Parish library collections at the York Minster Library

Maria Nagle reveals some of the parish library treasures held at York Minster.

While York Minster is home to the largest cathedral library in England, not all of the collections it houses are owned by the Chapter of York. 


Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, many of Yorkshire's surrounding parishes deposited their own book collections into the Minster Library for safekeeping, as they did not have the space or necessary environmental conditions required to safely and securely care for their books. These collections provide a fascinating insight into the interests and reading habits of not just clergymen, but also their parishioners.

Many parishes benefited from large collection donations from local noblemen or prominent figures, which often held unexpected treasures and items not usually associated with religious libraries. For example, James Davis's donation to Riccall Vicarage Library in 1886 contains a large collection of travel literature exploring locations as far afield as Algeria, Iceland and Brazil, as well as those closer to home. Collections such as these would have often been accessible to parishioners and some view parish libraries as the informal predecessors to the public libraries of today.

Some of the Riccall travel books
Over the years, over 1500 books have been deposited by surrounding parishes and each collection has its own story to tell. Some have battled through the elements in their journey here; a small collection of five books is all that remains of Bubwith Parish Library. They had been gifted with 689 books in 1747, but throughout the years these had been used to light the vestry fire! This discovery prompted the parish to deposit the remaining volumes in York Minster Library in 1892 for their preservation.

The surviving volumes of the Bubwith collection
Some of the books that have made it this far still bear signs of past use and indeed, misuse. The woodcuts in this 1516 missale from Stainton Vicarage have been slashed, possibly as an act of Reformation iconoclasm against Catholic iconography. The clean cut suggests an act of destruction that was perhaps more demonstrative than wilful, as the image is still very much visible.

Slashed page in the Stainton missale
Others bear the marks of more traditional use: this book from Hackness church on the sacrament of the Eucharist was once owned by the celebrated Elizabethan diarist Margaret Hoby. The annotations supplement the pious life recorded in her diary with her interactions with religious texts; several books from the Hackness collection contain them, providing further insight into the life and reading habits of an Elizabethan puritan.

Page bearing Margaret Hoby's handwriting, Hackness collection
Currently, a project is underway to review these parish collections and the agreements for their deposit in York Minster Library. The project aims to create a reliable record of the deposits through examination of their original agreements and the creation of a thorough inventory. Although the majority of these collections are discoverable online on Yorsearch, some have eluded cataloguing for various reasons, including staggered deposits and split collections. This review will help update our records of these deposits and direct the collections' future uses in agreement with the respective parishes. It also provides a wonderful opportunity to discover the stories behind the collections and the long-forgotten treasures hidden within them.

For more information contact the Library staff at library@yorkminster.org

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