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Parker Library, Cambridge


in Building Design, 11 February 2011

By Amanda Birch

Photos by Richard Nightingale

Corpus Christi College with the Parker Library to right. The top of the vault is finished with a bronze cornice with bronze framing strips below. Axonometric of vault and reading room
  1. Vault
  2. Washroom/WC
  3. Fire exit
  4. Reading room
Oak bookshelves and panelling surround the vault. Detail plan of curved end panels to vault
  1. Veneered/lipped hardwood shelving to separate details
  2. Veneered panels let in to solid hardwood side panel
  3. Veneered panels to separate detail on framing to suit
  4. Plastered finish to masonry
  5. Plasterboard lining to jambs to give half hour of fire resistance
The architect has designed new oak reading tables with leather inlays.

See also:

Project Team:

  • Architect: Kilburn Nightingale Architects
  • Client: Corpus Christi College, Cambridge
  • Conservator: Cambridge Colleges Conservation Consortium
  • Structural engineer: Price & Myers
  • QS and CDM coordinator: Kirkby & Diamond
  • Services consultant: Ramboll
  • Main contractor: Killby & Gayford
  • Lime plaster/fibrous plaster mouldings: G Cook & Sons
  • Joinery: Killby & Gayford Joinery
  • Rolling shelving: Ecospace
  • Lights: Aktiva/Zumtobel
  • Soffit panels: Gustafs
  • Sheep's wool insulation: Black Mountain Insulation
  • Carpets: Westex
  • Paint: Dulux
  • Vinyl: Altro
  • Lino: Forbo Nairn

Parker Library, Cambridge
Corpus Christi College, Cambridge University
Kilburn Nightingale Architects
Completion date
June 2010

'Until last year, a priceless collection of more than 550 Anglo-Saxon manuscripts was stored in the environmentally uncontrolled cupboards and boxes of Corpus Christi College's Parker Library.

'The collection includes the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, the earliest history written in English; the Corpus Glossary, England's oldest dictionary; and the Bury Bible, which dates from 1135 and is regarded as one of the greatest illuminated manuscripts. The manuscripts were bequeathed to the college in 1574 by Matthew Parker, archbishop of Canterbury and a former master of the college, and despite the storage conditions were in remarkably good shape.

'However the college wanted to reduce the manuscripts' vulnerability and in 2006 appointed Kilburn Nightingale Architects to create a new storage facility.

'The practice's proposal was dictated by the architectural importance of New Court, the William Wilkins designed, grade I listed, neo-gothic quadrangle where the library is located. The new storage facility could not alter or impinge detrimentally on the original building.

'The solution - which took a year to reach and went on site in August 2009 - was to move the library from the first floor to the ground floor immediately below. The manuscripts have been placed in seven rolling steel book stacks contained within an environmentally controlled and highly secure concrete and brick vault.

'"From a design point of view, it was quite a major event to put a bold and massive construction into the middle of a grade I-listed building," says director Richard Nightingale.

"It's essentially a box within a box. The new structure was allowed mainly because it was separate from the old fabric. Stylistically it had to look right, but it didn't have to be Georgian or historicist."

'An environmentally controlled reading room leads off the vault and contains seating and tables enabling scholars to pore over the manuscripts in relative comfort.'


'To accommodate the brick and concrete vault two original internal walls had to be removed, the nibs being left as evidence of the original proportions of the room. The weight of the freestanding structure meant the vault had to be on the ground floor rather than the manuscripts' former first-floor Location.

'As far as possible, Kilburn Nightingale followed the stringent guidelines laid down in the British Standard for archive storage (BS 5454) which stipulated the humidity level and temperature, that the storage shouLd allow four hours' fire resistance, the floor finish should be non-static, and there should be no pipes - to prevent the possibility of water penetration - or electrical sockets.

'The original timber floorboards and joists were removed in the area where the vault was to be located, and in-situ concrete footings 450mm wide and 1m deep were inserted.

'A band between 1m and l.5m wide was reinstated around the vault perimeter, with the original joists and floorboards and sheep's wool insulation inserted below the floor.

'The walls were constructed from very dense and solid bricks (class B engineering brick) 215mm thick to create a vault 40.5 bricks long by 17 bricks wide.

'Internally, walls were plastered and painted, while externally they were fitted with 280mm-deep oak bookshelves set into patinated bronze framing. The 150mm wide bronze divisions are spaced at 1,200mm centres.

'As practice co-director Ben Kilburn says: "The bronze divisions show that this is a special box and provide a framing element similar to a manuscript bound with brass straps."

'The vault's corners are faced with curved veneered oak panels.

'At the top of the 2.7m-tall vault, where it is finished with a bronze cornice strip, the 300mm gap from t he top of the concrete soffit of the vault to the ceiling is closed off with a recessed painted MDF panel. It reinforces the sense of the vault being separated from the Georgian fabric.

'There is a 1.2m-wide passageway on one side of the rolling book stacks, and a desk at one end of the vault.

'Flooring throughout the vault is vinyl. At one end is a small dedicated plant room with connections into the vault.

'Strip lights have been fitted to the vault's ceiling but there are no pipes or exposed sockets. Tempered air and humidified air is fed in and extracted via fire-damped grilles in the walls.'


'The most significant change made to the Parker library's new reading room, which leads off the manuscript vault, is the introduction of a soffit that has been dropped into the central section of the original ceiling to contain the services.

'The demountable lacquered MDF soffit houses the fan coil units and the lighting. To reduce its impact other plant is housed above the ceiling of the new washroom and we.

'A 100% wool, mushroom-coloured carpet was fitted and the walls painted green to match those in its former first-floor location. The original bookshelves have been retained and renovated and a new oak reception desk, panelling and reading tables designed by the architect.'