If you think having to remember your library card to borrow a book is a hassle, relax. You have it easy, young whippersnapper. Back in the days before Gutenberg and his newfangled printing press, all books were created completely by hand in a time-consuming, laborious process. Entire lives were dedicated to transcribing texts, handcrafting ornate covers, and illuminating pages with colorful details. Books were extremely rare, and also considered extremely valuable. When public libraries were developed in the later Middle Ages, security measures had to be set up to make sure visitors didn”t abscond with the books.
This book comes from the Guildhall Library in London. Note the hoop on the back cover where the chain is attached.
The measures were pretty straightforward: the books were affixed to chains through ringlets on their covers or spines, and attached to the shelf. That way, patrons could read the texts, but couldn”t remove the books from the libraries. Books were stored with their page edges facing the browsers, rather than their spines. This might have made finding the right book more challenging (this was also well before the Dewey decimal system), but it allowed people to open and read the book without tangling the chain. The only people who could free the books with keys were the librarians.
The Hereford Cathedral Library, Hereford, England
The Hereford Cathedral Library in Hereford, England, is the largest intact chained library. The most valuable books in this collection are an antiphonary (a music book for liturgical choirs) from the 1200s and the Hereford Gospels, written in Anglo-Saxon and dating from around 780.
After the printing press was invented, the price of books dropped as multiple copies of the same text could be made relatively easily. Over the centuries, the need to keep books under lock and key diminished, and the practice died out altogether by the 19th century. Today, only a few remain in Europe, and they”re really only for the sake of preserving a slice of history; many of the books kept there have been replicated and reprinted.
The Chained Library of Zutphen, Gelderland, the Netherlands
Like most of these libraries, this one is located in a church. Most texts during the medieval period were religious in nature. The library dates to the 1500s, and has really remained unchanged since then, with the books still chained to their original wooden desks. As you can see, they now have modern tagging, too.
Royal Grammar School Chained Library, Guildford, England
This library”s oldest book was printed in Venice in about 1480, and the oldest English book here is from 1500. Unlike many of the other chained libraries, which are parts of churches, this one is located in a school. Also, let”s appreciate the fact that CDs and centuries-old books are sharing the same space.
Biblioteca Malatestiana, Cesena, Italy
This library is part of a former Franciscan monastery, which opened in 1454. However, it appears as if the chains have been replaced.
The Francis Trigge Chained Library, Grantham, England
This was the first public reference library in England. Many of the chains, however, were added later as the centuries-old books” values increased.
Church of Wimborne Minister, Wimborne Minister, England
This church”s library dates from 1686, and was one of the first public libraries in England, along with the Trigge library. It features books written in Latin, Greek, and Hebrew. Its oldest item is a book written in 1343 about how to avoid spiritually damaging pitfalls. Most of these books are written on parchment, which is a paper-like material made from lambskin.
(via Amusing Planet, Atlas Obscura, Wikipedia)
Recently, people have become interested in preserving and reconstructing chained libraries. Many of them have been converted into museums and are open to the public, in true library fashionjust with a little less handling of the books. It”s sort of funny when you think about how, in order to make knowledge and books available to the public, librarians had to make sure they were exactly the opposite.