How to use a library


img_1916It’s September, and the new students are starting to arrive. Anglia Ruskin University on the city’s busy East Road is already buzzing with life, and the Cambridge University students will soon follow. Spending time in the library may not be a priority for the freshers, but when they do find their way into one, most will need advice from a librarian.

When her husband Alfred Marshall, a Professor of Economics at Cambridge University, died in 1924, Mary Paley Marshall was 74. Her friends assumed that she would devote her remaining years to her beloved water-colour painting. But Mary had other ideas.

Alfred had left money and his large collection of economics books to the university, and a library was established in his honour. Mary immediately donated £1,000 of her own money towards it, and arranged to pay £250 a year to maintain the library. Then she proposed that she herself should be employed there on an unpaid basis. After all, who knew the collection better? For years she and Alfred had welcomed students into their home on leafy Madingley Road to drink tea, discuss economics and leave with armfuls of borrowed books.

So, at the age of 75, Mary went to work as ‘Honorary Assistant Librarian’ at the Marshall Library of Economics. Every weekday morning she would cycle along the college Backs to the library’s original premises on Downing Street, easily recognizable by her striking profile, colourful scarves and the ‘Pre-Raphaelite’ sandals that she wore in all weathers.

Sitting at the library’s front desk, she would greet each student by name and offer suggestions about books and articles to consult. The historian G.M. Trevelyan said that ‘nothing escaped her clear, penetrating and truthful eye’. Mary’s favourite job was carefully cataloguing the books by author and subject on handwritten index cards in the special ‘brown boxes’, for many years the library’s main catalogue.

She only gave up her job at 87 when her doctor, fearful of her cycling in increasing Cambridge traffic, insisted on it. When she died two years later she left £10,000 to the University, ‘for the development and increased usefulness of the Marshall Library’.

Nowadays, the Marshall Library’s website has online induction sessions for new students, teaching them about how to navigate both the collection and the online cataloguing system. But when they visit the library, now housed in a modern building on Sidgwick Avenue, most freshers will still ask a librarian for advice. And as they walk up the stairs with their books, the students will see two portraits watching over them: Alfred on one side, and Mary on the other.

Mary Paley Marshall (1850-1944) was one of Cambridge’s earliest female students and the first to sit for the final year exams. She was the UK’s first woman lecturer in economics, and taught at Bristol, Oxford and Cambridge universities before dedicating herself, unacknowledged, to helping her husband Alfred Marshall to write his economics books. In 1927 she was awarded an honorary doctorate by Bristol University in recognition of the part she played in breaking down prejudice in women’s higher education.

Please reference as follows: Ann Kennedy Smith, ‘How to use a library’, The Ladies’ Dining Society (September 23, 2016), (Accessed: day/month/year).

 Sources: My thanks to C.L. Trowell, Marshall Librarian, and Anne Thomson, Newnham College Archivist, for their generous assistance. I consulted Mary Paley Marshall’s letters and documents at Newnham College, Cambridge and the Marshall papers at the Marshall Library; Mary Paley Marshall’s memoir, What I remember (CUP, 1947); the Newnham Letter, Jan 1928; and the ‘History of the Marshall Library’ at: (accessed 22/9/16).

The photograph of Mary Paley Marshall receiving her honorary doctorate from Bristol (Marshall Library Archive: Marshall Papers Box 10: 10/4/28) is reproduced with permission of the Marshall Librarian.


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