What lurks inside Cambridge University Library Tower?

In the latest in our The More You Know series, we uncover an iconic building's secret

The tallest public building in the city, and definitely one of the most mysterious, the imposing tower at the Cambridge University Library has long been the subject of gleeful speculation by students. The most popular of all the rumours? That it’s packed to the rafters with Victorian pornography. 

The reason for the enduring whispers about this 17-storey structure largely stem from the fact that the contents have been kept secret, from all but a privileged few, for decades. But all that’s about to change, with the opening of Tall Tales, an exhibition promising to lay bare the secrets of the tower for all to see. 

And it turns out it’s an Aladdin’s cave for book lovers and historians, housing first editions of The Hobbit, Lord of the Rings, Casino Royale and Enid Blyton’s Famous Five, in mint condition. There’s also an archive of toys, games and ephemera which offers a snapshot of life in Britain in times gone by. 

Liam Sims, Rare Books Specialist and Lead Curator of the Tall Tales exhibition at Cambridge University Library, isn’t surprised that the tower continues to be the subject of such intense speculation. 

“At 157 feet tall the tower is one of the most visible landmarks in and around Cambridge,” he says. “But the fact that few people other than library staff have been inside has given rise to rumours about what’s inside, not least by authors including Stephen Fry and C S Lewis.”

But what of the all-important mythical mountain of salacious materials? 

“As a copyright deposit library since 1710 the University Library has long received books and journals of a sexual nature, but these are not kept in the tower,” he explains. “Instead, many are kept in a class known as ‘Arc’ (for ‘arcana’, secret things), created in the early 20th century for works of sexual science, titillating novels and provocatively illustrated material. Some of these books may be seen in the exhibition!”

Find out for yourself at Tall Tales: Secrets of the Tower, which runs until 28 October. Entry is free.

 

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