Dear Archivist: A Compendium of Enquiries

Working in the University Archives as Archives Trainee gives one a unique insight into the varied academic interests and behaviours of our enquirers, both past and present. Answering enquiries sent to the University Archives and the Manuscripts Reading Room, which I work in one afternoon per week, means that I am asked a lot of interesting questions, giving me insight into topics that I would never have encountered otherwise. I am also asked many funny questions.

To spare the blushes of current users, I’m not going to share any recent enquiries. However, upon rooting through the University Library archives, I was fortunate enough to come across a volume (classmark: UA ULIB 6/7/8) which proves that, though times may change, eccentricity and humour remains!

The notebook, updated by members of the reading room staff between 1930 and 1975, provides just a few examples of some of the more unique questions put forward by readers to library staff.

In the interests of orderliness – very important when working in archives – I have sorted the enquiries according to type (I was going to grade them according to peculiarity, but felt that was too subjective a criteria).


The gilded gates of the catalogue hall, taken from the south end (classmark: UA ULIB 12/3/49).

Creatures and Critters

Though not an enquiry per se (unless it was made in Canine), one of the most amusing anecdotes in the volume took place on 14th November 1967, when an unaccompanied beagle trotted into the Reading Room, sniffed around at its leisure and then unhurriedly wandered out. Its explorations went uninterrupted, as the room supervisor was laughing too hard to do anything else!

Other instances of verminous visits include a mouse being found in the Reading Room on 29th June 1940, leading to ‘…a long and exciting chase around the bookstacks’ – hopefully before the rodent in question had a chance to devour any literature – and a bat seen ‘…flying in a leisurely fashion’ at the North end of the Reading Room in 1945.


Colourful queries

While most requests handed into the Reading Room desk are of a fairly predictable nature, there are always some readers with more specific questions. One of my favourites of these took place in November 1963, when a reader asked: ‘Where can I find a red-haired historian?’ Probably not under a classmark, methinks.

A more sinister request ensued from a Mrs L— on 8 July 1964, who was observed to have made ‘frantic enquiries … as to the whereabouts of an illustrated history of black magic’ (to which a member of staff commented: ‘Be time for her to catch the last broomstick home soon, won’t it!’)

A further peculiar query came in early 1965, from an RAF officer in Waterbeach who wanted to know if the UL had a collection of paintings which could be borrowed to make the Officer’s Mess ‘…a little less dismal!’ I don’t know if we’re in the habit of loaning out artwork to other institutions, but I’m fairly sure that an army barracks wouldn’t be considered an ideal location in terms of conservation. Additionally, the Reading Room was once described – by a Mr P— in 1941 – as ‘…the most depressing place in Europe,’ so perhaps we’re not the best place to acquire cheerful decorations from!


Dictionary drama

For some reason, the grandeur of the Reading Room seems to have sent readers into a panic. The very first entry in the notebook, in January 1939, is of a reader enquiring: ‘Can you tell me if you have such an ordinary book as the Encyclopaedia Britannica in this magnificent room?’

Similarly, on 29 July 1964 another reader asked: ‘Do you have a plain ordinary dictionary in this elegant palace?’ I’m not sure I would quite describe the Reading Room in those terms, but it’s always nice to know that the décor’s appreciated.

Another request put forward by someone who hadn’t quite got to grips with the cataloguing system, in May 1940, was from a reader who wanted a Bible and Prayer-Book, but had ‘…looked under ‘God’ in the catalogue’ and been unable to find anything.

This entry from 1940 details the exciting incident of a mouse in the Reading Room!

Navigation nightmares

As anyone who has visited the University Library will know, it is not a small place. One can easily work there for an embarrassingly long time without gaining any knowledge of its geography, save that which is directly applicable to your job. It’s somewhat comforting to know that readers (and employees) of yesteryear experienced the same challenges as me when it came to navigating.

Lots of enquiries are recorded reflecting this. On one occasion, a room supervisor was asked: ‘Are you in the reproduction department?’ which honestly feels like a bit of a heavy question for a July morning in an academic library.

A slightly more worrying occasion was when the Library secretary (a position second in command to the Librarian at the time) wandered into the reading room in 1958 and asked, ‘Is this the Reading Room?’ One rather feels that if he didn’t know, the rest of us might as well give up and go home – an attitude evidently taken by the gentleman in August 1966 who anxiously enquired: ‘Which is the way out?!’


Hipsters in heat

As Cambridge-based readers certainly know, the heat recently has been borderline oppressive. Therefore, I think I had better finish this blog before I imitate the old woman who, in August 1964, was observed standing in the reading room with her ‘…face literally buried in a large volume,’ fast asleep!

However, I’ll draw to a close with the following conclusion: some things never change.

People will always be people, with peculiar practices and weird and wonderful questions.

The Library will always be a veritable labyrinth of cases and corners and corridors that all look the same.

And hipsters will always – well, they will always be, even in 1950, and they will apparently also always be beardy. Therefore, I leave you with this evidential extract:

‘11 January 1950: An undergraduate with a fine head of hair and a voluminous beard complained that the reading room “felt stuffy”.’


Readers in the old Rare Books reading room, circa 1972 (classmark: UA ULIB 12/3/32)

Thanks for reading!


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