Old originals

I’ve commented before that librarians are great sharers and networkers. For those of working in small libraries the chance to get out and meet fellow practitioners is always valuable. I meet up with other MRC Librarians twice a year, most recently a few weeks back at the MRC Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit in Cambridge. Whilst in that lovely city we took the opportunity of visiting Corpus Christi College and its libraries, notably the Parker Library.
My first impression of the College was very favourable. It has a very striking old quadrangle with a classic gothic look.

I did wonder why it was called New Court, so I was not totally surprised to learn that the gothic features in this part of the college are in fact all 19th century neo-gothic, i.e. fake. We then walked through to the Old Court, which looked quite drab. The walls seemed to be rendered with concrete or pebble-dash, like an ugly 1930s council estate. Of course, this was the genuinely medieval part of the college.
With my historical and architectural senses duly confounded, we went on to the dining hall – another faux-gothic confection, and had an external look at the new undergraduate library, the Taylor Library. This opened last year and has won an RIBA award. It used to be a bank branch but was returned to the College and converted into a light and spacious library. It is adjacent to the Pelican Bar – and it seems that this juxtaposition is by design.
Then we moved on to the crowning glory of the College, the Parker Library. Named after Archbishop Matthew Parker (1504-1575), former master of the College, it is “a treasure house of Medieval and Renaissance manuscripts and early printed books“. It contains over 600 manuscripts – particularly medieval texts – including nearly a quarter of all extant Anglo-Saxon manuscripts in the world, And my own library doesn’t have even one Anglo-Saxon manuscript. One cannot help but marvel at the fact that the people in charge of this collection are librarians just the same as me and yet have such a completely different range of duties to perform and materials under their care. Many of the manuscripts are of course very beautiful, with their colourful illuminations.


Just as I was thinking that this library was all mired in the past, we were then led in to the digitization room (for some reason I wanted to say “chamber” there). I don’t know much about digitization, but when they said “76 Megapixel camera” I felt I ought to be impressed. Some pages have to be photographed in sections and then automagically stitched together by clever software. The project is drawing to a close now and the content is available on the web.
So, I felt outclassed not just by their history but also by their hi-tech.
They have a nice line in pelicans too. There are images of pelicans all over the college. Corpus Christi means ‘the body of Christ’, and the pelican was said to have offered its own blood to its children, just as Christ offers his body to his followers.

A recent addition to the college is the Chronophage, meaning “time eater”. It is a beautiful golden clock of unusual design, featuring a large metallic insect that seems to eat up the seconds as they pass. The wikipedia entry has more detail of this amazing public clock.

Just round the corner from the clock is one of Cambridge’s most famous pubs, The Eagle. I’m sure you all know why it’s famous.

All in all, it was a fascinating and thought-provoking visit and taught me not to judge a book by its covers, or even a college by its courtyards.

About Frank Norman

I am a librarian in a biomedical research institute. I've been around a few years, long enough to know that exciting new things fall into the same familiar patterns. I'm interested in navigating a path for libraries as we move further from print to electronic resources to open research, and become more embedded in research workflows.
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3 Responses to Old originals

  1. Sara Fletcher says:

    The Chronophage is beuatiful!

  2. Frank Norman says:

    Yes, my photo doesn’t really do it justice but there is a better one on the Wikipedia page.

  3. Sara Fletcher says:

    Must go and see it next time I’m in Cambridge, I want to see how it actually eats the minutes!

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