Secrets of the Cambridge University Library tower revealed: Is it really full of Victorian pornography?
Its million books have been seen by few... but now a free exhibition reveals all
It dominates the Cambridge skyline and contains one of the world’s most remarkable collections of books.
At 157ft tall and 17 floors, Cambridge University Library’s tower can be seen from as far away as Ely but has largely kept its secrets, and contents (almost one million books), to itself over the years.
But now in a free exhibition, Tall Tales: Secrets of the Tower, the truth about what the skyscraper really holds will be revealed.
Since 1710, Cambridge University Library has by law been entitled to receive a copy of every book published in the UK and Ireland under the Copyright Act.
But many were deemed not to be of academic interest and were banished to the tower, so they could be stored and largely ignored.
Victorian toys and games jostle for a place with colourful children’s books, Edwardian fiction in pristine dust jackets and popular periodicals. Once considered of “secondary” value, the tower collection is a treasure trove for today’s readers and researchers.
Mark Purcell, deputy director of research collections, explains: “The tower was built in 1934, designed by Giles Gilbert Scott, who is better known for designing the red telephone box.
“The whole point of a library like this is we’re not making judgements about whether something is significant or interesting. If it is produced, then we acquired it and it’s just this mad diversity of stuff.”
The library had occupied the Old Schools since the fifteenth century, gradually expanding to fill almost the entire complex. By the early twentieth century the collections had grown to such an extent that crisis point had been reached.
Scott’s initial plans for the new site largely followed the outline of the library as built but boasted a restrained classical facade with a pillared entrance in the centre. In 1926, a visit by representatives of the John D. Rockefeller foundation prompted a change in this design.
The architect was induced to revise his design on grander and more assertive lines, with the important addition of the tower.
“There are fantastic photographs of little old men and teenage boys with horses and carts moving millions upon millions of books in crates across the river, which was done in the course of a single summer,” says Mark.
“The library closed at the end of the summer term and it reopened in October and during that period the items were transported across the Cam, mostly on horses and carts, and installed in this building.”
Costing £500,000 to build, with Rockefeller funding half the cost, the tower now serves as both an architectural statement and a storage facility.
In the unfinished novel The Dark Tower, attributed to C S Lewis, the eponymous tower is a replica of this building.
“He was writing it in the early 40s when this building was new,” explains rare book specialist Liam Sims.
The exhibition, which opens to the public today (May 2), lifts the lid on two centuries of popular publishing. As well as visiting the exhibition, for a limited time only, members of the public will also have the chance to tour the tower.
While first editions of books such as The Hobbit, Casino Royale and The Famous Five series are considered literary classics today, such novels were deemed of little academic value at the time of publication and effectively banished to the tower. There, they sit alongside the myriad of toys, board games, Valentine’s cards, pop-up books and Mr Men cartoons, which have all found their way into the tower since its completion.
The women’s suffrage posters, recently featured by the BBC and New York Times, were also housed among the tower’s eclectic and ephemeral collections.
The tower has also been an enduring source of undergraduate legend for its mythical collection of Victorian pornography.
“The tower is one of the most visible structures in Cambridge but it’s also the most hidden. People see it, but they’ve got no idea what’s in there or if anything is in there,” says Liam.
“The most famous myth is that the tower is stuffed to the roof with Victorian pornography,”
“This is actually not true, but we are a legal deposit, so by law we have received a copy of every book published for over 300 years, so whether it’s a knitting pattern, a magazine about trainspotting or an academic text book or an article by Stephen Hawking, we will acquire it and we will hold it for the long term.”
He adds: “We had to make the most of the academic material, but the popular novels coming into the library weren’t considered important and so they were put up in the tower.”
Among the various exhibition themes are those looking at ‘scandalous and libellous books’, ‘curious collections’ and ‘wrapping words’ (looking at the artistry of the dust jacket).
Through the 1920s, the illustrated jacket became established and most libraries discarded these paper wrappers on purchase. But Cambridge, opting for efficient minimum handling, did not. It makes the tower collection unique among its peers in the legal deposit libraries of Oxford, Trinity College Dublin, the British Library and the National Libraries of Scotland and Wales.
The first edition of Ian Fleming’s Casino Royale, the first James Bond book, features with artwork by the author himself.
Inside the tower, books are ordered by year rather than subject or author, so you can stand in front of a year and see exactly what was published.
The first edition of Tolkien’s The Hobbit, published in 1937, features in the exhibition, but at the time it was just many of the thousands of books that came into the library that year. It sits alongside a number of other copies of the novel, one published in Cornish and another in Hawaiian, as well as recent editions. This variety is not unusual and is the case for most twentieth century novels in the collection.
Other highlights of the exhibition include the first novel to focus on poor, working-class black culture in Britain (Samuel Selvon’s The Lonely Londoners) and an array of delightfully-titled books such as Indoor Games for Awkward Moments and Cupid’s Code for the Transmission of Secret Messages by Means of the Language of Postage Stamps.
“What people often say when they go into the tower is ‘I have one of those or my granny had one of those’ and then the penny starts to drop because the point is yes, you had one of those but there are a million similar in this tower and another eight or nine million across this site,” says Mark, “The scale of it is slightly mind-blowing.”
■ Tall Tales: Secrets of the Tower runs until October 27. Entrance to the exhibition is free.
What’s inside? Some highlights from the tower
■ The first edition of Ian Fleming’s Casino Royale. It’s the only one to feature his artwork: he designed the cover himself.
■ Cupid’s Code for the Transmission of Secret Messages by Means of the Language of Postage Stamps, 1899. Essential for every late-Victorian courting couple!
■ The Simplicity of Rearing Chickens: The author, Mrs Woodrow of Harrow, notes that rearing chickens is “one of the least expensive, most enjoyable, scientific, interesting and healthy hobbies that can be undertaken”.
■ Is Venus Inhabited? Asks a serious pamphlet in 1915. An authority on water drainage had looked through Venus’s cloud cover using a telescope and saw evidence of agriculture.
■ The original Mr Men books: Mr Tickle, Mr Messy and Mr Happy
■ The first edition of J R R Tolkien’s The Hobbit (1937) before it was amended in preparation for Lord of the Rings.