The Library of St. Paul's Cathedral

Monday July 5, 2010


The Cathedral of St. Paul’s, in one form or another, has existed since 604 AD. The current building, designed and built by Christopher Wren, was constructed throughout the years of 1675 to 1710, the earlier church having burned to the ground in the 1666 fire of London. The library has had a librarian since the Master of the Schools stepped into the position sometime in the 11th century. Master Durand first served as the librarian, a post that later passed to the treasurer. Until recently, the librarians were minor cannons of the church and only the last few librarians have been professionally trained non-clerics. Currently, in addition to the Librarian Joseph Wisdom, there is a Senior Conservationist, a Collection Manager and an Architectural Archivist.

The library now contains around 30,000 items including their oldest, a 13th century pre-reformation psalm book called a Psalter, of which Mr. Wisdom informed us before kindly let us inspect it. They have been cataloging their items, retrieving approximately 85% of the MARC records from OCLC leaving 15% to have original catalog records created. The records pulled in from OCLC must be edited for their specific library, of course. The acquisition rule followed is that any books that are accepted or received are about the life of the church in London or biographies of those who are buried in their crypt.

Personal impression:

This church was amazing! Being able to go up and see the library, the model of the cathedral, two of the older pulpits and an overview of the entire cathedral Mr. Wisdom calls “The BBC view” for somewhat self-explanatory reasons was absolutely incredible! Being able to see the length of the church form above really impressed me with the sheer size of the cathedral. And to think, it was all built three hundred years ago! I really wish I had been able to take pictures of the place to post here and show people what I’ve seen, but it wasn’t allowed. One doesn’t need to be Anglican to be appreciate the architecture or the beautiful artwork and orate carvings done in the marble. There must be several tons of gold leaf.

The library was amazing - for such a small room, it accommodated a surprising amount of materials. There was a gallery that circled the room allowing for another set of shelves higher up. Come to think of it, I didn’t see a way up to it, but there must have been, unless the librarian has taken up levitation (I know - it’s a church library, but I sincerely doubt that’s the solution.) I must have been listening to what Mr. Wisdom was saying rather than thinking up questions like this.

The room, as we walked in had that old library smell – the one that reminded me why I can’t go into archiving – I’m allergic to everything and whether it was psychological or not, I could feel my nose stuff up. Mr. Wisdom accredited the scent to off-gassing (link provided for Dad, who probably already knew was it was), meaning the books are old and some amount of decay is going on, no matter what kind of preservation work is done, and a chemical reaction is taking place. It’s a bit depressing in a way. I wonder what kind of digital preservation could be done. Leave it to me to drag a computer into such a lovely traditional library.

Sadly, the hike up all the steps to the library had practically killed me so by the time we had reached the bottom of the steps at the end of the tour and a number of the group were ready to go back up to see the whispering gallery, I was exhausted. As many times as I go up and down my stairs getting ready for work in the morning at home, it was nothing compared to the stairs to the top of the cathedral’s lovely dome. I sat and guarded the bags while a small group went up to the top. I bought a guidebook instead and will content myself with the pictures from that.

We couldn’t poke around there as long as we would have liked – we all like to read all the signs for every item in the place – because we had to go to a reception that evening and needed to get all dressed up for that. The reception was nice enough, we had to walk across Waterloo Bridge to Somerset House and I was stupid enough to wear heels. I should have just worn my ugly flip-flops and been comfortable. I ended up with a blister on both big toes as a result.