I figured a list of this nature might be useful for incoming students from Harvard. One of the delights about Cambridge is the many different small libraries it has. Despite being a doctoral student of law, I ended up joining many libraries because of the breadth of my thesis. Here is a review of the ones I’m a member of in descending order of greatness:
1. AMES (Asian and Middle Eastern Studies) Library
It’s small and sometimes uncomfortably warm, but very well laid out. The reading areas at the back have lovely views over gardens. Late modernist buildings often work best for libraries so Sidgwick, built in the seventies I’d guess, has several of the best. It also has sofas. I once saw a guy lying down fully recumbent on one, on his back, reading a book. A library where you can lie on the sofas. Outstanding.
2. Social and Political Sciences Library
Without question, it has the nicest librarians and is — on the whole — probably the best for actually borrowing books: generous lending periods and book allowances, and small fines. It’s also in the centre of town, unlike every other library of use. It has its own toilets too, which is an underrated luxury. However, it’s in a really ropey building and lacks ample workspace.
3. Marshall Economics Library
One of the nicest to sit in as it has an eyrie-like quality, with lots of little cubbyholes with desks next to windows looking out over Sidgwick. Architecturally, it’s of the same era as AMES and Classics, but a bit more Brutalist in design. It’s unpopular with many for its positively fascist obsession with rules, and its Draconian fines for breaking them.
4. Centre for African Studies Library
Quiet, out of the way, in a nice clean modern building and with a plethora of interesting books with little competition to take them out. A bit niche, though.
5. Classics Faculty Library
Airy, because it has a great number of giant windows. It has about fifty copies of each key book, which is quite thoughtful. Undersupplied with computer terminals and tends to be full of gits for some reason. It’s also in the building with the third worst toilets in Cambridge University.
6. University Library
The big one —it’s our version of Harvard’s Widener Library. It has everything, and the central reading room is brilliant —it feels like a proper library like they’d film Ghostbusters in. It also has lots of quiet nooks and crannies, and for this reason is probably the most feasible library in Cambridge in which to quietly pull all-nighters in the days leading up to your exam. On the other hand, it’s pretty damn inconvenient to use. They make you leave your bag and coat outside and WON’T LET YOU IN IF YOU HAVE A FINE OUTSTANDING. Getting to the stacks can involve walking up six flights of stairs, or taking a chance in the 1930s lifts, which is worse. (I was trapped in one with my friend Emily for 2 hours.) If you’re looking for several books, it is virtually guaranteed you will fail to find at least one of them as they ran out of actual shelf space years ago, and nobody understands the overflow system. It’s also rather creepy in places, probably haunted, and they once nearly locked me in the stacks overnight which did not endear.
7. South Asian Studies Library
I’ve only been once. It has a lovely antique table in it. However, they don’t let you borrow books — which rather defeats the purpose.
8. Seeley Historical Library
It’s really quite rubbish and doesn’t have any seals in it. They have a smaller collection than you would expect, pathetic opening hours, strange panopticon design, it’s impossible to get at half of the periodicals without asking, and it tends either to be freezing cold or roasting hot. It occupies a 3G blackspot, and you are reliant on the second worst toilets in Cambridge (the worst, fact fans, are in the building on the New Museums Site where the CUSU and Varsity newspaper offices are). If I had to say something good about Seeley, I’d say it’s probably the most architecturally adventurous library I’ve ever been in, although not remotely ergonomically successful.