Historic Building

Book from the special collections on display in the Old Library

The Old Library stands untouched, looking much as it did when it was first constructed in the 1590s. Built-in red brick, it has a tiled roof and a pretty Dutch-style stepped end-gable at the west end.

From the outset, the Library was sited on the first floor, with Fellows’ rooms below. This was designed to keep the books safe from the regular flooding of the River Cam nearby. The Library has rows of windows with two pointed lights along the north and south elevations. The west end has an impressive four-light window with diamonds of glass painted with the arms of Trinity Hall. Below this window is a stone plaque displaying the College arms. On the south side there is a small wooden door set in the wall on the first floor. This was the Master’s private entrance from a raised walkway, which ran along the top of a wall, connecting the Master’s Lodge to the Library. The wall and walkway have been demolished long since and the doorway is now suspended in mid-air. The new entrance door to the Old Library was created from 19th-century timbers by College joiners in 2001.


On entering, a visitor can admire the balance of the Library and the simplicity of the space, a rectangular room 65 feet (19.81 meters) long and 29 feet (8.84 meters) wide. The Old Library is the only Elizabethan Library in Cambridge to have kept its interior more or less unchanged. There is a central aisle with bookcases at either side and the interior is flooded with natural light. The Old Library was built on the late-medieval model as a chained Library. One of the things that makes this Library important is that most of the furniture is contemporary with the building. The first four pairs of lecterns and benches are original and are some of the oldest Library furniture to survive in Cambridge. The last two pairs are 19th century reproductions. Each bookcase has a pair of lecterns, with a sloping shelf topped by Elizabethan finials at either end and a wide shelf beneath for storing books. The reader could either stand at the lectern or sit on the benches with the book supported on a board which could be drawn out from the bookcase. The large bookcases attached to the wall with the door through to the Chetwode Room were added in the 1740s.

Chained books

About half-way down the room are our two remaining desks of ‘chained books’. A chain passes from each book to a rod which is located near the top of the desk and extends through its whole length. By unlocking the handle, the whole rod can be withdrawn from the desk: the links of the chains then slip off the rod and the books can be removed. There are two keys: presumably no single Fellow was to be entrusted with both. The locking mechanism still works perfectly.


At the end of the Library, near the windows overlooking the river, are two magnificent early 19th century globes. The makers were John Cary (1755-1835), an engraver and map seller, and William Cary (c 1759-1825), an instrument maker. The celestial globe is dated 1799 and the terrestrial globe is dated 1806. The Trinity Hall globes are fine examples of the largest size of globe made by the firm.

Mounted in mahogany tripod stands, the globes were almost certainly constructed from a paper/card inner shell coated with plaster and supported internally by a wooden pillar stretching from the north to south poles. The surface is covered with 18 segments of engraved paper, printed in black ink, to which water colour tints have been applied.