Lonely Planet Writer

Cambridge's mysterious library tower is finally open to the public

Cambridge is a university steeped in history and tradition and is the alma mater of such geniuses as Charles Darwin, Lord Byron, Stephen Hawking and Christopher Marlowe. With such creative and illustrious figures, it’s hardly surprising that the university campus is filled with fascinating history.

The tower has long been a source of fascination for Cambridge students. Imae by Sir Cam

One such near-mythological part of campus history is the tower of the university library. Standing at 17 storeys, it dominates the skyline and – being forbidden territory for undergraduates – has been the source of many student rumours. Now the university is allowing the public a glimpse into the tower’s history for the first time.

The exhibition entitled Tall Tales: Secrets of the Tower sheds a light on the treasures inside the building. More than 90% of the objects in it have never been on public display before and the collection date back to 1710,  some of which have never been opened.

The exhibition includes a section on scandalous books. Photo by Cambridge University Library

As well as incredible first editions of famous fiction like The Hobbit and Casino Royale – which ended up in the tower due to being perceived as having little research value – the exhibition will also display random paraphernalia that throughout the decades has made its way – or been ‘banished’ – to the tower. Those include Victorian toys, magazines, historical suffrage posters, Valentine’s cards and pop-up books.

Some highlights of the exhibition include themed areas dealing with ‘scandalous and libellous books’, which include erotic fiction deemed too racy for the main collection, and the artistry of the dust jacket. Visitors are also sure to be surprised by the sheer variety and bizarre nature of some of the titles that are kept by the prestigious university, including some gems as pamphlets on chicken-rearing and a guide to exchange secret messages through postage stamps.

As well as the exhibition, you can also get a rare guided tour of the tower and solve some of its mysteries for yourself. “For the first time, we are giving people the chance to explore both the remarkable collections and to glimpse inside this most visible yet mysterious of the city’s landmark”, said University Librarian Jess Gardner. “The Tower’s irreplaceable contents tell the story of our national life through the printed word.”

The truth about the Cambridge University Library tower.

The books in the tower are not accessible to the general Cambridge student population, leading to persistent rumours that much of the tower is filled with Victorian pornography. In fact, comedian Stephen Fry – himself a Cambridge graduate – wrote a novel featuring a character gaining access to the obscene collection. The reality however, while curious, is a little more mundane.

The tower has its own mythology and history amongst students. Photo by Andrew Alexander

Cambridge University is entitled to one copy of every book published in the United Kingdom and naturally it can be hard to find space for them all. The tower is filled with nearly one million books not deemed worthy for space in the main collection.

While this new exhibition may take some of the secrecy out of library tower, its vast collection means it will probably always be a source of fascination and delight to the university’s students. The exhibition is free and will be open from Monday to Saturday until 28 October.