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Salisbury Cathedral Library

Library of the Week: 18th December: Salisbury Cathedral Library!  We speak to Cathedral Librarian, Anne Dutton to find out more about the history of the library and the amazing collections available – thank you for taking part!

In this blog post, we shall visit Salisbury Cathedral Library – a library that has developed and grown for over 900 years, and where the books are still shelved in the room that was built for them over 500 years ago.

Our visit starts at the Cathedral’s main entrance desk, where researchers and visitors arrive. As it is December, the Cathedral is decorated for Christmas, with a 32-foot Christmas tree decorated with fairy lights at the west end of the nave. To reach the Library, we go through an unmarked medieval wooden door in the south transept, up a narrow spiral staircase, and through another medieval wooden door into the Library itself.

The reading room at Salisbury Cathedral Library
The reading room at Salisbury Cathedral Library

This room, which is situated above the south cloister, was built in 1445 to be the library, and has housed the book collection ever since. It is one of the earliest purpose-built library rooms still in use in England. When it was first constructed, the library was twice as long as it is today, but for structural reasons, it was reduced to its present size in the mid-eighteenth century. The original bookcases were made from oak trees donated by King Henry VI; the present layout dates from the early 1980s, with traditional, Oxbridge college-style bookcases built by the cathedral works department from elm trees that had formerly grown in the Cathedral Close and from London plane.

The bookstack

Today the room is divided into two parts – the reading room with tables and cupboards, and the bookstack, which is beyond a small lockable wooden gate.

Although the Library room was built in the mid-fifteenth century, the history of the book collection begins in the late eleventh century, with the founding of the first cathedral at Salisbury, at the site now known as Old Sarum, some two miles north of the current cathedral. In the last quarter of the eleventh century, a scriptorium was established at Old Sarum, where the priests of the cathedral copied and bound books for their own use. The surviving manuscripts are evidence of their rich intellectual life.

A leaf from one of the manuscripts from Old Sarum (A collection of texts by St Augustine of Hippo)

Today, the Library collection consists of 180 medieval manuscripts and over 10,000 printed books. There is also a reference collection of (mostly) modern material, focusing mainly on the Cathedral, and the city and diocese of Salisbury. The earliest item is a fragment of a late eight- or early ninth-century copy of the Book of Numbers (from the Bible), and there are several Anglo-Saxon manuscripts, including a beautifully decorated psalter (Book of Psalms). Around sixty of the manuscripts were made at the Old Sarum site, and it is remarkable to realise that these books have remained with their original owners for over 900 years.

Of the printed collection, around two thirds were published before 1800, and there are 42 incunabula (books printed in the fifteenth century). Most of the books are in their original bindings. The books cover many subjects; there are particular strengths in theology and liturgy (as you might expect in a cathedral library), but also in science, medicine, and classics. Many of the manuscripts and printed books were acquired through donation and bequest, and so the subject matter reflects the interests of the donors.

The Library was originally intended for use by the Cathedral clergy. It is still the private library of the Dean and Chapter, who make the collection available to researchers and visitors by appointment. There are also monthly public tours, as well as private tours and school visits. The Library is also open to the general public several times a year, with open days and an annual exhibition. In the spring of 2024, we will be holding an exhibition focusing on the natural world, and we are also planning a manuscripts study day.

Anne Dutton – Cathedral Librarian

All images copyright of the Salisbury Cathedral Library, reproduced with kind permission of the copyright holder.

You can explore the library’s collections on Discover and find further contact details on their Discover information page.


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