Founded in 1448, the Old Library is still situated in its original room with bookcases made from medieval lecterns. Although none of the original collection remains, the library holds a fine and hugely significant collection of c. 30,000 early printed books and manuscripts dating from the 12th to 19th centuries.
Many of the books have been annotated by past readers, thereby providing an invaluable record of intellectual activity from early modern times until the 19th century. The collection covers the whole range of subjects studied by Queens’ members during that period, including theology, classics, history, philosophy, astronomy, medicine and English literature. During its existence, the library has benefited from a number of major benefactions including those of Sir Thomas Smith (Renaissance Humanist works (1577)), Isaac Milner (including many 18th-century French mathematical works (1820)) and the library of John Smith, the Cambridge Platonist (1652). There is also an extensive collection of early Erasmus editions.
With many of its books still in their original bindings, Queens’ Old Library is notable for the fact that, of all Oxbridge libraries, it remains closest to its original state. In addition to the medieval lecterns, interesting features of the Library include its 15th-century stained glass windows originating from a Carmelite Friary that was adjacent to the college prior to its suppression in 1537.
Queens’ is one of the very few colleges to have a room specifically designed to house a Library in the mid 15th century. This room has now been in continuous use as a library for 560 years.
The Old Library lies on an east-west axis, with one row of plain glass windows looking south onto Old Court to use the maximum available light, and the windows on the north side which originally looked onto the buildings of a Carmelite friary. The stained glass now in these latter windows was purchased from the friary at its suppression in 1537, and now represents one of the finest collections of fifteenth century English roundels extant.
The internal design of the Library room comprised ten two-tier reading lecterns arranged to stand out from the walls. The bookshelves now in use are made in part from these lecterns. The locations of the chain-bars and the positions of the sloping reading desks are still traceable.
The system of chaining books at Queens’ differed from most known examples of chained libraries in that it was designed for the reading of manuscript books laid flat on the lecterns, rather than printed books stood upright on shelves. This layout allowed room for no more than 20 volumes on each double lectern; a maximum capacity of 200 volumes. An inventory attributed to the College’s first President, Andrew Docket, indicates that the Library had reached capacity by 1472.
By 1538 all of these titles had disappeared and although no book from that inventory now exists at Queens’ by this time the College still possessed one of the largest contemporary collections in Cambridge.
In 1612 the lecterns were converted into bookshelves. The chains were removed from all volumes, and never again used, and the books stood upright for the first time, with the spines facing inward in a manner typical of the 17th century.
The 18th century saw a great decline in the wealth of the College and the slow recovery of the College’s finances has proved both a bane and a great benefaction to the Library. It became the fashion in the 18th century to rebind all books in a collection to a uniform style.
Queens’ was spared this fate by poverty, and undoubtedly one of the most valuable features of the collection is the bindings many of which are contemporary, or near contemporary with the volumes they encase. These include four 12th century bindings which retain techniques of binding structure which had been thought to exist only in 20th century theoretical reconstructions. Other bindings of note include the work of Caxton’s binder, of Grolier and Cambridge binder Garrett Godfrey.
Left: An fine example of Godfrey's bindings [H.5.13] - the book came from the library of Sir Thomas Smith, Queens' alumnus and secretary of state.
In 1827 a catalogue of the Queens’ Library was published designed by Thomas Hartwell Horne, this incorporated a revolutionary approach to the classification of learning which listed all the books grouped by subject. A major pitfall of Horne’s catalogue however is that he also listed some books which it would be “desirable” for the Library to own. No full list has been compiled since and thus in 560 years of the Queens’ Library no comprehensive catalogue has ever been completed.
However, Queens' Old Library collections are now currently being catalogued (cataloguing started with our HLF-funded project Renaissance Queens') and bibliographic records added to the Cambridge University Library Catalogue.