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England's Rare Chained Libraries

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by Erin (subscribe)
I travel as much as possible at home and abroad. I'm always ready for new experiences
Published August 27th 2019
In another age, chained libraries were an effective means to prevent the theft of valuable books, whilst still allowing access to readers. With the development of the printing press in the later middle ages, chained libraries became obsolete and eventually disappeared almost entirely. In England, there are a few such libraries still hidden away in the medieval buildings of universities or churches.

The following list is based on those libraries that are open to tourists, reasonably accessible as far as opening times, and worth the time it may take to travel to their locations.

Hereford Cathedral Library, Hereford

Hereford Cathedral Library via Hereford Cathedral

The library of Hereford Cathedral is perhaps the most well-known, as it is the largest surviving chained library in the world. The library contains 229 illuminated medieval manuscripts and 1200 early printed books. A key attraction in the library is the famous medieval Mappa Mundi dating to 1300. According to the Cathedral's description, the map contains around '500 drawings depicting 420 cities and towns, 15 Biblical events, 33 plants, animals, birds and strange creatures, 32 images of the peoples of the world and 8 pictures from classical mythology.'

Hereford Cathedral has been awarded Autism Friendly status and is a participant in Disabled Access Day. Many improvements have been made to the Cathedral over the years to allow for increased access for all people.

Phone: 44 (0)1432 374200
Opening Times: Monday – Saturday 10 am – 4 pm (last admission 30 minutes before closing)
Address: 5 College Cloisters, Cathedral Close, Hereford HR1 2NG
Cost: Adult, £6; Student, £5

Merton College Upper Library, Oxford

Merton College Upper Library

The oldest part of Merton College Library, known as the Upper Library, dates from 1373. Originally all of the volumes in the library would have been attached to the shelves by chains. Presently, one reconstructed book chain is provided as an example of how the original chained library might have looked. Although the original chains are gone, the library retains much of its medieval essence and is a step back in time.

Visits are possible by booking with a college guide at specific times of the year. From July to September, tours take place starting at 2.00pm and 3.00pm daily (except for those days when the College is closed to visitors). Advance bookings may be made with the Tour Coordinator (up to 24 hours in advance) or with the College Lodge on the day. 

The Upper Library is accessed via a short flight of 17th-century stairs. There is no lift at this time.

Phone:  44 (0)1865276310
Address: Merton College Merton Street Oxford, OX1 4JD
Cost: £5.00 per person; £3.00 for University members

Wells Cathedral, Somerset

Wells Cathedral Library; Public Domain

The medieval library of Wells Cathedral was built in the mid-15th century. Most of the 2800 volumes in the collection today were obtained by clergy in the 16th to 18th centuries. The earliest book is a copy of Pliny's Naturalis Historiae printed in 1472. The library also contains a set of Aristotle's works published in 1497.

The library can be viewed and photographed from the reading room. Tours of the library by the Cathedral Librarian may be arranged in advance by email with at least 2 weeks notice prior to the visit. Booked tours need to include a minimum of 8 people and a maximum of 12. Smaller groups may book into a tour date from the schedule available on the cathedral's website.

Phone: 44 (0)1749 674483
Address: Cathedral Green, Wells, Somerset, BA5 2UE
Cost: Guided tours cost £10 per person

Wimbourne Minster, Dorset

Wimbourne Minster Library via Wimbourne Minster

The Chained Library of Wimbourne Minster dates to the mid-17th century. After the Trigge Library of St Wulfram's, it is one of the first public libraries in the UK. The library began as a place for safekeeping of controversial religious books which were being collected and burned by authorities. Unlike other extant chained libraries, many of the original book chains survive at Wimbourne. A glass case in the centre of the library displays the 'most interesting and entertaining works.'

There is no lift at this time. Guided tours may be arranged with the Parish office.

Phone: 44 (0)1202 884753
Opening Times: Daily from Easter Monday until the end of October, 10.30am - 12.30pm and 2.00pm - 4.00pm; contact the Parish Office for opening hours during other times of the year
Address: Church House, High Street, Wimborne, Dorset, BH21 1HT
Cost: Free
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Your Comment
I love looking at the history behind the article, you have given the reader the history of books in a chained library. Well done, I'm looking forward to reading more of your adventures.
by Susan J Bowes (score: 3|2385) 821 days ago
I love looking at the history behind the article, you have given the reader the history of books in a chained library. Well done, I'm looking forward to reading more of your adventures.
by Susan J Bowes (score: 3|2385) 821 days ago
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