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Spotlight on Libraries: The Old Library at St. John’s College Cambridge
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Library of the Month: The Old Library at St. John’s College Cambridge

Posted By Emma L. Laws, 29 August 2019

Library of the Month: The Old Library at St. John’s College Cambridge

This month we are in Cambridge and are pleased to feature St John’s College Library. Thanks to YiWen Hon, Graduate Trainee at St John’s Library, for the article. The photographs are copyright of Ben Gallagher.


History of the Old Library, St John’s College, Cambridge

A library has been part of St John’s College, Cambridge since it was founded in 1511 by Lady Margaret Beaufort. Bishop John Fisher, confessor to Lady Margaret, was instrumental in the foundation of the College, and donated several books to its collections; some of these books are still held in the library. The 16th century chained library was located to the south of the Great Gate; its extent is marked by windows in St John’s Street with pointed heads.

Around 1616, the religious controversialist William Crashawe donated 200 manuscripts and 1000 early printed books to St John’s College via Sir Henry Wriothesley, Earl of Southampton, who had studied here. This sudden expansion of the Library’s holdings helped to prompt the building of a larger space – the Upper Library, as we know it today. The building was completed in 1624 (inscribed on the outer wall, and visible from the river), though it was another four years before it opened. John Williams, Bishop of Lincoln and alumnus of the College, funded the construction of the Upper Library with a donation of £1400. His arms are hung on the east wall above the entrance door, where they remain to this day.

The fittings in the Library consist of 22 tall cases with 20 dwarf cases in between. The cases are of oak and were carved by a local carpenter, Henry Man. In 1740, a Fellow of the College, Thomas Baker, donated a large and very fine part of his book collection. To accommodate it all the dwarf bookcases were raised, with the exception of the two nearest to the entrance. The Upper Library holds 30,000 volumes in total.

Like many other College buildings, the Library underwent a makeover in the 19th century. The Lower Library, originally several sets of chambers, was taken over and connected to the Upper Library by a spiral staircase. In addition to this, the 16 stained glass coats of arms of various benefactors to the library were placed in the oriel window of the Upper Library in memory of H.H. Hughes (Fellow 1817-36). Since then the shields of four further benefactors have been added, and spaces remain for the arms of any future patrons.

The Library houses a wide-ranging collection of rare books and manuscripts. The oldest complete manuscript in our collection is an Irish psalter, c. 9th-11th century, whilst other highlights include a beautifully illuminated 1538 Great Bible, perhaps Thomas Cromwell’s own copy, and a book of hours once owned by Lady Margaret herself. We also hold the personal papers of many Johnians, including those of physicist Fred Hoyle and photographer Cecil Beaton. Visitors are welcome to consult our collections in the Rare Books Reading Room, and the College runs an outreach and education programme for the general public and schools utilising items from our Special Collections.


YiWen Hon

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