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Only open for tours and on special open days, a visit to Salisbury Cathedral's library gives the visitor a chance to have a fascinating glimpse inside a literary treasure trove of books and ancient manuscripts, some of which date back to the 9th century.

Rows of bookshelves
Much of the collection resides in bookshelves made from elm trees from the cathedral grounds

The library in Salisbury Cathedral is a small but venerable one. It was started in the late 11th century by Bishop Osmund who established a scriptorium in the cathedral at Old Sarum, the precursor to our current cathedral. The manuscripts written there in the 1100s and early 1200s, of which 60 still survive, were the start of the collection.

The library was built in 1445 and is above the eastern end of the cathedral over the Cloisters. It was once twice its current size, covering the whole of the side of the cloister, but its weight was causing the stones underneath to crack, so it was reduced around 1760.

It is reached by an ancient wooden door tucked away in the South Transept, one that visitors normally ignore as they leave the main body of the cathedral and head to the Chapter House. It is up 37 spiral stone steps to a light and airy room with wonderful views over the cloisters. One end is filled with rows of bookshelves, the other has long tables, a desk and an octagonal table and chairs all made specifically for the library and this is where the archivists and librarians carry out their work cataloguing the collection.

The books were originally housed in oak bookshelves from 30 trees donated by Henry VI, although the bookshelves you see today are elm, grown in the cathedral grounds, and were installed in the 1980s. Originally it was a chained library with books chained to the edges of the shelves, but today some of the more valuable books are kept behind iron grilles instead, and the remaining chains hang redundantly on the wall.

The library holds about 12,000 books, although with cataloguing still in process, that figure could change. The earliest books are handwritten manuscripts, written before the invention of printing, some dating from the 9th century. These were written with quills on parchment.

The rest of the books in the collection date from the 1470s to the early 20th century. Many are rare printed books donated over the years to the library and although many are theological, there are plenty of other subjects covered. Bishop Seth Ward, an early member of the Royal Society, bequeathed 300 books in 1689 which included medieval and scientific texts. Another benefactor was Bishop Edmund Geste who donated over 1000 books on contemporary Protestant reformation.

Significant books include the 10th century Salisbury Psalter as well as 43 incunabula. Incunabula is Latin for 'cradle' and refers to books printed before 1501 which are from the very earliest period of printing. The earliest fonts used were designed to look like script and as if they had been handwritten. The only exceptions were the first letters of paragraphs and significant keywords, which were added by hand with coloured dyes.

Perhaps the most famous book in the library is the one containing a squashed mouse. Some of the books are from the Cathedral School and two of the books used to teach Latin to the choirboys, printed in the 1600s, were used by the boys in the 1870s to kill mice. A perfectly flat mouse, fur still intact, can still be found in the pages of one of these books, with a handwritten note saying 'the first mouse we killed was August the 2nd'.

An English Dial Clock from 1789

The library contains other objects of interest other than just books. Two oak storage chests also reside within, one dating from the early 1400s and carved in a Gothic style, another from the 1600s is carved with leaf and flower designs.

There is an old English Dial Clock, made in 1789 and given to the library by a former Cathedral Librarian. On the back of the clock is a label which reads "Given by Canon Quirk, librarian on 13 May 1942, the day of the recapture of Tobruk by the VIII army".

Visiting Salisbury Cathedral Library

You can either book a library tour, where you are shown around by one of the cathedral archivists and which usually ends with a cream tea in the refectory, or you can sign up to the mailing list and look out for library open days, which are included as part of your admission to the cathedral.


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