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Delving into the UL’s Manuscripts and Rare Books Reading Rooms

Delving into the UL’s Manuscripts and Rare Books Reading Rooms

The first thing I noticed when I made my way to the Manuscript Room information session in the University Library was that the library is a lovely maze. I have visited the UL before but the dis-orientating halls and confusing layout left me unsure I would find my way back without a wrong turn or two. The second thing I noticed, later that afternoon when attending the Rare Books Room information session, was that the two rooms, Manuscript and Rare Books, are nearly identical. Upon entering the Rare Books room I thought I had managed to accidentally retrace my steps back to the Manuscript Room. My confusion was confirmed when Sophie, our guide, told us that sometimes people will come to them at the desk in a flap saying that they left the room for a moment and now the manuscript they were working on is gone! “It is probably still in its place… in the Manuscript Room. Right now you are in the Rare Books room.” she patiently explains to them. This does not surprise me.

Both the Manuscript Room and the Rare Books room have gargantuan collections that can be accessed by anyone with a valid University or Library Reader card*. John (Manuscript and Exhibition Officer and very friendly guide), tells me that their collection includes (but is not limited to) Medieval and Early Modern manuscripts, personal correspondence and diaries, land sales, title deeds, manorial court records and much more. While in the Rare Books Room, Sophie (Rare Books Specialist and also friendly guide) says their collection is made up mostly of books prior to 1900 (though there are some exceptions) and includes an array that spans incunabula, the history of science, books printed in or about Cambridge, and a collection of children’s illustrated books.

The books and manuscripts are held in special storage so, upon arriving at the Rooms, a slip must be filled in and ‘fetchers’ (their terminology, not mine) will… fetch, I suppose, the book or manuscript. In the case of the Manuscript Room this can take 10 to 15 minutes whereas in the Rare Books Room it can be between 20 – 30 minutes depending on the book. Ample time to steal down to the tea room for a coffee or tea, as no liquids (water or otherwise) are allowed into either of the rooms.

Students and staff can attend information sessions that give valuable information on how to use the reading rooms and also allows for the opportunity to ask questions specifically related to their own research needs. I would highly recommend taking one of these information sessions as an excellent way to get an understanding of the collections of such a valuable resource so close to home.

The next training sessions for the Manuscripts Reading Room will be held on Thursday the 29th October at 11:30am while the Rare Books Room’s next session is Thursday 5th November at 11am. Information sessions are listed here:


Munby Rare Books Room email address:

Manuscripts Reading Room email address:


*Though in the case of the Manuscripts room undergraduates need special permission sought on their behalf by their Tutor, Supervisor, or Director of Studies (see for more information)


Jenna Kapaun