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The New Library

Designed by Edward Cullinan Architects, and built by R. G. Carter Ltd (Cambridge), the new College Library at St John's was opened to students on 11 January 1994. St John's College is the second largest in Cambridge with a student population of 800 and a Fellowship of 140. The College's last Library, the Old Library, was built in the early seventeeth century and is still in use. It is hoped that today's building will serve the needs of St John's well into the new millennium. The Working Library provides over 100 reader places, and most desks are equipped with a network point allowing readers to connect to the College network and beyond. The longstanding problem of storage space has been solved by a capacity for 120,000 books on open access.


Since the completion of the Old Library in 1628, the College Library has been gradually expanding into nearby residential accommodation. By the 1960s the Library occupied buildings in three of the College's Courts. Book storage had become cramped and unsatisfactory and reader places were insufficient for the growing number of students in the College. In addition to these space problems, from the early 1980s onwards it became clear that increasing demands on Library services could only be met through automation. The confined spaces of the College's historic buildings did not lend themselves to the installation of computer equipment on the scale required. In 1986, the College began to develop proposals for the improvement of Library facilities. After considering further extensions into nearby rooms, a purpose-built Library was preferred. The exact location of the new building was the next question. After various feasibility studies had been carried out the decision was taken to build the new College Library on the site of the southern part of the 1885 Penrose building in Chapel Court, adjacent to the existing Library buildings, thus keeping the new facilities alongside the historic Library. An architectural competition was arranged.


Edward Cullinan Architects saw in the Penrose building's original arrangement, of lecture rooms with sets above, the bones of a new Library, and proposed keeping and transforming it -literally - by making a new crossing with wings extending into Chapel Court and the Master's Garden. In Chapel Court, the crossing makes a gable and porch which address the Chapel, designed by Gilbert Scott, across the Court. In the Garden, it forms an apse, octagonal at its base, becoming semicircular as it rises upwards. The southern section of Chapel Court has been dramatically remodelled to create a foreground to both the Chapel and the Working Library.

The theme of the Working Library is the enjoyment of the contrast between dense storage of books and airy places for study.

On the Ground Floor, the tall windows of the original lecture rooms now light the reference collection and reception desk, overlooked by the Mezzanine gallery. In the apse behind lies the staff office area. Racking for displaying periodicals lies on the route through to the Rare Books Reading Room and the ground Floor of the Old Library, the Lower Library. The two staircases, of contrasting colour and character for ease of orientation, mark each end of the room.

At Mezzanine level, the new wing in the Master's Garden is balanced by the oriel bay hanging in the entrance porch. The roof of the corridor to the original lecture rooms has been raised to create one of the two dedicated computer rooms. Reader desks cantilever over the edge of the gallery.

On the First and Second Floors, the pattern of books and study spaces is established. The existing building with its thick walls and small windows contains the bulk of the book cases. In the wings, cruciform pattern of shelves occupy the central floor space, with elliptical-shaped study desks in the corners.

The Third Floor was created by making new rooms within the line of the original roof. The landing at the top of the main stairs is lit by the new lantern. The main computer room occupies the core of the building. Here, the contrast between the greenery of the Master's Garden and masonry of Chapel Court can best be enjoyed.

Materials blend with those in the Court: special bricks were made to match those of the Penrose building. Clipsham stone was used for repairs to the existing building and Ancaster Weatherbed for the new work. The new windows are alumnium. Architectural metal work is stainless steel, chosen for durability. Internally, maple panelling within oak frames contrasts with white painted walls and green carpet

The shelving is a standard system in a purpose-made oak enclosure. The built-in desks are stained board with oak casings.

Ventilation is by natural means, exploiting the large thermal mass of the existing building. The lantern over the crossing, a bold new addition to the College skyline, has a sensor controlled fan and openings to prevent summer overheating.

Original Library brochure produced by Tim Rawle Associates and Copyright © Tim Rawle Associates and St John's College.

In 2012 some aspects of the Ground, Mezzanine and Third Floors of the Working Library were updated in accordance with plans drawn up by the architects Freeland Rees Roberts.  These developments offer, among other features, improved disabled access, more seating for readers, better noise control, an enlarged Seminar Room and more flexible exhibition arrangements.