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Chained Libraries

One of the things I want to do is visit all of the chained libraries in England. So far I have only visited the one in Hereford as every time I visit Wells or Wimbourne, which are the other two closest to me, they have always been closed. I have yet to make an attempt at the others. It is a bit of a pathetic tally, but I will persevere as I find them fascinating.

Before the arrival of the printing press books were laboriously copied out by hand. This meant that they were rare enough and valuable enough that they were securely stored in chests or a cupboard (known as a dole cupboard or almery) to prevent theft. A book in the middle ages was supposedly worth as much as a farm. As the number of books in a given place grew a more practical method of storage was needed, and over time a library would be formed. Unfortunately, due to their value and portability, tomes would go missing and so a more secure solution was needed: chains. This is not a completely new concept as sometimes books would have been chained to a desk.

One of the peculiarities of chained libraries is that the spines, unlike the picture above, do not often face out. Instead the fore-edge faces out as this was where the chain was attached. There was often a shelf in-front of the bookcase for the books to rest on while they were being read. The person reading would need to read standing up. Sometimes there were desks instead of a reading shelf, which was much more comfortable. Some chained libraries do not have bookcases at all, but instead have rows of lecterns on which you can sit at with three of four books chained below.

If you are interested in visiting some chained libraries you may want to consider the below:

The chained library at Hereford Cathedral dates from the seventeenth century and is the largest chained library to survive with all it's chains, rods and locks intact. You can see the chained library and the Mappa Mundi between 10am and 4pm for a cost of £6.

Wimbourne Minster is the second largest chained library and one of the oldest public libraries. It's opening times are a bit varied, but entry appears to be free.

Francis Trigge Library was founded in 1598 it is also one of the oldest public libraries in England. It is run by volunteers and open from April to September. I would advise calling before hand to ensure it is open on the day of your planned visit.

The earliest reference to a library at Wells Cathedral dates from 1298. The books there began to be chained in the 17th century. They offer tours on selected days for £10 per person.

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