Rare Books and Special Collections - Queens' Old Library

Rare Books and Special Collections

Old Library Collections Queens’ Old Library’s outstanding collection of early printed books comprises numerous donations of varying size and significance from former Fellows as well as purchases made by the College during the course of its history. As well as documenting over 500 years of intellectual life at Queens’, the collection's development reflects the College’s position in the world of learning during that time. We see this in the influence on the collection exerted by the presence of the Humanist scholar Erasmus at Queens’ from 1511 until 1514. Several books previously owned by Erasmus colleagues can be identified in the collection, the earliest being a copy of Erasmus’s Greek New Testament translation, which had been the property of his friend John Lasky. Bound in a contemporary Polish binding with his initials J. L., this highly significant publication is rarely found in British libraries. In addition to Humanist texts, Queens’ also holds extensive and valuable collections of the 17th and 18th centuries. Listed below are some principal components of the Old Library collection.


Thomas Smith Collection

Sir Thomas Smith (1513-1577) was an Elizabethan politician who rose from humble beginnings in a farming family to become Secretary of State and England’s Ambassador to France. Upon his death in 1577 he bequeathed his Greek and Latin books, numbering around seventy, to the College where he had been student and fellow. Sixty-five books remain, many of them filled with marginalia from annotations and translations to doodles and portraits. Smith received a humanist education at Queens’ and remained a humanist scholar throughout his life, and accordingly many of his books are early modern printed editions of classical texts. In addition, the Old Library houses Smith’s own hand-made globe, believed to be the oldest celestial globe in England. Smith was the subject of a recent exhibition in Queens’ Old Library.


Donor inscription of Humphrey Tyndall, 17th century

Humphrey Tindall Collection

Tindall (1549-1614) - sometimes spelled Tyndall - was President of the College between 1579 and 1614. He produced the first comprehensive Old Library inventory, and oversaw a major remodel of the room itself. The Library now possesses ‘all his folios which the library had not’ (fifty-eight books, though his personal library was much larger). It is possible that many more of his books are dispersed throughout the Library, having been used to enrich the collection or replace cheaper copies during his time in office. More information about the fascinating connection between Tindall and William Cecil can be found in these posts on the Old Library blog.


Early  17th English armorial binding with coat of arms of Henry Hastings.

Huntingdon Collection

Henry Hastings (1586-1643) was the fifth Earl of Huntingdon, and an eminent literary patron and book collector. In celebration of Humphrey Tindall’s remodelling of the Old Library in 1612-13 Huntingdon donated £100 to his alma mater, with which sum 102 books were purchased and bound with his armorial stamp and motto, “honorantes me honorabo”. Despite his patronage of English dramatists Hastings was a devoted Puritan, and perhaps in recognition of this the collection mainly consists of key Reformation texts and the works of the Church Fathers. His portrait hangs in the College.


John Smith Collection

John Smith (1618-1652) was a Fellow of Mathematics, and a founding member of the circle known as the Cambridge Platonists, theologians who called for a reunification of the doctrines of Christianity and Platonic philosophy. Smith died of tuberculosis aged thirty-four, and bequeathed his personal library of around six hundred books to the College; they cover subjects including history, geography, medicine, theology (particularly rabbinical writings), mathematics and astronomy. Smith himself was described by a friend as ‘a living library’, and the success and popularity of his posthumous Select Discourses suggests that had he lived longer he would have become an influential philosopher.

David Hughes Collection

Hughes (1727-1777) was Fellow and Vice-President of Queens’ College. A major donor to the Library, he left around 2,000 works to Queens’. The majority of these are pamphlets, mostly contemporary to Hughes but some from as early as the sixteenth century. They cover a wide range of subjects, most commonly theology and politics. Hughes is buried in the crypt below what once was the College’s chapel and is now the War Memorial Library (student library).


Isaac Milner Collection

Isaac Milner (1750-1820) was Queens’ President from 1788 to 1820, Lucasian Professor of Mathematics and Dean of Carlisle. He began working life as an apprentice weaver in Leeds, but through his brother’s patronage and his own formidable intellect matriculated at Queens’, and in quick succession was made Fellow in Mathematics, ordained to St Botoph’s Church and given a Fellowship of the Royal Society. His evangelical faith fuelled his enthusiasm for Newtonian classical mechanics, and he was appointed the inaugural Jacksonian Professor of Natural Philosophy. Strengths in his collection of around 3,000 pamphlets and books include Anglicanism and Methodism in the 18th and early 19th centuries, key works of the Protestant Reformation, 18th-century European mathematics, and the abolition of slavery (Milner was an abolitionist, and a close friend of William Wilberforce). Milner was also a chemist, and conducted experiments in the President’s Lodge; known as a ‘great dabbler in air-pumps’, he is believed to be the original owner of the air pump now residing in the Old Library. Milner, like Hughes, is now buried in the crypt directly below what is now the War Memorial Library.

Kennett Memorial Library

Also known as the Oriental or FAMES Collection, this sizeable collection was transferred to the Faculty of Asian & Middle Eastern Studies on permanent loan in 1972, and returned to the College in 2015. The collection is now known as the Robert Hatch Kennett Memorial Library, as R.H. Kennett (Regius Professor of Hebrew from 1903-1932) was the donor of a significant proportion, but it contains works collected by other Queens’ scholars of Asia and the Middle East, predominantly William Wright (1830-1889), A. A. Bevan (1859-1923) and Samuel Lee (1783-1852). It contains publications on the language, literature, history and archaeology of the ancient Near East, particularly Biblical studies, medieval Hebrew, Aramaic, Syriac and Arabic language and literature. Most of the books are written in European languages, but there are a significant number of publications in Hebrew, and a small number in Syriac, Arabic, Coptic, Persian and Sanskrit. The collection also contains several hundred Bibles translated into European and Asian languages. The Kennett Memorial Library is searchable on iDiscover. More details can be found on the Old Library blog.


Mainwaring Science Fiction Collection

617 works of science fiction from the mid-twentieth century constitute this science fiction collection, donated by alumnus Simon Mainwaring (undergraduate 1961-4). These books are particularly notable for their vivid cover art, and for the theme that unites many of them: the threat of greater intelligences, either alien or man-made. With the University a major contributor to scientific development, it is unsurprising that Cambridge’s own connections with science fiction are represented in the collection. Tom Shippey, who studied at Queens’ during the 1960s and 1970s, is not only a scholar of Old English literature and the works of J.R.R. Tolkien, but also a science fiction author. Physicists, lecturers in ancient literature and astronomers who studied and worked within the University of Cambridge wrote many of the books that feature in the collection. For more details, see the blog post written by Fellow Librarian Dr Tim Eggington.


Reserve Collection

The reserve collection is housed in a purpose-built storage room at Owlstone Croft. These books are mainly 19th- and early 20th-century works that once formed part of the student library collection. The Library hopes to undertake a cataloguing project here so that all books are listed on iDiscover.


Theatre Collection

The theatre collection of Queens’ College also is stored at Owlstone Croft. It contains hundreds of biographies, non-fiction books and novels concerning the theatre, as well as printed editions of plays, particularly those by British playwrights. In addition it also contains theatre memorabilia including scripts, programmes, tickets and photographs. This collection is not yet searchable on iDiscover; please direct any queries to the College Librarian.


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