Beware: tradesmen in the library
It only takes a quick visit to the Cambridge University Library to dispel any suspicion that the book is dead, or even approaching the last stages of terminal illness. The whole place is bursting at the seams with new accessions, which have now outgrown all the shelves and are spilling over onto tables, window-sills and even the floor. All over the library you find little notes saying, helpfully, things like: “Classmark 534.6 c 95 continues on the table by the window”. I rather approve of all this (the UL is one of the few big libraries where a lot of the books are open to readers and don’t have to be ordered up from some compact-shelving dungeon) – but it does mean that the whole place is coming to look more and more like my own office. That is to say a bit of a mess.
I’ve just been spending a few rare days in the UL. Rare? Yes, and not only because I’ve been away for three months. Despite what you might enviously imagine about the working life of the average Cambridge don, I hardly ever get the time to go there during term. And even in the vacation, the excellent library in the Classics Faculty is only two minutes from my office and meets most of my needs. So some solid hours in the main library (the one with the “up yours” tower) seems quite a luxury.
The UL is a marvellous combination of high-tech library science (or “information science” I guess I should say) and some endearingly quaint old-fashioned habits.
There are great banks of computers for searching the catalogue in every way you can imagine. You can search for books written in Italian by people named Smith between 1930 and 1940 if you are so minded – which can occasionally come in handy (even though, as no librarian likes to admit, if you are just trying to find Syme’s Roman Revolution, or some such volume, it’s much quicker to do that with a card catalogue or guardbook than it ever is on a computer).
But underneath the swish machinery there’s still a formidable foundation of Victorian handwritten records. Today I had ordered up -- these weren’t on open shelves -- all the succeeding editions of Murray’s Handbook for Travellers in Southern Italy from 1853 to the end of the century. (What I was doing with these, you’ll no doubt hear in due course.) They all arrived on my desk, apart from the second edition. And there was a suspicious gap in the class marks between 1 and 3. L576.d.6.1, L576.d.6.3, but no L576.d.6.2
When I queried this, the librarian offered to consult the “shelf list”. This involved no clicking of buttons, keys or mice. Instead he brought an old leather binder. Inside there were hundreds of handwritten pages. And turning to the page for the offending classmark, we looked at the individual entries for the accession of each new edition of the Handbook, written in scrawly fountain pen by underpaid Victorian clerks. Sure enough, there was a blank where L576.d.6.2 should have been. They never received it.
But it’s not just in the cataloguing that there’s a quaintly Victorian tinge. This afternoon I walked along one of the long library corridors, which had obviously been recently painted. In fact, the health-and-safety notice to warn readers of the potentially dangerous decorating work was still in place. Take care, it said, “tradesmen may be working above”. What other library in the world would still talk about “tradesmen”?
(PS. If you’ve enjoyed this good news blog about the survival of the book, you might enjoy this little video – courtesy of a friend at the Getty -- about the birth of the book)