Did you know that St Paul’s Cathedral has a library? You probably didn’t because it’s not something that is normally open to the public. In fact, it’s in a part of the cathedral that is rarely open to the public – the Triforium. The Triforium is essentially St Paul’s attic. It’s where they keep the bits and bobs that aren’t on public display; such as the scale wooden model that Sir Christopher Wren made to show the King his plan for his new cathedral. The model was amazing, but what I really fell in love with was the library.
We almost didn’t see it – as the tour guide thought it was closed. But it was open. When the big wooden doors creaked open, we were treated to a room awash in late afternoon golden sunshine and the most marvelous old book smell. The tannin from hundreds of old leather books, carefully preserved across the centuries. A mixture of old leather, paper, and ink. If you could bottle the smell, it would make an excellent perfume for book nerds. The room is filled wall to wall with old books, with only a few dating back to before the cathedral was constructed. But many were donated as part of a massive collection.
Our little group was surprised to see there was a man in there, bespectacled as you would expect, behind a computer screen. He was both excited and alarmed to see people in his ecclesiastical sanctuary. It looked like we were interrupting his day, but he dutifully jumped up to give us an ad-hoc tour of this quiet, and private domain. It was just us and the books. Artifacts from the cathedral’s history were scattered across tables, in a seeming unorganized jumble. Busts and statues of the men who built the library or donated books to it look down from various aspects.
The library’s original collection was mostly destroyed in the Great Fire of London in 1666. Wren’s library chamber was restocked by the Commissioners for rebuilding St Paul’s: They bought collections, including valuable Bibles and liturgical texts, and were fortunate to receive a generous bequest in 1712 of nearly 2,000 volumes from the library of Henry Compton, late Bishop of London. In 1783, the library of John Mangey, Vicar of Dunmow and Prebendary of St Paul’s, was added. In the 19th century, extensive collections of ecclesiastical tracts and pamphlets were brought in.
The library is two stories high, with books stacked as high on old wooden shelves as they can be. Everything looks cataloged and organized; I suspect the life’s work of several generations of librarians. The scale of the place is a sight to behold, tucked away in the massive stone arches of the cathedral that Wren build. It’s truly a remarkable place, filled with treasures beyond compare. The librarian talked to us about the books in the collection and how they care for them, ensuring that they survive the ravages of decay. I don’t remember anything he said because I was in complete awe of the place.
I think about that library often. It is a place of dreams.
The library is included on tours of the Triforium, which have to be booked in advance. But the library is currently closed due to a multi-year refurbishment. Check here for updates: https://www.stpauls.co.uk/visits/visits/guided-tours