Thursday 23 March 2023

March 2023 - Selwyn Library visit

Selwyn College, Cambridge, has recently completed the building of a new library for their members. It was a real privilege to be able to come to see this space in person. We were shown around by College Librarian Sonya Adams. 

The Bartlam Library replaces the College’s War Memorial Library. This predecessor was built in the 1930s but had actually been planned since the 1920s as it took a number of years to raise the necessary funds. Its name reflected the timing of its completion. The Bartlam Library has similarly benefitted from donations. Standing outside the entrance, you can see the names of donors carved into the bricks and paving stones, tangibly connecting the donors with the fabric of the building. 


Exterior of Selwyn College Library

The Bartlam Library building is situated in a court designed by Demetri Porphyrios. It reflects the College’s age and architectural style, and there was always a plan for a building to go on this spot.  

The building was completed in March 2021 and it opened straightaway as a study space. As any librarian will tell you, though, you can’t conduct a major book move when your library users are about to sit exams! It therefore took a little longer, until July 2021, for the 35,000 books to be moved into the new building. However, work didn’t stop there for the team behind the project. The material in the Old Library (rare books, archives, and special collections) was then put into storage so that building could be refurbished. 

A project on this scale requires a huge amount of planning, and the Librarian was involved in a lot of the process. It is to the credit of all involved that they were able to complete the project despite the COVID-19 pandemic happening at a crucial stage. We heard that some aspects of the planning ended up having to take place over Microsoft Teams! 

The Bartlam Library occupies the first and second floors of the building above a new auditorium. The first floor is also home to a computer room. They planned for the lower floor to have some noise while the upper floor would be used for silent study, but in practice people tend to be quiet throughout! 

When you walk in, the space is bright, modern and welcoming, combining shelving and study desks with more relaxed areas of sofas, coffee tables, and plants. Eye-catching displays are also very welcoming, and they allow for different parts of the collection to be highlighted. The bookcases are all of an easily-accessible height, making it comfortable to reach books without steps or ladders. The books are classified according to Dewey. 


Sofas in Selwyn Library

Book display in Selwyn College Library

The Bartlam Library has increased seating capacity, as well as providing a comfortable amount of space at each desk. The Library also includes two group study rooms. The stylish furniture was designed by Luke Hughes. 


Desk in Selwyn College Library

 The lower floor is home to most of the books, while the upper floor is where most of the reader spaces can be found. This arrangement was actually swapped around during the planning process – a great idea as people enjoy the light from skylights much more than books do!  



The lower floor is also where the staff office can be found, as well as a very attractive common room. Rather pleasingly, the common room is filled with books too, including a light reading collection, to accompany the squashy sofas and kitchenette area. We heard that during exam time the area would be home to jigsaws and welfare boxes from the nurse. We were also able to peek out of the window to see the lovely terrace that was due to be opened soon.  


Common room

It was wonderful to see a library that so beautifully brings something new into the traditional college environment and to hear how it went from plans to reality. It is clear in all the details that the students using the Library were kept at the heart of the design. It would be a wonderful place to read and study and it’s easy to imagine that all the Selwyn students for generations to come will love working in there. 


Exterior of Selwyn College Library

Post contributed by Natalie Kent, Assistant Librarian Pembroke College