Exhibitions & Outreach


Exhibitions are usually displayed in the Library Exhibition Area, which is accessed via the Working Library in Chapel Court. The Exhibition Area is open to visitors Monday to Friday, 9am to 5pm. Occasional exhibitions are also displayed in the Old Library and in the School of Pythagoras Archive Centre; click on the individual event listings for further information about these venues.

Current and forthcoming exhibitions:

An exhibition to mark the quatercentenary of the Old Library, curated by Kathryn McKee, former Sub-Librarian, will be on display in the Exhibition Area from 15 January to 19 April 2024. 

School visits


The Library welcomes educational visits from schools, colleges, academies and other organisations. We have worked with local schools to develop sessions delivered in the historical setting of our Old Library, based on our wide-ranging Special Collections. These sessions are very flexible and can be tailored to suit the needs of individual classes.

Some examples of previous educational activities held in the Library are below.

For more information or to arrange a visit please contact Special Collections. Email: special.collections@joh.cam.ac.uk, Tel: 01223 339393.

A risk assessment for school visits is available on request.


Primary Schools

The Tudors

St John's College was founded in 1511 by Lady Margaret Beaufort, mother of Henry VII, so it is a good place to begin a project on the Tudors. Tudor material in the Old Library includes a copy of the Great Bible, charts the progress of the Spanish Armada, and even an eyewitness account of the execution of Mary Queen of Scots.

A Victorian Writer's World

Who was Samuel Butler? In this interactive workshop children investigate a range of historical artefacts to help them build up a picture of a Victorian writer’s world. Using the exhibits as ‘clues’ they deduce what kind of person Butler was and what he achieved, and view original evidence of the events and developments that occurred during his lifetime. They then work together to place images relating to the events and artefacts on a jumbo timeline – creating a visual display of some of the highlights of the nineteenth century.

Special Books and Sacred Texts

A look at rare and unusual volumes of sacred texts from a variety of faiths, including Christianity, Judaism and Islam, to explore the diversity of world beliefs and what makes certain texts special to different people and cultures. Our collections include a 10th-century Irish PsalterHenry VIII's Great Bible, and much more.

Woodcut showing a seamonster

Imaginary Lands

An opportunity to explore the Library's collection of early printed books and atlases, considering how writers and mapmakers throughout history have presented new and imagined places. Children follow a trail around the exhibition space, then have a go at drawing their own imaginary land.


Secondary Schools

English Language Change 1500-Today

Caxton's earliest printed books, Samuel Johnson's dictionary, Robinson CrusoeTristram Shandy, Wordsworth's Lyrical Ballads, William Barnes' Dorset dialect poetry, Philip Larkin, letters, diaries, one penny chapbooks... a walk through over three hundred years of the English language through the literature that shaped, transformed and recorded it.

A2 level students looking at Samual Johnson's dictionary

Curious People: A History of Exploration

Discover how Europeans explored the rest of the world through illustrations and first hand accounts in books, maps and papers. Examples of the Library's range of material on this subject can be accessed through the Curious People online resource. This topic also allows scope to learn about the science of the polar regions and environmental issues.

The Slave Trade and Abolition

William Wilberforce and Thomas Clarkson, partners in the campaign to abolish the Transatlantic Slave Trade, both studied at St John's College. Students have the opportunity to work with primary sources including Clarkson's diaries recording his evidence-gathering trips to English ports where he witnessed the effects of the slave trade. 18th-century pamphlets from the special collections reveal all sides of the debate that raged around the campaign for abolition. 

Detail from The Horrors of Negro Slavery (1843)

Curator for an Hour

Find out what it means to 'interpret history', first-hand. Faced with 30 unlabelled artefacts from the wonderfully varied Samuel Butler collection, students take on the role of curator - observing, analysing and comparing items, then identifying a theme or creating a narrative that could link these together to form an exhibition.

Art in the Old Library

Art A-Level and GCSE classes are invited to come and draw in the magnificent seventeenth-century library, with an exhibition of original drawings, paintings and photographs from the Library’s Samuel Butler Collection to provide additional inspiration.

Watercolour by Samuel Butler

Educational resources

The following resources are based upon the Library’s manuscripts and early printed books. They aim to support teachers and students by supplementing and extending the National Curriculum, and are freely available to all. School visits to the Library, in conjunction with these resources or otherwise, are encouraged.

If you have any questions or feedback about these resources please contact Special Collections. Email: special.collections@joh.cam.ac.uk, Tel: 01223 339393.

The copyright in the images used in these resources belongs to the Master and Fellows of St John's College, Cambridge. If you would like to publish any of the images in any way please contact the Library for permission.

Chieftain from one of Captain James Cook's books about his travels
Curious People: The History of Exploration
Discover how Europeans explored the rest of the world through illustrations and first hand accounts in books, maps and papers from the Library's special collections. This online resource can be accessed by people, places or topics, as well as by using an interactive timeline.

A replica astrolabe in the Old Library

The Way to the Stars: Build Your Own Astrolabe
Learn about the astrolabe, an ancient astronomical instrument, and download a template to build your own to try at home. This resource was created as part of the Library's Fred Hoyle Project.
Making a sewn pamphlet
How to Build a Book
An instructive or explanatory text with diagrams (PDF 3.5MB). St John's College Library has used book making as a basis for a variety of different projects with schools. Making a simple sewn pamphlet is a creative way of displaying your work.
Map screenshot
Butler on the Map

Samuel Butler (1835-1902) was a prolific photographer, who travelled extensively in southern England and Europe in the 1880s and 1890s. This interactive resource enables you to view his photographs alongside satellite images of their modern locations, or to view photographs by themes, such as 'animals' and 'people at work'.

Snapshot Stories

A downloadable activity suitable for all ages (adults included!), which uses Samuel Butler's characterful nineteenth-century photographs as inspiration for creative writing.