Yesterday I went to the University Library (affectionately known as the UL) for what will probably/hopefully be the last time this academic year, to finish off the reading I needed to do for my last essay before exam revision starts in earnest. I somehow managed to avoid the UL entirely for my first year here, but this year it has been an indispensable resource for finding obscure articles about obscure things in obscure journals that just happen to be absolutely necessary for whatever essay I’ve been set that week.

The University Library, Cambridge, like the British Library, is one of the UK’s copyright libraries, meaning it is entitled to a copy of every book, magazine or newspaper published in the UK. It differs from the British Library in that a large part of it’s collection is open access, meaning that if you are registered as a reader, you can just go and find the book on the shelf yourself rather than having to order it in advance. Borrowing rights are restricted to third years and above, as far as I understand it, so you have to read in the library. Nevertheless, this means you can always be 98% sure that the book or article you need will be on the shelf.

Certain books are not borrowable at all and have to be ordered in advance and read in a certain room: the West Room, the Reading Room, the Commonwealth Room, the Rare Books and Manuscripts Room, the Map Room… It always makes you feel quite priviledged, as an undergraduate, to order up books in some of these rooms alongside proper academics doing serious research. Yesterday I needed to look at two facsimilies of the two earliest manuscripts of Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English Peoples, which for some reason were only in the Map Room. At first I was the only one in there, which felt very strange, but before long a couple of other people were in there actually looking at maps, including one woman with a very old looking map which looked really interesting – I had to resist the temptation to ask her what it was all about!

The UL is absolutely massive, and inevitably you end up needing books from all over the building and lugging a massive pile of books from the sixth floor on the north side to the fifth floor on the west side, which can be a pain. There are most certainly places I haven’t yet been to, but I think the maze-like nature of this library is part of its charm. When working there you know you are surrounded by hundreds of other people all studying incredibly diverse things, and yet at the same time you can feel completely alone and concentrate on your own work. And of course the miles and miles of bookshelves are at once comforting and awe-inspiring!

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