Library by the sea: the first printed catalogue of the Bamburgh Castle Library

Way before the existence of the large online library catalogues we are now familiar with, libraries users would have had to visit a library to find if it held the material they were interested in, or they might be able to consult a printed catalogue. Today, these printed catalogues are valuable to researchers and librarians interested in what libraries used to have on their shelves and how the library’s contents changed over time. They tell us about former library management practices and collection development. They offer an insight into what was considered appropriate reading material. Where libraries no longer exist, historic catalogues are important witnesses to how knowledge and information circulated among communities. They are occasionally also a source of information about who could use the library and on what terms.

The Lord Crewe’s Charity trustees, who set up a public library at Bamburgh Castle on the Northumberland coast at the very end of the eighteenth century, decided to sell a printed catalogue of their books so that library users could select the books they wanted to borrow before visiting the library.

Titlepage of the first printed catalogue to the Bamburgh Castle Library

Because the opening hours were very restricted and the library itself was not easily accessed, being on the top floor of the castle’s keep and part of a private apartment, the printed catalogue was therefore the only means of advertising what the library had to offer.

To remind borrowers of the terms of access, the trustees set out the regulations for library use at the start of their catalogue. Unlike public libraries today, borrowers could not simply wander in whenever they wanted. Instead, they had to apply for a ticket to access the library, which was only open initially on Saturdays from 10AM to 1PM, and later, every other Saturday from 11AM to 1PM. No everyone was allowed to use the library and only people with a good reputation who lived within 20 miles from Bamburgh were given permission to borrow books.

The first page of library regulations

We have a few copies of the first printed catalogue, and each shows different signs of use over time by librarians at Bamburgh Castle. The catalogue on display throughout September 2023 in our Penned & Printed exhibition is interleaved with blank pages so that new books could be added – this is of course an issue with any published catalogue: it is soon out of date when new material is bought for the library. The catalogue is also annotated with information about specific books of interest and marks the transition between different reference systems, as well as providing evidence for a thorough re-arrangement of the books on the shelves.

Page opening showing handwritten additions and corrections to the catalogue

Another copy contains a supplement with a list of books added to the library after 1797, and yet another is the catalogue used by the librarian ‘for giving out the books’.

Feature image: Bamburgh Castle by Mark Percy, CC BY-SA 2.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons. All other images courtesy of The Lord Crewe’s Charity and Durham University, unless stated otherwise.

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