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The end of December will see Cambridge University Library‘s Newton Catalogue, which has been the library’s online catalogue search system since 1999, finally go offline, to be replaced completely by its successor iDiscover. Newton was initially scheduled to go offline at the end of August, but was given a reprieve to the end of the year. It might seem odd to consider an online cataloguing system worthy of an obituary, but Newton has been part of my life for as long as it has existed, since it went online at around the same time I first arrived at Cambridge as an undergraduate. Newton’s elegant simplicity evokes the ‘first digital age’ of the late 1990s and early 2000s, a time before smartphones, apps and social media, when systems were straightforward and functional, developed for use rather than profit. Indeed, I was so unused to computers when I arrived at Cambridge in 1999 that I learnt how to use Newton as I learnt how to use the internet, search engines and e-mail, which were almost novel concepts to me at the time.
I also remember Cambridge University Library before Newton. My first visit to the library took place when I was only seventeen, after I persuaded a friend to write a letter to the late Peter Meadows asking for permission for me to view some manuscripts relating to the composer John Wilbye (who was the subject of my A Level History coursework). For some reason, Peter Meadows agreed and so I had my earliest encounter with the Hengrave Manuscripts in the old Munby Room (which is now the UL café); an encounter that would change the course of my life, and lead me eventually to a career as a historian. But I also remember from that time seeing people consulting the enormous dark green bound catalogues in the vestibule to the Reading Room, because Newton did not yet exist. By the time I came up as an undergraduate, however, Newton was the first port of call to find books, not just in the University Library but in the college libraries as well. The system has its occasional eccentricities (the need to search separately college libraries A-N and P-W, for example), but was largely very user-friendly. I didn’t actually use the UL much as an undergraduate, doing most of my work in the old University Library (which had become my college library three years before I matriculated), or in the Philosophy Faculty Library (now the Casimir Lewy Library). When I did use the UL as an undergraduate, it was generally to read or research things irrelevant to my degree – including, of course, the Hengrave Manuscripts.
In later years, as I embarked on more serious research, I came to realise that the chief benefit of Newton, apart from an excellent catalogue of the UL for my visits there, was as a bibliographical source. If I needed to check the bibliographical details of virtually any book, Newton provided the most straightforward way to do so. Yes, I could have used the British Library catalogue, the Bodleian catalogue or even the catalogue of the Library of Congress, but Newton always seemed to me by far the most user-friendly library catalogue I have ever used. The process of ordering books to the Reading Room or West Room within Newton was equally straightforward. Consequently, I have continued to use Newton right up to the end, only very occasionally straying into iDiscover. I will miss Newton immensely, not just because of the memories associated with it, but also because I have found it a very valuable bibliographical tool. I find it hard to imagine not working with it, but I suppose I shall have to adapt. In the meantime, I take solace in those words that Alexander Pope almost wrote:
UL and UL’s books lay hid in night;
God said, Let Newton be! and all was light.