A CHAINED LBRARY 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.
This would prevent theft of the library’s materials. The practice was usual for REFERENCE LIBRARIES (that is the vast majority of libraries) from the Middle Ages to approximately the 18th 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.
It is standard for “chained libraries” to have the chain fitted to the “corner” or “cover” of a book This is because if the chain were to be placed o the “spine”, the book would suffer greater wear from the stress of moving it on or off the shelf. Because of the location of the chain attached to the book (via a ringlet), the books are housed with their “spine” facing away from thereader with only the pages’ “fore-edges” visible. (that is, the “wrong” way round 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. To remove the book from the chain, the librarian would use a key.
The earliest example in England of a library 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 in 1701, is another non-institutional library which is still housed in its original building. Here, it was not the books that were chai, but rather, the readers were locked into cages to prevent rare volumes from “wandering”. There is also an example of a Chained Library in the ROYAL GRAMMAR SCHOOL, Guildford, as well as at HEREFORD CATHEDRAL. While chaining books was a popular practice throughout Europe, it was not used in all libraries. The practice of chaining library books became less popular as printing increased and books became less expensive.
Recently , there has been increased interest in re-constructing “chained libraries”. Worldwide, only 5 Chained Libraries have survived with their original furniture, chains and books. This includes the library built in the Church of St. WALPURGA located in the small town of ZUTPHEN in the Netherlands. This library was built in 1564. The library is now a 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. For example, many workers, over a decade and massive monetary donations were spent to restore the MAPPA MUNDI and Chained Library museum located in Hereford, England. Built over 900yrs ago, the library fell into disrepair and faced destruction. The oldest chained book found in the library is the HEREFORD GOSPELS, written in the 8th century, it is one of 229 chained books located in this great library. The Hereford Library is the largest surviving chained libraries with its chains and books intact. The library is now open to the public as an attraction and museum.
The Chained Library in WIMBORNE MINSTER is the 2nd largest Chained Library in the UK. The first donation came from Reverend 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, and that the Library should be opened, free, for the people of the town, provided they were “shop-keepers or the better class of people”. There is also a Chained Library still surviving at WELLS CATHEDRAL in England.
Why were these books chained ? During the Middle Ages and the early years of the Renaissance, books were generally kept in “book chests” known as ARMARIA or ALMERIES. The chests were kept in a room that was usually locked and would likely have included other valuables belonging to the institution. This room would not have been considered a library, as we understand the concept today, as it contained books, but did not allow free access to them and certainly wouldn’t have included space for reading the books.
On the contrary, most books would have been found, at any given time, in the hands of various scholars. Loan systems were in place that allowed scholars to borrow books from the institution for a certain amount of time, often a single school year. At the end of the year, the books would have to be returned, at which time they would be inspected both for signs of actual use to prove that the scholar hadn’t been wasting the institution’s valuable resources and for the amount of care that was taken in their preservation.
In addition, there was often a “pledge system” in place that required the scholars to offer goods of equal value as a “guarantee” towards the safe return of the books. While this may have seemed like an altogether satisfying arrangement, it was generally “ineffective” for 3 reasons. First of all, books were extremely valuable, so the “pledges” for their safekeeping might have been prohibitively expensive.
Secondly, then as now, the books were susceptible to damage and loss. Samuel Johnson, for example, was a “librarian’s nightmare”. He borrowed books and used them as if they were his own —– writing notes in the margins and rarely returning them. Finally, if a scholar was interested in looking at a book, he might have to wait at least a year to gain access to it. In fact, if a student was not in favour with right people, he might not be able to gain access to certain books at all.