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Archbishop’s library fully public at last

19 March 2021

Declan Kelly talks to Tim Wyatt about the new Lambeth Palace Library building

Hufton & Crow

The exterior of the library on Lambeth Palace Road

The exterior of the library on Lambeth Palace Road

A RUEFUL look crosses Declan Kelly’s face: “It is frustrating.”

Four years ago, Mr Kelly launched a project to move the 400-year-old Lambeth Palace Library, of which he is the director, to a purpose-built building. One of the main objects of the complex and costly transition was to make the collection more accessible to the public.

The building is now finished, and almost all the works have been moved into it — but, of course, no one can yet visit.

When the sliding glass doors of the new red-brick building on Lambeth Palace Road can finally admit the public, they will find a library transformed. Ever since it was founded by Archbishop Richard Bancroft, the collection has been tucked away inside the rabbit warren of Lambeth Palace.

Hufton & CrowThe south-side of the library, looking north across the Thames at the Palace of Westminster

The old library, accessible only by pressing a bell beside a small and easily missed door in the stone wall of the palace, was too cramped for both readers and the works themselves. The books that were on site were slowly tearing apart the damp palace rooms by their weight; but the collection had long since grown too large to be housed there, and a large portion of the library’s holdings had ended up in a leaky warehouse in Bermondsey. This was, in Mr Kelly’s understated phrase, “not a great place” to keep books and manuscripts of which some dated back almost 1000 years.

Lambeth Palace Library describes itself as “one of England’s oldest public libraries”, having made its collection available since its foundation in 1610, 43 years before Chetham’s Library, in Manchester, generally accepted as the oldest public library in England. If the definition of “public” has been disputable before now, it will be no longer.


IF THE first aim of making the library more accessible to the public has yet to be realised because of the continuing lockdown, the second aim — of protecting the priceless collection — has been achieved.

The new library has been built into the wall that snakes around Lambeth Palace’s large garden, offering a counterpoint to the much older palace structure at the other end of the expanse of grass and trees. It is almost entirely constructed out of red brick, and has a solid, squat appearance, even though its central tower rises up nine storeys before finishing with a glassy roof terrace.

The ground floor is mostly taken up by the light and airy double-height entrance gallery, and it is on the floors above that the 200,000 books of the collection have been deposited. Well above any expected potential flood-level from the River Thames, just a stone’s throw away, floors of modern, concrete-entombed rooms, providing 20 kilometres of shelving, have been created to house the collection to modern archival standards.

Hufton & CrowOne of the reading rooms

Groaning wooden shelves in draughty stone rooms have given way to sleek, metal sliding storage stacks. Each room is temperature- and humidity-controlled, and protected by fire-suppression systems. The most vulnerable books and manuscripts now sit in 30,000 specially designed acid-free cardboard boxes, produced by a custom laser-cutter machine over the past three years.


THE relief at having moved the works in his charge to the new building is detectable in Mr Kelly’s voice. “The core of it is the stores — to know that every single item is in a properly protected environment that will protect it for centuries,” he says.

But it is the ground floor — where no books will be kept — that he is most excited about. “For me, the entrance hall is wonderful. That’s the key thing, because that makes it a really genuinely public building, where anyone can walk in.” The atrium, despite the blocky structure around it, feels light and airy: it has high ceilings and large windows through to the remodelled garden and a new pond.

This is — or, at least, will be — a space where anyone can wander in off the street, no appointment or membership required. In time, exhibitions of some of the more interesting pieces of the collection will be set up here, alongside two large touch-screen tables where guests can explore some of the digitised works. The reading rooms near by feature oak shelving, high ceilings, and large wooden tables where academics and curious visitors will be able examine books from the collection.

The building has also been constructed to high environmental standards attested by its BREEAM Excellent rating. Part of the roof is covered with solar panels, which will provide about half the energy required to power the library. Water flowing down the gutters is redirected into the pond, the centrepiece of the newly landscaped gardens. Only three per cent of the Archbishop’s garden’s footprint has been lost to the library, and, paradoxically, the new building may even make the remaining space pleasanter, by blocking out traffic noise.


ALTHOUGH library visitors will not be able to go out of the back of the new building into the gardens, the greenery is unmissable through several huge windows in the entrance gallery, as is the view of palace buildings. It is a literal realisation of Mr Kelly’s dream for the new library to be “a sort of window on to the Church”.

“My vision for it is that people come in here for whatever reason, but go away knowing a bit more about who we are and what we do — in the widest sense, not just the library.”

Information panels will relate the work of the Archbishop of Canterbury, Lambeth Palace, and the Church of England, as well of the library itself.

Children from schools near by, who were invited to bury a time capsule inside the walls during construction, are to be invited to open days in the new conservation studio, to learn how to preserve old books and manuscripts. Mr Kelly also hopes to tempt in those researching family history, particularly those with clerical ancestors, as well as people seeking information on church buildings.


AT THE top of the stairs, a roof terrace winds its way around a lecture and seminar room. Book launches, academic conferences, and summer soirées will be held here, offering new views across the river to the Palace of Westminster and the chance to look down on Lambeth Palace. “This is the Church-State connection, and actually you’re standing on top of an archive which tells you all about that interaction,” Mr Kelly says.

Hufton & CrowThe conservation studio

Despite these planned activities, he wants the library to be a haven of peace and quiet. Visitors — some, perhaps, from St Thomas’ Hospital, across the traffic-choked Lambeth Palace Road — will find green-shaded tranquillity inside the new building. “They’ve got away from a busy noisy road; they have found a little oasis of calm in a crowded, busy street,” he says.

What of the collection itself? At its heart is a record of each archiepiscopate since the early 17th century. Mr Kelly recounts one of his favourite items: a thank-you letter from a bridegroom in 1923, saying how nervous the couple had been, and how they had been put at their ease. “It’s a guy writing a thank-you letter to the vicar after his wedding. . . It just so happens it’s Albert, Duke of York [the future George VI], and the Archbishop [Randall Davidson].”

This closeness of Church and State extends through the centuries. Among the treasures are the sole surviving copy of the execution warrant of Mary, Queen of Scots; Elizabeth I’s prayer-book; and a copy of a book by Catherine of Aragon’s chaplain, arguing against the annulment of her marriage to the King, with annotations by Henry VIII.

Alongside such papers is a wealth of church records: architects’ plans for church buildings; photo archives, including post-war ordinands practising baptism with teddy bears; and proposals from Victorian parishes to begin outreach in the slums of London.

Many of these items will be of interest only to academics, “but we want the library to be enjoyed and explored by everybody, really,” Mr Kelly says. He is confident that the library contains at least one item relating to every parish in the C of E, as well as numerous records of interest to ordinary lay people curious about church or family history.

There are other, unlooked for benefits from research, Mr Kelly says. One cleric looked up his church and spotted the surname “Sainsbury” in old marriage registers. This turned out to be a member of the supermarket owners’ family, and ultimately led to a donation to the organ repair fund, once the family learned of their connection with the parish.

About 70 per cent of the collection has been moved into its new home, and this job should be complete by May, in time for a projected public opening later in the summer, Mr Kelly thinks. “We’re itching to be able to throw the doors open, even if it is to limited, pre-booked numbers. It’s later than we’d anticipated, but we just want to be able to get to the point when we can open the doors and have people come here.”

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