Report: Visit to York Minster Library, 22 June 2016

The York Minster Library is tucked away in Dean’s Park, behind the Minster itself, in a building called the Old Palace. Head librarian Sarah Griffin showed a small group of us around the collections and explained the building’s history.

The collections’ main strengths are local history, church history and theology. In the library’s earliest days, a lot of anti-Catholic texts were collected, but matched by an almost equal number of Catholic ones, to help scholars better understand and refute pro-Catholic arguments. There is also a collection of medical texts, donated by a young lawyer who purchased them back when it was fashionable for gentlemen to have libraries. No one is quite sure why he chose medical books, rather than, say, legal ones.

The historic books, pamphlets and playbills are supported by the modern collection. Copac has been a great tool for weeding these, allowing Sarah to remove books that are well-represented at other libraries, and retain ones that are harder for researchers to access. One of her great ambitions is to get all the open-shelf books down to head height, and cut out the health and safety nightmare of using ladders to reach them….

The Alcuin Wing, completed in 1998, gives readers a comfortable space to use the books, but despite the (alarmingly recent) addition of wifi, its footfall is on the decline. This is a direct consequence of the Minster library joining the book delivery scheme which allows students and faculty of the University of York to collect and return books at other libraries. The scheme has greatly increased the usage of the collections, but there are many old, fragile and valuable texts which can only be consulted at the Minster library, under the watchful supervision of a staff member.

The library has a comprehensive conservation suite, but sadly no longer any funding for a conservator. NADFAS volunteers put the budget available for preservation to good use by cleaning, boxing and performing minor paper repairs on vulnerable books, and the room is also used for craft and outreach events.

Ideally, the impressive main hall would also be able to host more events, but the age and condition of the books stored there prohibits anything involving food, drink, or even flowers. The needs of researchers must also be considered, as staff cannot interrupt an event to fetch a book. In an unfortunate catch-22, investment is needed to turn the hall into a desirable, functional event space which would then generate income for the library.

Sarah had brought out some of the library’s treasures for us to coo over, including one of the ‘wicked bibles’, which has a misprint in the Ten Commandments, so that one reads, ‘Thou shalt commit adultery’. Obviously, people at the time noticed this pretty quickly, but what makes it tragic is that these were the printer’s second run of bibles, and he thought he had corrected all the mistakes from the first batch…

Another book contained beautiful woodblock illustrations, but if you were paying attention, you would notice that some of the character portraits were re-used, fifty pages later, as completely different people. The Minster library also holds a tiny prayer book with an inscription in Spanish that reads, ‘This book belongs to the Princess of Wales’. As there has only ever been one Spanish Princess of Wales, it is likely that it belonged to Catherine of Aragon, first wife of Henry VIII.

On behalf of everyone who came, I wanted to thank Sarah for the fascinating tour and the insight into running a truly historic library.

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