The Chained Library at Hereford Cathedral

Have you heard of the Chained Library at Hereford Cathedral in Hereford, England? 

The library is one of the oldest surviving chained libraries in the world, which dates back to the early 17th century and features a collection of books that are actually chained to the shelves. Hereford Cathedral’s Library is also the largest to survive with all its chains, rods and locks intact.

The chaining of books was a common practice in European libraries from the Middle Ages to the 18th century when books were extremely valuable and scarce. Before the advent of the printing press in the mid-15th century, books were handwritten and labour-intensive to produce, making them expensive and highly prized possessions. Chaining books was a security measure to ensure that these precious items could be accessed by many without the risk of them being stolen.

The books are attached to their shelves by chains, which are fixed to the book covers and the shelves with iron rods. This system allows the books to be taken down and read at the reading desks, but not removed from the library.

The books are shelved with their foredges, rather than their spines, facing the reader (the wrong way round to us); this allows the book to be lifted down and opened without needing to be turned around, which prevents tangling the chain.

Hereford Cathedral’s Chained Library contains about 1,500 books, including many rare and historically significant volumes. Among its treasures is the famous “Mappa Mundi,” a medieval map of the world dating from around 1300. The collection primarily consists of theological, historical, and philosophical texts, reflecting the library’s ecclesiastical origins.

Today, the Hereford Cathedral Chained Library is a tourist spot and a resource for scholars and researchers interested in the study of medieval and Renaissance texts. It is open to the public for tours, offering a fascinating glimpse into the history of book security and library management.

Notable Chained Libraries

Several famous chained libraries have survived into the modern era, including:

  • The Hereford Cathedral Library in the UK, which houses medieval manuscripts and early printed books.
  • The Wimborne Minster in Dorset, which is another example from England.
  • The Biblioteca Malatestiana in Cesena, Italy, noted as the first public library in Europe and a well-preserved example of a chained library.
  • Zutphen’s chained library in the Netherlands, which is part of the old St. Walburgis Church.
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