THE Book of Proverbs warns us that the making of books — unlike a clerical salary — has no end. Libraries offering free or cheap reading material are plentiful during the early years of ministerial formation in universities and theological colleges, but can be harder to find — and to find time for — when working in under-resourced rural parishes or a post-industrial town. There are some hidden gems of libraries in unexpected locations across the country, which provide space away from the goldfish bowl of parish life to read, learn, and refresh oneself.
Let’s begin with official Church of England libraries. Since its move to a purpose-built home in 2020, Lambeth Palace Library now houses the books and archives not only of the Archbishop of Canterbury (including an important library of Anglican history), but also the records of the Church Commissioners and preceding bodies previously stored in a warehouse in the Docklands, and the architectural library formerly held at Church House, Westminster.
There are nearly one quarter of a million books and pamphlets, and many miles of archives. It is open five days a week, including a late night on a Thursday, and one Saturday each month. See lambethpalacelibrary.info for all the details.
Some dioceses have their own library, either housed somewhere in diocesan property, or accessible through links to a local university or learning institution. This fact often comes as a surprise to dioceses, and so the libraries may take some tracking down. The quality varies wildly from major collections in specialist storage to a handful of 1970s paperbacks in someone’s office.
Most cathedrals also have some kind of library. Their books are often (but not always) historic in nature, but provide pleasant working space away from the parish, and a good supply of classic texts in handsome bindings. There are details for 45 cathedral libraries (not all Anglican) on the Cathedral Archives Libraries and Collections Association website: calca.co.uk/ecclesiastical-libraries-and-archives.
WANT a break away from the parish? Some libraries let you stay overnight. The most famous is Gladstone’s Library (formerly St Deiniol’s) in north Wales, near Chester. It offers more than 150,000 books in the humanities, particularly theology and religion, literature and literary culture, and history and politics. Special prices are available for clergy, and scholarships are also available.
Gladstone’s LibraryGladstone’s Library
SINCE 2018, the Heythrop Library’s reading room has been based in in Mayfair. Overall, the collection consists of more than 200,000 volumes on theology, philosophy, biblical studies, church history, spirituality, and allied subjects. While a solid reference library in a reading room contains about 8000 books and the latest issues of journals, the majority of the collection is in remote storage. Off-site material is usually available in 48 hours. Simple but pleasant overnight accommodation is available at the London Jesuit Centre for those using the library, and the suggested donation for a stay is extremely modest for central London. londonjesuitcentre.org/our-facilities/heythrop-library
Clemens GresserHeythrop Library
THE Community of the Resurrection in Mirfield, West Yorkshire, is another option. The Community’s library contains more than 60,000 volumes with strengths in liturgy, biblical studies, church history, the church Fathers, and material for preaching, with a “current” theology library in the College of the Resurrection, and more meditative material in the retreat house, where library readers are welcome to stay overnight.
Community of the ResurrectionThe library of the Community of the Resurrection, Mirfield
mirfield.org.uk/mirfield-centre/library-learning-resources or email email@example.com to book accommodation.
TYNDALE HOUSE, Cambridge, is an international centre for research which specialises in the languages, history, and cultural context of the Bible, and provides library access and accommodation for those working in biblical scholarship or related disciplines at a postgraduate or higher level. Their library includes more than 45,000 scholarly volumes and online resources.
Tyndale HouseThe library of Tyndale House, Cambridge
Pusey HouseThe library of Pusey HouseONLY have time for an away day? There are still theological options. Pusey House, Oxford, is an Anglo-Catholic library of some 75,000 items, with strengths in the Oxford Movement, Patristics, doctrinal theology, and liturgy. It also holds extensive archives of the Tractarians and the Oxford Movement, records of Anglo-Catholic societies and monastic orders, letters and papers of numerous notable Anglicans, and memorabilia of E. B. Pusey himself. Unlike the Bodleian Library near by, it is free to join, and open to anyone.
THE Durham Research Library seeks to enable and foster research in the three historic collections of Durham: those held by Durham Cathedral, Ushaw College, and Durham University. In addition to libraries, this includes archives, collections of visual and material culture, and architectural assets.
Evangelical LibraryThe Evangelical Library, Bounds Green, in north LondonIN NORTH LONDON, the Evangelical Library is home to more than 80,000 Evangelical books and many historic Evangelical periodicals, with emphasis on church history, doctrine, and devotional reading. It costs £25 p.a. to join, but members can borrow books, and can even have them sent directly to their home address by post. evangelical-library.org.uk
IN NORTHERN IRELAND, the beautiful Armagh Robinson Library is open to the public. An appointment made in advance for research is appreciated. Its 46,000 books mostly date from the 18th century, or earlier, but it also maintains a substantial reference library of modern secondary material. The library offers sources that include history, politics, linguistics, literature, historical theology, cartography, and genealogy.
RELIGIOUS libraries of all flavours can be found in the country by consulting the membership list of the Association of British Theological and Philosophical Libraries. Do not discount the libraries of the more obscure Bible colleges: they often have surprisingly good libraries with a decent breadth of content. If a denomination has only one library, there is a reasonable chance that it will actually be better supplied than the average Anglican theological-college library. abtapl.org.uk/resources/directory-of-institutional-members
IT IS also helpful to look at the resources of secular libraries. Universities often allow some level of public use, although there may be a charge. As a rule of thumb, the newer the university, the more generous the access. Many former polytechnics have a civic duty to educate local residents written into their founding charter. Similarly, most institutions founded as teacher-training colleges were set up in a religious framework, and their successor colleges often have a better theological library than might be expected in comparison with the size of university. Unless you are an alumnus or alumna, red-brick universities and Oxford and Cambridge are likely to be significantly less accessible.
Do not overlook the public library system. The array of religious books on the shelves may be underwhelming, but many counties have more books in storage, or can borrow items from other libraries for a small fee. They also offer access to some databases, and can loan e-books and audiobooks.
Armagh Robinson LibraryArmagh Robinson Library
At the other end of the public spectrum, huge amounts of material are available in the National Libraries: the National Library of Scotland, Edinburgh (nls.uk); the National Library of Wales, Aberystwyth (library.wales); and the British Library (bl.uk/visit/reading-rooms), which has a reading room in Boston Spa, Yorkshire, as well as its more famous counterpart in London.
Private-membership libraries often have good, if ageing, theology collections, and also provide pleasant study space, studious companionship, and some access to paid-for online resources. There will be an annual membership fee usually comparable to gym membership, but with the added benefit of not requiring participation in physical exercise.
The most famous is probably the London Library (londonlibrary.co.uk), but subscription libraries can be found in larger cities — and sometimes rather smaller habitations — around the country, from Tavistock to Crieff. Many are members of the Independent Libraries Association, whose membership list may provide some inspiration (independentlibraries.co.uk).
Before making a trip, always check the library’s website first to find out what access arrangements apply. If there is any lack of clarity, contact the librarian by email first. Some may require appointments, or membership fees, or particular documents for registration, and travelling for an hour or more only to be turned away is an easily avoidable frustration.
If you are the kind of person who still feels a bit sad when thinking about the Library of Alexandria, one of the best ways to make sure that libraries stay open in a time of austerity is by using them. This particularly applies to theological collections, which are being drastically reduced in size in non-specialist libraries, for the simple reason that they are not being used. It would perhaps be going too far to claim that improving circulation statistics of old sermons and SCM paperbacks is a form of evangelism, but it will help to ensure that theological collections are retained for use by future generations.
Anna James is the Librarian at St Paul’s Cathedral and secretary of ABTAPL.