'Hidden' photos reveal Cambridge University Library build

A photographic collection of more than 200 "hidden" images that offer a "window on to a very different but significant time" for Cambridge University Library (UL) have been uncovered.

The pictures, held in three albums, chronicle the construction of the library in the early 1930s and offer a "unique view" of the "huge removal job" which saw one million items successfully moved into the West Road premises.

Image copyright Syndicates of Cambridge University Library
Image caption The entrance steps with the North Front in the distance, 4 December 1932, by RG Pilgrim

The albums by library staff member Robert George Pilgrim, another created by several members of staff, and a third more formal one donated to the university by the consulting engineer, Burnard Geen, give a detailed image of how the new UL grew up out of necessity and how staff undertook the task of relocating its treasures.

They were uncovered by Liam Sims, chief library assistant in the Rare Books Department at the UL, during research into the library's 80th anniversary.

He said: "These volumes are so special because they document a very important part of the UL's history.

"What makes two of these unique is the fact they are albums created by staff and I cannot think of anything else quite like them in our collections.

"They are a window on to a very different but significant time for the library."

Image copyright Syndicates of Cambridge University Library
Image caption Mr Pilgrim worked at the library from the 1920s to the 1950s and became the superintendent of the Anderson Room

On 26 July 1934, the contracted porters took the final box of books by horse and cart from "old library" where the tomes had lived for 500 years, to the new building designed by Sir Giles Gilbert Scott.

The monumental undertaking was captured by Mr Pilgrim, who spent three years painstakingly recording the building of the library.

He took more than 100 black and white images of the construction work, captured the moving of books and informal images of staff during their breaks.

Image copyright Syndicates of Cambridge University Library
Image caption The last crate of books was removed from the old library in July 1934. Mr Pilgrim took hundreds of pictures of workers "at play" during the library's construction

The academic library, used by scholars from around the world, has the right to hold a copy of every book published and has a history that spans six centuries.

Manuscripts were originally kept in chests within the university buildings until, in the 1420s, a place was created for the more than 100 volumes in the collection in the Old Schools.

Over time the collection grew, with major additions in the 17th and 18th centuries and by the 19th century new buildings were required to help contain the library.

In the 1920s it was noted that the University of Cambridge's old library was in danger of bursting at the seams with its contents occupying 20 miles of shelves, so playing fields belonging to King's and Clare Colleges were eventually chosen as the new site.

Image copyright Syndicates of Cambridge University Library
Image caption Eaden Lilley and Co porters were employed to move the books with library staff packing and labelling at one end and unpacking at the other. Staff and porters worked daily from 08:00 to 18:00 and completed the move in eight weeks - but there was always time for cricket
Image copyright Syndicates of Cambridge University Library
Image caption As well as detailing the library, the albums also depict staff playing cricket outside the old library, some of the 23,725 boxes of books being moved to their new home and porters relaxing over tea with the "head charwoman"

Mr Sims said Pilgrim's photographs "might not be the work of an expert but his small images show the work in great detail - much more than the more formal images taken for Geen's album, and show details including the preparations for the King's speech to mark the opening of the library.

"He must have had privileged access to the site though some of his colleagues might have wondered how much of his work he was getting done during the building, as he took a huge number of photographs."

Image copyright Cambridge University Library/Steve Cadman
Image caption More than a decade of talks and fundraising led to the building of the UL with its iconic 157ft tower designed by Sir Giles Gilbert Scott

The UL was opened on 22 October 1934 by King George V, who said: "It is a workshop of new knowledge and a storehouse of seasoned wisdom."

The library now holds approximately eight million items, occupying 93 miles of shelves, increasing by just less than 2 miles a year. The UL is yet to make a decision as to whether the photographs will be put on general display.

More on this story

Related Internet links

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external Internet sites