Discoveries in Durham’s Bamburgh Library

Image courtesy of Durham University.

One of Durham’s bookish treasures, the Bamburgh Library at Palace Green Library, is being made more accessible. In this first of two blog posts, Dr Danielle Westerhof introduces the Library and her role in the year-long project to uncover its secrets.

Dr Danielle Westerhof. Reach her on Twitter as @behindthespines.

The Bamburgh Library is the third largest collection Durham University cares for, with titles dating from the 15th to 19th century. We’re now at an exciting new chapter in the Library’s story. I was appointed in October 2017 to make the contents of the collection and its fascinating history more accessible to academics, students, and external researchers.

Part of my role is to enhance the records in the existing online catalogue by updating ownership and binding information, as well as making notes about annotations and any other copy specific information. Relevant works printed in English or in English speaking countries before 1800 are reported to the English Short Title Catalogue. So far, I’ve also reported two new items to ESTC, which means that we own the only copies known about in the public domain.

All of this behind-the-scenes work helps researchers to find individual items, but I also spend time talking to the local academic community and Academic Liaison colleagues, and am planning a trial of show and tell workshops for academic staff and postgraduate researchers. Meanwhile, books from the collection feature regularly in sessions supporting teaching modules.

The Bamburgh Library of around 8,500 titles came to Durham University in two stages in the early 20th century and is on deposit from the Lord Crewe’s Charity. The bulk of the collection consists of printed material brought together by successive generations of the Sharp family from the 1660s to 1792, with a smaller number of books added to the Library since then.

The first transfer happened in 1938, when the so-called ‘Bamburgh Select’ books were temporarily housed in the Chapter Library. The choice of location may have been influenced by the fact that the Archdeacon of Durham Cathedral was one of the charity’s trustees. The remainder of the books moved to Durham in 1958, where the collection was reunited in Palace Green Library. However, an important collection of 18th-century printed and manuscript music scores was deposited with the Cathedral, which also holds the modern theology collection.

Before transferring to Durham, the library had been housed at Bamburgh Castle since the late 18th century. Photo: Bamburgh Castle, by Alex Brown via Flickr (Reproduced under CC BY 2.0 licence).

Up to 1958, the library had been housed at Bamburgh Castle on the Northumberland coast, where it had been since the late 18th century. The castle, then a romantically crumbling medieval stronghold, was purchased by Nathaniel Lord Crewe and Bishop of Durham in 1704 from his second wife’s bankrupt family. Having spent a significant sum towards repairs, Crewe made the castle the focus of charitable work, formalised by the appointment of trustees after his death in 1721. One of the trustees, Thomas Sharp 1 (1693-1758) continued the repairs, but it was his eldest son John Sharp 3 (1723-1792) who left a permanent mark on Bamburgh by organising a number of welfare projects in and around the castle and by establishing a fund to maintain the building fabric of the Keep.

By 1894, the maintenance of the castle became too great a burden on the charity and the decision was made to sell the castle and village to the industrialist William Armstrong, 1st Baron Armstrong of Cragside. The library remained in the Keep, but was later transferred to the Clock Tower as part of the large scale restoration undertaken by the Armstrongs around 1900.

In Danielle’s second blog post, she picks out some of the most important books from the collection. The Bamburgh Library project is funded by the Lord Crewe’s Charity.

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