Friday, 18 April 2008

Cambridge University Library Paperchase

Nostalgia. This takes me back: The Cambridge University Library Paperchase, a puzzlehunt that used to exist at the Cambridge University Library. As it appears to be defunct now, I suppose there's no problem in revealing its details. In the mid-1970s I ran by accident into an entry point - a slip of paper in a journal in the Metallurgy Department library. This then led to the main Library. Pre-computerisation, the Catalogue Hall, where you looked up locations of books, contained huge scrapbooks with typed labels and clippings pasted in.Then you had to traipse all over the Library to find the book physically.

I followed it for a few days, post-exams with nothing much to do, but never finished it. I recall getting as far as an obscure children's dictionary, Aa's Woordenboek, then getting stuck. From the descriptions I realise now that I failed entirely to realise that it was a branching tree of clues, not a single linear trail, nor grasp that some of the clues broke out of the general format. Pre-Internet, I'm not sure I could have solved
You need to find a biography published in London in 1968 about a man of whom it was said "He was close on to six feet tall, of military bearing and of such extraordinary vitality that young ladies asserted they could feel him ten feet away".
I never entirely believed it was finishable or sustainable: all it required was for one mean-spirited person to break the trail (see Marginalia and other crimes for evidence that moral responsibility and library use don't always coincide). But who had the time and energy to maintain it? Did the librarian in charge of 19th century Japanese journals never get tired, or suspicious, of students who obviously couldn't read Japanese asking for Kokubangaku kenkyu, vol.27?


1 comment:

  1. I was in Cambridge in the late '80s. The paperchase was still alive and kicking then. Although I never participated (I would have liked to but was far too busy to give it a go), I knew several people who did. I understand there was a student 'committee' who maintained the paperchase, and the library staff knew about it and either tolerated it or positively encouraged it, as it encouraged students to use the library and learn about its more oesoteric parts.