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‘New’ Library celebrates 25 years

“The new building was way ahead of its time"

A memorial to Robert Hinde, late Fellow and former Master of St John’s, has been installed in the Working Library to coincide with the 25th anniversary of the iconic building.

Professor Hinde spearheaded the ‘New Library Project’ in the early 1990s, which oversaw the creation of a completely new Library facility in Chapel Court, as well as the refurbishment of the historic Lower Library in Third Court. The Working Library was officially opened on 27 September 1994, and consistently receives around 14,000 visits each year.

An engraved hammer, which was presented to Professor Hinde by the construction firm R G Carter on 1 July 1992 to mark the commencement of the building phase, is now on permanent display in the lobby entrance as a memorial to Professor Hinde’s enduring contribution to College life.

Robert Hinde cutting the ribbon at the opening ceremony
Robert Hinde cutting the ribbon at the official opening of the Working Library, 27 September 1994

Dr Mark Nicholls, College Librarian since 1999, said: “While the College has of course been home to a superb, purpose-built Library facility for almost 400 years, the Jacobean Old Library was never intended for day-to-day use by students. The New Library Project marked a complete shift, prioritising junior members’ needs for resources and study space above all else.

“The result is the Working Library we know today: an open, modern and welcoming space, with 120 reader places spread over six floors, and the capacity to house more than 120,000 books.”

The Working Library entrance in Chapel Court
The Working Library in Chapel Court

Prior to the building of the Working Library, readers had access to a small Reading Room in Second Court, which had been converted from a lecture room during the 1930s. In the 1960s an adjacent residential set was converted to serve as an extension, but with student numbers substantially increasing it was clear that more study space was needed. Meanwhile, the collections were housed separately, in the Lower Library in Third Court.

In 1986 the College decided to create a purpose-built Working Library that could provide all the necessary services under one roof. To fund the project, St John’s launched a successful £7 million appeal to Johnians worldwide. Edward Cullinan Architects were commissioned to undertake the project, based on their adventurous plan for a distinctive temple-front projection in Chapel Court and matching apsed extension reaching into the Master’s Garden behind.

As well as the memorial to Robert Hinde, an anniversary brochure has been created to tell the story of the Working Library from its inception to the present day. In addition to a range of photographs, the brochure includes comments from former students and staff which provide a fascinating insight into library life ‘before’ and ‘after’ the project.

Excavations in Chapel Court
Excavations in Chapel Court

Raphael Lyne, now a Professorial Fellow in English at Murray Edwards College, was completing his BA at St John’s and living in Chapel Court at the time the new Library was built. He said: “When, early one morning, the lorries started rumbling through the archway five feet from my head, I felt quite aggrieved. Fortunately I stuck around long enough, as a PhD student, to use the library once it had opened, and get the compensation for the (minor) inconvenience.

“The new building was way ahead of its time. Now across other libraries in the university there is more and more emphasis on congenial work-spaces and side-rooms for group discussion, classes, computers, and so on – St John’s did this a long time before many others.”

The Working Library interior
The Working Library interior: ground floor and mezzanine gallery

Esther Luigi, who graduated in 2019 with an MPhil in Political Thought and Intellectual History, said the Library performs a social function too. “In my first year I met many of my College friends because we all used to work on the top floor of the Library. Over the course of four years, I have spent countless hours in John’s Library, working, thinking, sometimes laughing with friends. The Library is inseparable in my memories from my time at Cambridge, from all the things I have learned and all the friends I have made.”

Further reflections and reminiscences of the Library’s 25-year history were shared at a reception event held on 26 November 2019, which was attended by various members of the College community as well as members of Robert Hinde’s family.

The memorial to Robert Hinde in the Library entrance
The memorial to Robert Hinde, installed in the Library entrance

Published 3/12/2019

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