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By Hannah Smith, Library Graduate Trainee

The Old Library’s new exhibition opens to the public on 19th September. But how is an exhibition of rare books curated and prepared?

Four hundred and forty years ago, Sir Thomas Smith bequeathed his extensive library to his alma mater, Queens’ College. His instructions were brusque: collect them within twelve days of his death, or Peterhouse would have them instead. Gruff, learned, acerbically funny – the same personality is evident in this story as in the annotations and doodles in his books.

Sir Thomas Smith (1513-1577) was a Tudor ambassador, Secretary of State and political writer, but above all he was a humanist scholar. His books, around sixty-five of which are still in the Old Library, range in subject from classical archaeology to contemporary zoology. With a collection this diverse, where is a librarian to begin in curating an exhibition? What follows is an account of the creation of Books and Power in Tudor England, from first concept to final caption.

Before May

Thanks to the generosity of the Heritage Lottery Fund, Queens’ is undertaking a two-year project to catalogue the early printed books of the Old Library and make the collections more accessible to the public. Events, schools outreach and exhibitions form part of this endeavour.

HLF Project Associate Lucille and College Librarian Tim are already well acquainted with Smith’s collection. Detailed bibliographic records of each book have been completed, with notes on their annotations, bindings and provenance. These prove to be invaluable to the new graduate trainee, Hannah, who arrives just as work on the exhibition begins and has some catching up to do.


The project team begin reading in earnest. Smith had two biographers, one writing at the end of the seventeenth century and the other in the 1960s. We work our way through both and note the biographers’ wildly different attitudes to Smith and his achievements. Strype, the first biographer, is elegiac in his praise. Dewar, the more recent writer, celebrates his achievements, but presents his life as a series of tragedies. The more we learn about Smith, the clearer it becomes that both stances are legitimate; Smith was remarkably intelligent, influential and well-connected, but in many ways he was also vulnerable, susceptible to the influence of others. He’s a fascinating subject.


Smith certainly was intimidatingly well-read; Strype’s emphatic praise seems much more reasonable now that we are reading around the subjects that Smith knew back to front: history, law, sciences and mathematics, astronomy, astrology (all of these represented in his library in classical and contemporary texts), the pronunciation of ancient Greek, the colonisation of Ireland… The list continues. The sheer scale of the task before us becomes apparent.



One by one, each of Smith’s surviving books is examined thoroughly. We sort them into subjects and make a note of the shelfmark of the book, its condition and subject and, most importantly, what marginalia it contains. Most of Smith’s books bear his signature on the title page, sometimes ‘Smith’, sometimes ‘Smyth’, often a latinised ‘Smithus’.

Smith book spreadsheet

A spreadsheet of Smith’s books, with notes on the subject, condition and marginalia of each one.

It becomes obvious that certain books, or even certain chapters of books, were read and annotated repeatedly. In the context of the story of his life, we begin to see how he turned to these books for personal direction. In a book on mining and mineralogy he has made notes only next to passages that relate to the transmutation of one metal element into another using acid. It makes sense in light of the fact that Smith was defrauded in an alchemical scheme (the conman claimed to be able to turn iron into copper using nitric acid). In another book, this time a classical work of medicine, Smith made notes around a passage on the paralysis of the tongue, underlining the most emotive words. Developing what was almost certainly cancer of the throat and unable to speak in 1576, he wrote to William Cecil, ‘what pleasure can a man have of my years when he cannot speak as he would’.


Hannah goes on a training course on the use of special collections materials in exhibitions. Serif fonts, it turns out, are the most helpful for the visually impaired, but sans serif work best for dyslexic readers.

We consider structuring the exhibition around the chronology of Smith’s life, from his lowly birth in Saffron Walden to his legacy in the present day, but it is becoming clear that his books, and his method of reading them, are a window into the broader intellectual and political culture of his time. Books were a source of power for Smith and other ‘intellectuals in office’, more so than they had ever been before. We arrive at our title.


With only a month until Open Cambridge and the unveiling of the new exhibition, there is no time to lose. It’s time to decide which books will feature. Books are added, removed and swapped around many times before we settle on the final configuration. Like our library, the exhibition has an emphasis on Renaissance Humanism. The final titles for the cases are:

Thomas Smith and reading as a ‘trigger for action’

Thomas Smith and the advancement of Humanism in Cambridge

Exploring the Renaissance mind

Reading the natural world

Reading the natural world: ‘natural magic’

Thomas Smith: Library as university

Now comes the most time-consuming task: turning our research into clear, concise copy for the booklet, posters and captions. Tim, Lucille and Hannah each take two cases and get to work. Painful as it is after immersing ourselves in obscure topics such as the ancient Heruli tribe, the distillation of aqua vitae or the architecture of Smith’s mansion, often we have to kill our darlings if we want to produce succinct copy that visitors are willing to read. We draft, edit and re-draft.


Trying out new configurations; books are moved, withdrawn and re-added before we settle on our final book list.

A local graphic design company will be producing our exhibition materials. Lucille sends them high-quality photographs of some of Smith’s annotations and doodles to be included in the booklet.


Several of Smith’s annotations are photographed, to be included in the booklet and display boards.


One week remains until Open Cambridge; tickets are selling out. After six months on display the Erasmus exhibition is taken down, and the work of installing Books and Power begins.

Each book requires its own purpose-built book cradle. Made from stiff cardboard, they support the bindings of the books and lend a uniform look to the cases. It’s imperative that the cradle fits the book exactly, and that the book doesn’t extend past its natural opening (usually no more than 120 degrees).


Hannah makes a book cradle for a small book with a particularly narrow opening.

Over the weekend of Open Cambridge almost two hundred visitors pass through the doors of the Old Library. As usual, many comment on the smell of the old books, the reverence they feel, the impulse to whisper. Smith’s books are so full of humour and verve that they cut through that, though. Few things are more enjoyable than examining a historical object and in it discovering a relatable, human personality. We will certainly miss his.


Open Cambridge: Hannah introduces a tour group to the Old Library and the exhibition.

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Books and Power in Tudor England: The Renaissance Library of Sir Thomas Smith will be open in the Old Library from 9th October to 3rd November, on weekday afternoons between 1:30 and 4:30. Admission is free.


As part of the Festival of Ideas College Librarian Tim Eggington and Perne Librarian Scott Mandelbrote will give a talk entitled ‘Reading books in sixteenth-century Cambridge’ to accompany the exhibition. Book via the Festival of Ideas website.

The Old Kitchens, Queens’ College, Saturday 28th October, 2:30-4:30pm