The secrets of the stacks – the mysteries of Cambridge’s infamous University Library tower

24 January 2013

Atiyab Sultan investigates the mysteries of Cambridge’s infamous University Library tower…

For as long as anyone can remember, the imposing brick column of the Cambridge University Library (popularly known as the UL) has loomed over us all, inciting speculation and even fear.

What could that architectural monstrosity possibly contain, and what mysteries can it reveal? Does it really house the university’s pornographic collection, accessible only to staff and fellows? Perhaps disappointingly for some, the recently concluded Tower Project proved this is not the case – but the answers it did provide were just as interesting, and some only slightly less fantastical.

All of these discoveries are now catalogued and accessible via the UL search function, but The Cambridge Student can now reveal some of the highlights, having had the opportunity to tour the collection with erstwhile project head Vanessa Lacey.

Spanning six years, and funded by a generous $1 million grant from the Mellon foundation, the Tower Project was bound to throw some tall tales and quaint curiosities to light – and it did not disappoint.

The Copyright Act of 1809 made the Cambridge University Library a National Library. This meant publishers in Britain were required to send a copy of all their printed works here (and to other such collections at the British Library in London, Trinity College Library, Dublin, the National Library of Scotland, and even the Bodleian Library at ‘the other place’.) The result was, unsurprisingly, a sheer deluge of all kinds of printed fare, from books on astrology to football to dressmaking to children’s literature. A deluge that no one really knew how to deal with. Considered to be of little academic value, the librarians at the UL just kept adding the books to the storehouses, where they remained largely untouched and unused till the Tower Project started in 2006.

Being the first such collection of 19th and 20th century popular books to be systematically catalogued, the project also benefited from a concurrent Leverhulme-funded research project led by Professor Mary Beard and others on Victorian material life, which helped to anchor the cataloguing exercise academically through the simultaneous and active use of the materials by students and senior researchers.

Unsurprisingly, the sheer mass of material accumulated threw up some interesting and unexpected books and topics. A book on ‘Electric’ corsets were one such highlight, though no one is quite sure whether their purpose was medicinal, cosmetic, or sexual. Highly intimidating dental equipment, publications on quitting smoking (or ‘Our Lady Nicotine’ as the author terms it) and books on entertaining oneself during long winter evenings making imaginative shadow puppets were also present.

It appears that no subject was mean enough for book and print in that age as we come across a book on the art of making sandwiches. For those wondering, the ideal sandwich was one that could be held “in a gloved hand without injuring the glove”. If it’s carried: “those who carry a pocket luncheon know that they can with confidence open their packages and not present to the disgusted gaze of any who may be in their vicinity a mingled, mangled, messy mass.”

For all you young ladies worried about how best to choose your prospective husband, or if the man behind the counter at Sainsburys is a jewel thief, or even if the boy buying you a drink in Cindies is really the nice, well-mannered gentleman he’s pretending to be, you’re in luck. A large number of books on physiognomy – the art of reading character through facial features – were discovered, intended for just this purpose. Some came with taglines on how to detect a young man’s criminal past, and for the particularly keen, palmistry and graphology (personality through handwriting) was also an option. These books remained fairly popular in the nineteenth century but became less palatable after the Nazis used physical features as the basis of their eugenics programme and Aryan races theories.

As we tour the UL, Vanessa comments on the larger cultural and social context the undertaking has revealed: for instance the changing role of women evident in book illustrations. Pre-World War I women were conservatively dressed and shown in subservient positions while post-war illustrations show them as confident party-goers, sporting nail-polish and cigarettes. But, surprisingly for a library, it’s not just books we came across. Since the law required all kinds of printed material to be sent to the libraries, an array of diaries, card games, dressmaking patterns, maps, etc were also found during the cataloguing exercise. Perhaps the most exciting find among these was a particularly violent card game named Panko, which divided participants into Suffragists and Anti-Suffragists with deadly punishments prescribed for Suffragists if they lost. Who doesn’t want to spend a lazy afternoon force-feeding hunger strikers and trying themselves to railings in the name of good, clean, card-based fun?

Another message subliminally conveyed during the project was the starkness of class divisions, apparent in the very quality of print and publication of the books. While the lower classes read cheap paperbacks (‘pulp’ fiction – called so for the wood-based paper it was printed on), the upper classes enjoyed leather-bound, intricately patterned books with gold lettering and illustrations. In fact, the high quality of the books intended for the wealthy generated much resentment among publishers, who didn’t want to send a free copy of their best sellers to the five collections. Many high-end publishers often refused to comply with the law and as such even this vast collection is not quite complete. Kipling’s The Jungle Book is one such classic that was not discovered in the boxes.

While the seventeenth floor at the tower permits an amazing view of Cambridge from the windows, the interior is no less spectacular, with many of the books in almost pristine condition, including their fine gold-leaf lettering and illustrations. Yet, sadly, there are still hundreds of boxes left uncataloged – thousands more mysteries left unrevealed. The Tower Project was concluded last month not because it was finished, but through lack of funds, and we can only speculate what the rest of the materials (from 1920-1976) will reveal. Perhaps the pornographic collection is there after all – or a priceless first edition of your grandmother’s favourite book. Maybe they made sandwiches differently in the thirties. Hopefully, the project will one day resume, and we will find out.