When I was a kid I had a very clear image in my mind of what a 'proper' library looked like: it would have towering, closely-packed wooden shelves, which stretched up and outwards almost beyond sight. It would be dark, dusty, and probably haunted. Then again, having grown up in Suffolk, I was also convinced that mountains were perfect triangles with snow caps with jagged edges, until I was disillusioned by a trip to Wales. Anyway, the vast majority of the UL's book-cases may be made of metal, and even I might be able to reach to the top of them without a ladder, but in its sheer vastness it comes pretty close to my childhood Platonic ideal of a library.
There really is no other way to put it - the UL is just huge. You could fit the St Andrew's University library into it four times over if you're just counting the square footage of the land it covers - eight times if you consider the vertical dimensions (although admittedly in neither case am I considering potential underground stack space). Within such a space there are also, well, quite a lot of books. The thing that I love most about the UL is the fact that it has 'open stacks'. Many copyright libraries - such as the NLS or the Bodleian - keep the vast majority of their collections in closed stacks, for which you have to fill in a request which is then fetched by a librarian. The UL does have closed stacks, but it certainly has more volumes immediately accessible by a reader on open shelf than any library I have ever visited. There is nothing like delving into one of the stacks to find a particular volume and just breathing in the feeling of being surrounded on all sides - right, left, above and below - by the sheer weight of recorded learning and knowledge. Better yet, books are arranged pretty accurately by subject, meaning that it's entirely likely that you'll find, within a few volumes of the book you were looking for, other books which you had no idea existed but which are exactly what you needed for the topic you're researching.
For all that I tease about the external design of the UL, the interior is pretty charming in a slightly steam-punk, Art Deco kind of way. The entrance hall and the main reading room are just breathtaking (there are chandeliers, for goodness' sake), many of the doors are massive and made of brass, and the six-storey stacks still boast their original lifts, which creak nostalgically and contain emergency phones on curly cords. The UL also boasts an enjoyable variety of working spaces, not to mention the types of nooks and crannies that make you feel as if you're the only person to have ever discovered them - even though thousands of readers before you have probably had the exact same feeling. For light and airy working, there's the reading room; for vast wooden desks with the useful time-pressure of having nowhere to plug in a laptop there are the bays along the main corridor through which you access the stacks; and for a gorgeous, quite surprising corner there are the two desks on the sixth floor of the North Front, outside a couple of offices and lined with locked cases containing early modern printed books. Somewhere in one of the wings I came across a series of shelf-ends adorned by cartoons about being a librarian, and from the top floor of the fronts you can get a pretty wonderful view of Cambridge, if you don't mind a slightly chilly working session beside one of the single-glazed windows.
Finally, there is the Tea Room, which can probably take credit for a significant proportion of my Master's thesis. It is pretty large in and of itself - I think you could probably safely seat 150 or 200 people, if they didn't mind getting a bit more chummy than academics in need of coffee usually prefer to do. My husband and I often joked that if the Tea Room was open for dinner and served a couple of ales on tap, many library users would simply live in the library 24/7. Seeing as the town centre is a good, oh, five minutes walk away, the Tea Room helpfully removes the need to ever really leave the library building. It serves breakfast (both full fry-up and pastries), coffee and tea throughout the day, and a hearty, student-budget-priced hot lunch. It also sells Nurofen, allergy relief tablets, and pencils, so whether your needs be health or manuscript-room related they can be satisfied at the till of the Tea Room. As it also has wi-fi, and a dangerous deal by which once you have bought one coffee you can get a refill half-price, it often ends up serving - at least for some - as a secondary, caffeine-refuelling reading room during the quieter periods of the day.
I don't have entirely unalloyed memories of my time at Cambridge, and I am delighted to be doing my PhD at St Andrews (more on that in another post anon), but there will always be a soft spot in my researcher's heart for the hulking BFG that is the Cambridge UL, and it will always feel like a holiday treat to visit it once again. Right now, however, from my place at my old favourite desk in the main front corridor, my battery is running out, so perhaps I should leave the panegyric there - and head to the Tea Room to recharge both myself and my machine.