Hereford & Worcester

Medieval library with chained books gets annual clean

The chained library. Photo: Dean and Chapter of Hereford and the Hereford Mappa Mundi Trust
Image caption The library dates back to 1611

It is like taking a step inside the restricted section of the Hogwarts' library - rows and rows of chained up books and manuscripts line the tall wooden shelves secured in place on thick metal rods.

Hereford Cathedral's chained library dates back to 1611 and it is not hard to imagine how it looked in Medieval times when it was used by scholars and the clergy as a reference centre for religious study and church law.

Books were chained because they were so valuable at the time - before the printing press each book took hours of skilled work to produce.

The start of the year sees the library undergo its annual deep clean but how do you clean 1,500 books and 225 Medieval manuscripts particularly when those items are chained to the shelves?

Dr Rosemary Firman is the librarian in charge of the gargantuan task.

She said: "It is probably the largest surviving chained library anywhere in the country.

"The books and manuscripts date from the 12th to the 19th Century."

The library also has an older book - the 800 year old Hereford Gospels but that cannot be kept on a shelf with the other books because of its worth.

Dr Firman said they can trace the library's history back to 1611 because the cathedral's meticulous records survive to this day - including the order that was placed for the shelves and metal work.

Licensing midwives

She said: "It was the working library of the cathedral, it was not monastic and there was no scriptorium so we don't know who wrote the books.

Image caption The clergy used the books for theological study and reference

"The clergy referred to the books for biblical scholarship and church law."

The cathedral at that time owned a lot of land and even had a church court which did everything from settling land disputes to licensing midwives.

Over the centuries books on a range of subjects were given to the library by members of the congregation from their private collections.

It was originally kept in a chapel but it was taken apart and put into storage while the chapel was refurbished in the 1840s.

It was put back together in the 1930s by a man called Canon Streeter.

In 1996 it was moved to a new building next to the cathedral where it forms part of a exhibition looking at its history and that of the Mappa Mundi - a map of the known world from 1300.

It is this map that enabled the library to be moved to its new building - grants were awarded so that it could be presented in an exhibition building which could also house the books.

The newer building helps keep the books relatively clean all year round.

"The room is temperature controlled at 18C, 50% relative humidity with the air filtered so dust is kept to a minimum," Dr Firman said.

But even in these carefully monitored conditions, once a year in January the books must be removed from the shelves, cleaned and put back.

Image caption It takes six days to clean the books

Worldwide interest

Unusually the books face pages or fore-edge out rather than spine out. This is so a book can be taken down off a shelf and opened on the desk below without having to turn it and risk twisting the chain.

Because the spines are not visible each shelf has a list at the end of it of the titles and where they are.

Before a book can be cleaned the four people involved with the task put on aprons and gloves. The book is then rested on a cushion to protect it from being damaged.

A special museum vacuum cleaner, which has a very low suction and soft brush attachment, is used to clean the edges and sides of the books. They are then put back after each shelf has been wiped with a microfibre cloth.

It takes the team, who work in pairs, six days to clean the books and manuscripts.

A cleaning crew then moves in to give the floors a polish.

Cleaning the library may be time consuming but it is also important to keep them in the best condition possible.

"Scholars come from all over the world to look at the Medieval manuscripts," Dr Firman said.

"There is a great deal of interest in them."

In this sense the library still serves its original purpose - to educate and inspire.

The library will reopen to the public on 23 January.

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