Minster Library

York Minster Library 2008

1414AD - 1414AD

York Minster Library has stood at the north of the Minster Gardens since 1810. 

But York has been known for books since the 8th Century.  The famous scholar Alcuin had an internationally renowned collection in York, destroyed by Vikings who invaded the city in 866.  It was to be more than 500 years before the Minster again had its own ‘librarie’, begun with forty volumes bequeathed by Canon John Newton in 1414.

Today the Library contains about 120,000 books and is recognised as the most important cathedral library in Britain, however its fortunes have waned and waxed over the years.  Financial support has often been difficult to find and the library’s survival has been largely due to the work of a number of dedicated individuals.

The first major setback came with Henry VIII’s Reformation.  By 1536 the library consisted of 193 books, its upkeep was provided for and some volumes were allowed to be borrowed by readers.  The Reformation meant that all ‘Catholic’ books and decorated manuscripts had to be removed.

But the library survived and nearly a century later, in 1628, it was transformed by the benefaction of 3,000 volumes from Archbishop Tobie Matthew’s widow; this collection still forms the core of the Old Library. 

During the Civil Wars York fell to the Parliamentary army after the siege of 1644.  Again the library survived, this time thanks to the orders of the Parliamentary commander, Lord Fairfax.

Throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries acquisitions continued to be made.  By 1800 the original forty volumes had become over six thousand.  Meanwhile, thanks notably to precentor Thomas Comber, the library became a more efficient organisation.  From 1716-1820, 1,242 loans were made to almost 200 borrowers, including to the author of Tristram Shandy, Laurence Sterne.  In 1810 the books were re-housed in the thirteenth-century Archbishops’ Chapel.

Money was a perennial problem: apart from personal bequests and very occasional contributions from Minster funds, the library enjoyed no income.  It was only thanks to committed individuals, like Canon James Raine in the late 19th century, that it still functioned.  Not only that but it was still able to attract important donations, such as the 10,000 volumes of the Hailstone Collection in 1890. 

The financial pressure came to a head in 1930 when the controversial decision was made to sell valuable historical books to fund repairs of the Minster.  Ironically the repairs didn’t take place and the funds raised by the sale were set aside to start a new Library Fund in 1945.

The hard work of Dean Eric Milner-White and others put the Library on a more stable footing and renewed its scholarly use.  An extension was built in 1960; in 1963 the University of York opened to students, and began a continuous and happy relationship with the Minster Library; the addition of the Alcuin wing in 1998 again improved its resources.

The library continues to develop, its lifeblood now a growing base of readers (4,341 loans in 2008) and a dedicated team of staff and volunteers, successors of Milner-White, Raine, Comber – and ultimately Alcuin himself.


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