What books are in the library at Norwich Cathedral?
“There’s this whole huge world that opens up when you open one of these books,” says Dr. Gudrun Warren.
Since 2003 she has been Librarian and Curator of Norwich Cathedral Library and has over 30,000 books in her care.
There are approximately 25,000 volumes in its theological collection. And the historical collection houses 8,000 ancient texts, which date back to the 15th century.
“I was a big reader when I was young, I always had a book on the road,” says Dr Warren.
“Being around them is such a joy, and this kind of historical collection that I find particularly inspiring, because there’s something about the whole structure of books and history – it brings you back to people long gone. , and some of the books tell you stories about the people who owned them in the past.
As Dr Warren explains, there has been a collection of books on the site since the founding of the cathedral and monastery in 1096.
“Because it’s a Benedictine monastery, Benedict’s rule says that any monastery must have certain books, so the books you need for the services, obviously the bible, but then Benedict also expected his monks read other things like the Church Fathers, so people like St Basil is one of the names he actually says in the rule.
“And we know from the surviving letters of Herbert de Losinga, the founding bishop, that from the very beginning he was assembling a collection of books for the cathedral priory.”
Around the cloister you can see the remains of cupboards where some of the books were originally kept.
“Then what happens is a gradual development in the way books are kept and people start to collect their books in a room that becomes known as the book room, the library room, and we know there was something like this in Norwich by the later part of the 15th century,” says Dr Warren.
“The library seems to have suffered during the Reformation era,” she continues.
“But at the end of the 17th century, there was a very clear decision made to reestablish a library collection,” she says.
The library has been located above the south aisle of the cloisters since 1913 and was extended in the early 2000s. To allow people to enjoy the collection, the library is open to the public three days a week.
The oldest printed book in the historical collection dates back to 1474 – The Divine Institutes of Lactantius, who wrote around the 4th century.
“It was printed in Italy in 1474 and the movable-type printing press was invented around 1450, so it’s definitely a start,” says Dr Warren.
One of the most interesting books is a book of common prayer, which was published in 1845.
“Although it is a printed book, it is decorated almost as if it were an illuminated manuscript,” says Dr. Warren.
“There are decorations on the sides of the pages, full-page images from time to time, and to me it shows how someone who produces a book wants it to be something that you would cherish as an object to handle, so it’s not just putting the content in a proper form, it gives you something you might really like to hold and use.
As well as theological texts, the Cathedral Library also houses a large collection of important local books – including a three-volume first edition of the Paston Letters, a collection of correspondence between the prominent Norfolk family which provides insight into the life during the Wars of the Roses and early Tudor period.
Other highlights of what Dr Warren describes as a ‘little treasure’ include the history of Norfolk by priest and antiquary Francis Blomefield and works by clergy from the cathedral, to buildings in England by Pevsner.
It’s tantalizing details hidden within the pages, such as handwritten dedications and text annotations, that bring the past to life.
An example given by Dr. Warren is a 17th century book that belonged to a whole series of well-known local families.
“Anna Gurney, of the Gurney family, who was cousin to Sarah Buxton, of the Buxtons, were cousins. Anna gave the book to Sarah and they later gave it to their friend, Elizabeth Wilson, who married into the Upcher family, who had Sheringham Park and it goes down in the Upcher family,” she says.
“So on one page we have at least three prominent Norfolk families represented and an understanding of how they interacted with each other. And the feeling that as a book, it’s something that people want to give from one person to another – they pass on a book that’s an old book and build its story that way.
Dr. Warren also looks for signs of use to give him clues to a book’s history.
“It’s one of the things that if someone came into a library today and started marking the books, I would be very angry with them.
“But when you open a book that’s hundreds of years old and you see people’s marks on it, it actually tells you something about how the book was used and who used it.”
The way the books are made and constructed also gives a fascinating insight into the past. They vary in size from huge volumes to tiny (literally) paperbacks about an inch high.
“I think publishers produced them just to demonstrate their ability to produce the smallest things possible.
“They have a tiny, tiny type, and keep in mind that all of this type has to be cast or laid. There are so many implications of having a little book like this,” she says.
Further clues can be found in the book’s construction and binding – an example Dr. Warren takes from the shelf shows what a book bought from the printer would have looked like.
“The printer would cover the block of text on this card slightly stiffened, just to protect it, and then you could take it to a binder which would cover it with some kind of calfskin. The other clue you have there that that didn’t go through the process is that those edges are very uneven – part of the binding process is actually cutting those edges.
“The spine isn’t covered on this one, which means on some level there has been deterioration in the cover material, but then that means you can actually see the whole structure of the book and the way whose manual is actually stitched together.
“So in a way, not having everything in pristine condition means we have another way of looking at the collection.”
Of course, to preserve the important collection for future generations, conserving and maintaining the books in their current condition is an important part of Dr. Warren’s job.
She is closely monitoring any environmental changes that may affect the delicate pages – and, with the help of cathedral volunteers, they are in the midst of a long-term clean-up project.
“The shelf is cleaned with a mixture of rubbing alcohol and water to ensure it is clean and clean, then the books are cleaned – dust, which can provide food for insects, is removed “, says Dr. Warren.
“It also means we can check the books to see what condition they are in and make sure we don’t have issues with things like mould. If we find any, I tend to ask a professional restorer to take a look.
“We make books more pleasant to handle and show them some love and attention. We started about five years ago now and we’re halfway there, so it’s a long, slow job and the kind of thing that when we get to the end we could just start over.
The Norwich Cathedral Library is open to the public on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
For more information visit cathedral.org.uk/learning/library