Old Library undergoes refurbishment

by Rachel Smith

Following a lengthy period of planning and consultation, this summer will see the refurbishment of the Old Library.



The Old Library ceiling is in need of essential repair. The room is also receiving a full redecoration, all-new air-conditioning and lighting, and a projection screen that emerges automatically from the floor. A specialist team, headed by one of the country’s leading conservators, is hoping to complete the work in time for the start of Michaelmas Term.

Floor-to-ceiling scaffolding has already been installed and the wall panels have been covered in a protective casing ready for work to begin.

Sacred beginnings

The room that we now refer to as the Old Library was once the College’s chapel. The Foundress, Marie de St Pol, made the rather unusual decision that she wanted College members to worship at an on-site chapel rather than a local church. A license was granted by the pope in 1355 and Pembroke became the first of the Cambridge colleges to have its own chapel.


A new College chapel, designed by Sir Christopher Wren, was consecrated in 1665. The old chapel then stood empty for 25 years until, in 1690, it was decided to put the room to use as a library. At the expense of the Master, Nathaniel Coga, it was converted for its new purpose: the windows were replaced and ten projecting bookcases were installed. Each one had decorative friezes carved into its ends showing birds, flora, fauna and berries. A spectacular ornamental ceiling was also constructed and it remains a College treasure. The ceiling is attributed to Henry Doogood, an eminent London plasterer employed by Christopher Wren. Once completed, the room soon became known to College members as the New Library.

From Chapel to Library

When the Waterhouse Library was completed in 1878, the books were transferred across to their new home. The Fellowship planned to convert the ‘Old Library’ into apartments, but George Gilbert Scott persuaded them otherwise. Instead, all but two of the bookcases were removed and their decorative ends were re-set into the walls. The room has since been used for functions such as lectures, meetings and dinners.


The last time that significant work was carried out in the room was in 1987. Over the course of thirteen weeks, all of the ceiling’s underlying timbers were exposed, cleaned and treated. The structure was also strengthened by the application of epoxy resin and fiberglass strands.

For more information about the history of Pembroke’s rooms, see our Pembroke Past and Present page.

For more photos of the work, and details of the ceiling, see our Facebook album below: