Filling the Wren Library Shelves

The completed Wren Library was on a scale unseen elsewhere in England at the time. One early visitor, Celia Fiennes, wrote in 1697

The Library farre exceeds that of Oxford, the Staires are wanscoated and very large and easye ascent all of Cedar wood, the room spacious and lofty paved with black and white marble, the sides are wanscoated and decked with all curious books off Learning their Catalogue and their Benefactors; there is two large Globes at each end with teliscopes and microscopes and the finest Carving in wood in flowers birds leaves figures of all sorts as I ever saw; There is a large Balcony opens at the end …

Other visitors, while admiring the magnificence of the building, noted that it did not contain many books. This was despite the fact that the building was clearly designed for readers: large windows provided the maximum amount of light; stools, tables and revolving lecterns provided work space and books lists acted as finding aids.

John Hacket’s bequest of 1670 financed the rebuilding of Garret Hostel (renamed Bishop’s Hostel) and stipulated that rents from this new hostel should provide an income specifically for the Library. Early purchases from this fund were mathematical books from Trinity Master Isaac Barrow’s library (for example T.44.35). These augmented the books from the Old Library as well as Hacket’s own personal library which he left to Trinity (read more here). Over the following century expenditure on books slowly increased in line with Hacket’s wishes.

Thomas Nevile by an unknown artist, c. 1603

The Library also attracted printed books and manuscripts through benefaction to fill the ample space. In the early-17th century, fellows regularly left printed books to the Library and the manuscript collection, already augmented by large donations from Bishop John Whitgift in 1604 and Thomas Nevile in 1611-12, grew early in the 18th century with a major bequest from Sir Henry Puckering (d.1701). Books purchased by subscription also increased the collection.

Little initial thought had been given to the organisation of the books in the new Library. To begin with books were shelved by donor. The new fashion of shelving books with their spines facing outwards was adopted in 1706 and the stock grew from around 7000 volumes at the beginning of the 18th century to to over 16000 by 1735-6. In 1738 the extensive collection of manuscripts presented by Roger Gale  – now classmark O – arrived in the Library. Richard Bentley left a significant collection of Greek manuscripts in 1742 and the collection of non-Western manuscripts continued to expand.

Book plates in X.5.3 from the Beaupré Bell bequest

Thomas White, elected Librarian in 1742, set about re-cataloguing the Collection, introducing a new book plate in the same year. The impetus for this reorganisation was bequests from Beaupré Bell and John Colbatch. At this time letters (which remain to this day) were allocated to the bays and the printed books were reordered and shelved by subject. Manuscripts, though, continued to be kept in the locked bays at the ends of the Library.

In the early days the Library was more regularly used for reading than for borrowing and under the mastership of Richard Bentley (1662-1742), a special collection of books intended for use by undergraduates was established though this later lapsed.

In the 1780s after much debate, duplicate books were sold. The Library also acquired objects such as coins and archaeological finds and for a period in its history also functioned as a museum (see here).

The collection has continued to the present day to be augmented by purchases but also by significant donations such as Capell’s collection of Shakespeariana, William Gryll’s collection of printed books, the Rothschild collection of 18th-century literature and, most recently, the Crewe Collection.

By the 1880s the pressure on space was again urgent: by now the Wren housed around 90,000 volumes. A library extension was agreed and a galleried annex was designed by Sir Arthur Blomfield to provide an undergraduate reading room and more storage space. This extension was later adapted to provide a two-storey building which was joined to the Wren via a link building in the late-20th century. The extension is known now as the College Library.

Our regular blog series for the following year will focus on some of the named collections which have filled the shelves of the Wren Library over the past 300 years.

Further Reading:

McKitterick, D. (ed), The Making of the Wren Library, Trinity College, Cambridge (Cambridge, 1995)

Gaskell, P. and Robson, R., The Library of Trinity College, Cambridge: a short history (Cambridge, 1971)