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Library of the Month: Canterbury Cathedral Library

Posted By Emma L. Laws, 29 August 2019

Library of the Month: Canterbury Cathedral Library

Historic Canterbury Cathedral Library is our feature for July. Thanks to Karen Brayshaw for the contribution below.


There has been a close association with books and Canterbury Cathedral since the arrival of St Augustine in 597; but it was during the second half of the eleventh century, under Archbishop Lanfranc that the library and scriptorium began to flourish. In 1444 the new purpose built library, funded by Archbishop Chichele, was completed; it was situated over the Prior’s chapel and is known to have had eight desks and shelves that could accommodate books at right angles to the windows. Although we have some knowledge of the books that inhabited the early library, we have little idea of how the collection was arranged.

The dissolution of the Priory in 1540 did not immediately affect the library, which continued in use. Printed books were purchased and kept in a canon’s house; manuscripts books, no longer required in the newly emerging reformed church services, were dispersed or broken up and re-used in new bindings and the library building gradually fell into disrepair. The book collection continued to grow until it was removed to London during the Commonwealth period. It was eventually returned in 1661, though the library building had been demolished. In 1664 Archbishop Juxon provided funds for a new library brick built, constructed on the site of the former prior’s chapel. Today this building is known as the Howley-Harrison Library and houses a collection of approximately 12,000 printed items, received by the Dean and Chapter in 1887, that once belonged to Archbishop William Howley and the Archdeacon of Maidstone, Benjamin Harrison.

By the end of the first quarter of the nineteenth century the library collection had almost outgrown the Juxon building, in no small part because of the explosion of printed materials that became available, and a gallery was erected at the east end of the building. By the middle of the century the Dean and Chapter decided to construct a new and much larger library building on the site of the monastic dormitory. The Victorian construction was largely destroyed during the Second World War and rebuilt in the 1950s. The building currently houses the Cathedral Archives, the Library’s modern printed collection, the Archives and Library Reading room, the conservation studio and staff offices.

During the 1960’s the Wolfson Foundation funded the building of two new library rooms adjoining the Howley-Harrison Library. These two rooms now house books from the Dean and Chapters early printed collections as well as parish collections deposited on long-term loans and various smaller bequests.

The first printed catalogue of the Dean and Chapter collection was published in 1743 (Catalogus librorum bibliothecae ecclesiae Christi Cantuariensis). It is an alphabetical list of the titles of the printed books only; no date or place of publication was given and there was no reference or class mark provided. In 1802 another printed catalogue, A Catalogue of the books, both manuscript and printed, which are preserved in the library of Christ Church, Canterbury, was published for ‘the use of the members of the Church’. It consisted of 239 pages and was divided into two parts; the first part was arranged by alphabetically indexing the titles of the manuscripts and printed works, giving the shelf reference. The second part of the catalogue only referred to the printed books, listing the books as they were arranged in book cases. Today the printed books can be found on the University of Kent’s Templeman Library online public access catalogue.


Karen Brayshaw

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