century Gospels of Augustine (the first Archbishop of Canterbury), the earliest Anglo-Saxon Chronicle copy, and the remarkable Bury Bible.

Regular exhibitions grace the library, although they are subject to availability. Being an integral part of Corpus Christi College, the Parker Library extends a warm welcome to casual visitors from 1:30pm to 4:30pm every day.

Check their Eventbrite platform here to book for a paid tour: https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/o/parker-library-57112426933

King’s College Library

 

King’s College library is beautiful in the opposite ways that Magdelene College New Library is. With its enchanting historical appearance – other than the computer suite – you can imagine that it might have looked exactly the same some hundred years ago.

 

Books spanning different centuries stretch from floor to ceiling. Whereas Magdelene feels bright and tidy, the character of the shelves at King’s overloaded with beautiful books resembles something out of a fairytale to immerse into.

 

The views from the windows show the chapel across the lawn; the other side of the building shows the private gardens of the college Provost (essentially the college headmaster).

If you were to pick up an old book, you might find annotations in the margins from students across the decades commenting on the text, unknowingly giving helpful hints to future students trying to digest the work. Find out more about King’s College and what you can see from a punting tour here: https://traditionalpuntingcompany.com/sights/kings-college-chapel-bridge/

 

Library access is restricted but you can walk the grounds by booking here: https://www.kings.cam.ac.uk/visit/plan-your-visit or use their virtual tour https://www.kings.cam.ac.uk/library/virtual-tour-of-the-library

Churchill archives centre

For history enthusiasts captivated by the 20th-century’s political and historical landscape, the Churchill Archives Centre is an invaluable wellspring. Situated at Churchill College, this hub houses an extensive repository of documents, letters, and photographs chronicling the life and era of Sir Winston Churchill. Researchers and avid learners can delve into the intricacies of political decision-making and uncover insights into pivotal historical junctures. This repository, comparatively recent in its establishment, traces its origins back to 1960 as a tribute to Sir Winston Churchill through the National and Commonwealth Memorial. Initiated in 1965, the college commenced gathering papers from Churchill’s era, his personal interests, and his significant connections, the original aim of the archive center. Today, it harbors papers of more than 600 influential figures from Churchill’s time, including notable names like Margaret Thatcher and John Major. The archive’s essence, harmoniously resonating with the college, aspires to be a “bridge between the achievements of the past and the possibilities of the future” within the contemporary context.

Operating hours span from 9am to 5pm. However, visitor spaces are limited, prompting the recommendation of pre-booking your visit to ensure a seamless experience.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is the oldest library in Cambridge?

The Tudor red brick Library, also called the Old Library within Trinity Hall College, was erected in 1590. Though access is limited, you can view the exterior of their other library, the Jerwood library, right on the river front when you tour with us.

Are Cambridge libraries open to visitors?

As you might have summed up from reading this, each library has its own procedure. We have given the relavant information for each library mentioned within our top picks – overall – you can either find specifc times to view a college in person, or you can see its exterior from the river’s exclusive viewing points.

If you wish to see and hear about the history of these library’s, then why not book a private or shared tour with us to discover the profound legacy of academic pursuit that has defined Cambridge for centuries.

How many Cambridge libraries are there?

There are over 100 libraries in Cambridge. With that in mind, the ones that have made it to our list in this blog are ones that really stand out from the many to choose from.

Which is the best library in Cambridge?

Well, as you may have gathered from this very blog, there are unique selling points for each Cambridge library. Choosing the best library truly depends on what would be ideal for each person asking the question. The University of Cambridge can cater toward those invigorated by modernity such as with Magdalene library, for those wanting to be transported to another age, as the Parker library would tend to, and for those seeking an incalclable range of books to explore, as the Univerity Library provides. Go and discover which library is the best in Cambridge for you.

Which Cambridge College has the biggest library?

Trinity College has the largest library out of all the colleges; the University Library is the biggest overall and is there for all students as well as registered members of the public.

A reflection on the Cambridge libraries

As you traverse the picturesque waterways of Cambridge, you’ll see a unique perspective on Cambridge’s academic heritage, with glimpses of some of the notable libraries we’ve explored. You will begin with the sight of Magdelene College New Library, proudly standing as it welcomes its students into its modern facilities. On the same grounds lies Pepys Library, a treasure trove of eclectic interests and historical insights.

Gliding along the River Cam, your next library sighting will be Trinity College’s Wren Library, a masterpiece of architectural and literary marvels, and will be followed by the Jerwood Library at Trinity Hall, a testament to modern academic resources. The final library glimpse of your tour will be a glimpse of King’s College Library, with its collection stretching from floor to ceiling in a fairytale manner to conclude your safari of academic powerhouses.

 


Posted on August 17th, 2023, by the Traditional Punting Company Editor