Adventures in the UL

The Tab Tries not to get lost in the library

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This week, I have been trying to avoid being actively suffocated by a rising tide of paper… so the column is on where I have spent most of my time: in Cambridge’s greatest manifestation of a paper tsunami, the UL, or Cambridge University Library, to honour its full title. Some say it’s haunted by the ghosts of former students, lost forever, wandering in the West Wing… Some say its tearoom has the greatest scones this side of Norwich. Some say, “Where is that again?” This column will be your guiding light through the darkness of the metaphorical stacks with no weird timer switch things, your helping hand sticking out of the other side of a bookcase, your iDiscover search results… you get the gist.

I’ve decided to go for a classic Tab-style helpful breakdown, complete with subheadings – if you haven’t been to the UL, it’s probably because you do science, so this should make this nice and easy for you to understand.

The Architecture

Now, the UL is a point of contention throughout Cambridge as to its architectural value. Hated by many, I have a great affinity for the strange prison-like structure, hulking behind Clare’s Mem Court, its intimidatingly phallic tower reaching ever skywards (in direct apposition to Newnham’s new vulva sculpture). Designed by the architect responsible for Battersea Power Station and the original Tate Modern building, it is entirely possible that he planned for it just to aggravate the academics who haunt its halls ‘til the early hours of… the evening. It closes its doors at 7pm outside of exam term – but as a South London girl myself, I like that I have a little piece of home around the corner, no matter how aggressively patriarchal it wants to be.

Just a teeny bit phallic…

The Doors

These are just confusing. They’re incredibly ornate pieces of wrought ironwork, not to mention what is basically a portcullis that comes down over them upon closing – and the door that isn’t revolving doesn’t seem possible to open from the inside. It is, as ever, entirely possible that I am just being an imbecile who cannot operate a door, but if you, like my younger self, have an entirely legitimate fear of being trapped in a Sisyphean circle of hell, endlessly travelling in a revolving door with no hope of escape, then… maybe go with a friend who’s good with doors.

At this level there's something of the arachnid…

The Lockers

This is just a PSA: bring a clear plastic bag and don’t take too much crap with you. They have some very James Bond-worthy lockers in the basement that require some complex steps with a code and another code but it’s the same code and… it’s not worth the hassle. Plan your UL expedition wisely – and don’t forget some money for the tearoom (see next)

The Tearoom

Notoriously challenging to find, stumbling upon the tearoom is a literal oasis in a drought of dried ink. They have lots of types of fancy tea, as well as food – I think they even serve breakfast? – and the scones really are very good. You can also take food into the little courtyard garden outside, when you’ve spent seven hours curled in a corner like some subterranean worm and can’t remember what the sun is. In a good way.

Mmmm, scones…

The Stacks

So what on earth are these mysterious stacks? The library is divided into various wings and corridors and sections, but the stacks are the most exciting part (aside from the rare books and manuscripts, which are so exciting I’d probably need a whole other article just to write about them). They’re basically just bookshelves facing one another and carefully organised by the library’s own system, incredibly labyrinthine and wonderfully easy to get lost in. If you’re in real trouble, phone the Reader Services number. There are even phones provided. No one has died in the UL – at least, not yet…

They really haven't changed much


Obviously, it would be far too easy to just have one light-switch for one section of the library. Oh, no. The librarians want to challenge you rigorously in every aspect – be it navigation, stair-climbing, or sheer common sense – and this is an area of no exception. Sort of like oven timers, only stiffer and harder to find, in order to not waste power in the darkest recesses of the library there are little dials which you can adjust to provide light for as long as you may be in a particular stack. If you’re feeling really brave, you can navigate the shelves in the dark. But I wouldn’t recommend it – it would a) make it very difficult to find the book you’re probably meant to be looking for and b) it is shit-scary wandering the pitchblack aisles – remember that Doctor Who episode, Silence in the Library…? (Hey, who turned out the lights?)

The Tower

The Tower's erection… ha ha.

The Tower is the forbidden fruit of my Cambridge experience. It’s a tower, full of books. A tower. A book tower. A locked book tower. One day, I will go in it. One day. There was an incredibly tantalising poster outside for tours of the Tower – but they’re all sold out! I could have wept. Yes, one day, I will venture into the tower – for now, I will stand outside, staring balefully at its empty, deathly inviting brickladen eyesockets and plot my way in. (I may also email the librarians a copy of this column and ask very very politely if I might be allowed a tour-stay tuned for part II of this article!)

The Books

This one is kind of self-evident. It’s a library, there are books – a lot of them. The UL is one of the UK’s 6 copyright libraries, so it receives a copy of every single book published in the UK. It currently has over 8 million books, and counting – so the odds are that they’ll have what you need, no matter how niche.

Unfamiliar territory?

The Dungeon

Cannot guarantee that this one exists – but god, wouldn’t that be fun?

The End

So we conclude our whistlestop tour of the UL – I hope you didn’t get lost along the way, somewhere in the North Stack of Floor 2… next time, maybe I’ll see you in there.