A Chained Library

A chained library is a library where the books are attached to their bookcase by a chain, which is sufficiently long to allow the books to be taken from their shelves and read, but not removed from the library itself. A chain is attached at one end to the front cover of each book via a ringlet. The other end of the chain also included a ringlet that was placed around a shelf length rod. This rod was horizontally attached to the shelf and secured in place with a lock. To remove the book from the shelf, the librarian would use a key. Because of the location of the chain attached to the book, the books are housed with their spine facing away from the reader with only the pages’ fore edges visible (that is, the ‘wrong’ way around to people accustomed to contemporary libraries). This is so that each book can be removed and opened without needing to be turned around, hence avoiding tangling its chain. This would prevent theft of the library’s materials. However, it also led to crowding and awkwardness when readers had to stand side by side, each holding a book or clumping so they could share one. The practice was usual for reference libraries (that is, the vast majority of libraries) from the Middle Ages to approximately the 19th century. However, since the chaining process was also expensive, it was not used on all books. Only the more valuable books in a collection were chained. This included reference books and large books.

The earliest example in England of a library to be endowed for use outside an institution such as a school or college was the Francis Trigge Chained Library in Grantham, Lincolnshire, established in 1598. The library still exists and can justifiably claim to be the forerunner of later public library systems. Marsh’s Library in Dublin, built 1701, is another non institutional library which is still housed in its original building. Here it was not the books that were chained, but rather the readers were locked into cages to prevent rare volumes from ‘wandering’.

 The chaining of books was the most widespread and effective security system in European libraries from the Middle Ages to the 19th century, and Hereford Cathedral’s 17th-century Chained Library is the largest to survive with all its chains, rods and locks intact.

The Chained Library at Hereford Cathedral is a unique and fascinating treasure in Britain’s rich heritage of library history; there were books at Hereford Cathedral long before there was a ‘library’ in the modern sense. The cathedral’s earliest and most important book is the 8th-century Hereford Gospels; it is one of 229 medieval manuscripts which now occupy two bays of the Chained Library. There has been a working theological library at the cathedral since the 12th century, and the whole library continues to serve the cathedral’s work and witness both as a research center and as a tourist attraction.

 The chained library in Wimborne Minster is the second-largest chained library in the UK. The first donation came from Revd William Stone. These were theological books, used mainly by the clergy and therefore were not chained. When another local donor, Roger Gillingham, gave another 90 books in 1695, he insisted that the books be chained up, but also that the Library should be opened, free, for the people of the town, providing they were ‘shopkeepers or the better class of person’.

Recently, there has been increased interest in reconstructing chained libraries. Worldwide, only five chained libraries have survived with their original furniture, chains, and books. This includes the library built in the Church of Saint Walpurga, located in the small town of Zutphen in the Netherlands. This library was built in 1564. The library is now part of a museum that allows visitors to tour and view the library’s original books, furniture, and chains. Another chained library is the Malatestiana Library in Cesena near Bologna in Italy, dating back to the Italian Renaissance. A lot of work has gone into rebuilding and preserving these great libraries. 

  • Surviving examples of chained libraries:
  • The chained books in St Peter’s Church, Wootton Wawen.
  • Bolton School, Bolton, England 
  • Chelsea Old Church, London, England
  • Chetham’s Library, Manchester, England houses the chained parish library of Gorton
  • Church of All Saints, Wrington, England 
  • Church of St John the Baptist, Glastonbury, England 
  • Francis Trigge Chained Library, Grantham, England
  • Hereford Cathedral Library, Hereford, England
  • Malatestiana Library, Cesena, Italy
  • Royal Grammar School, Guildford, England
  • St Peter’s Church, Wootton Wawen, England
  • St Walburga’s Church, Zutphen, The Netherlands
  • Trinity Hall, Cambridge, England
  • Wimborne Minster, England
  • Wells Cathedral, Somerset, England

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