Librarians from across Durham University Library and Collections are today busy welcoming prospective students and their parents to Durham as part of our pre-application open days. But today is also a special anniversary for what now forms part of our University Library and the Durham World Heritage Site…
On 20 September 1669, John Cosin issued a charter establishing the episcopal library on Palace Green. The original charter no longer survives and our only evidence for this momentous occasion is a copy of the royal confirmation by King Charles II of 23 October 1675 (DUL Hogg MS 2, f.1-2) and an exemplification of the confirmation from 1696 (DUL MSP 91/66, f. 171).
According to the copy of Charles II’s confirmation, the document calls for the provision of “good books” (bonis libris) in a communal library (bibliothecam communem) situated on waste land beside the Bishop of Durham’s exchequer building on Palace Green.
The library established by Bishop John Cosin is one of the earliest (and still surviving) public libraries in the North of England. However, “public” was narrowly defined as clergymen, lawyers and educated gentlemen in the Diocese of Durham. The building and collection were part of a series of improvements Cosin made to Palace Green, partly to re-establish the spiritual and temporal authority of the bishops after the Civil War and Commonwealth period.
The interior of the library is unusual in that all the bookcases are wall-mounted instead of coming out into the room, which was common in institutional libraries and of which there are still many examples in Oxford and Cambridge colleges, as well as in Durham Cathedral’s Refectory Library. The practice of wall-mounted shelves with images to identify locations or subjects was more common in private libraries, but was also used in the major public libraries in Continental Europe, such as the Bibliothèque Mazarine in Paris, the Biblioteca Ambrosiana in Milan and the Biblioteca Angelica in Rome. It is very possible that Cosin took his inspiration from these illustrious examples.
Cosin donated the majority of the foundation collection, including books and pamphlets from his time in exile in France, some of which are now extremely rare. Further donations were made by his associates and later bishops of Durham. A gallery was added to the interior of the library in 1834 to house the collections donated to the newly established University of Durham (Durham staff and students can read some of the original reports of donations to the University Library from our digital newspaper archives) .
As part of the University Library, Cosin’s library is accessible to a wide range of researchers and students, continuing the founder’s intention of providing good books to the community.