This afternoon we were given the very special opportunity to visit the library and muniments at Westminster Abbey. The library and archives consists of books, manuscripts, administrative, legal, and financial records as well as other materials related to the Abbey, many of which date back to the medieval period. Westminster Abbey is a Royal Peculiar, meaning that the church is not under the jurisdiction of the Church of England and instead is overseen by the monarch. Construction of the present abbey began in 1245 but archival records span from the 10th century to the modern-day . The library is located, in what was previously, the monk’s dormitory beside the chapter house.
The library officially began collecting in 1560, under the supervision of librarian William Camden, following the destruction of many monastic libraries by the orders of King Henry VIII during the English Reformation. Like other libraries from this period, the books are organized by size and were once chained to shelves to prevent theft. Each book is assigned a series of numbers corresponding to its exact physical location on the shelf, for efficient retrieval. John Williams, the Dean of Westminster, gave the bookcases currently located in the library’s main room in 1623. Westminster’s library holds around 14,000 early (pre 1800) books primarily pertaining to theology. The early printed books collection is closed, meaning the Abbey is not looking to add additional items, but library staff do purchase modern publications related to Westminster Abbey. Library staff members are also charged with the answering of online questions about the church and the general dissemination of the history of Westminster Abbey.
The archives, called muniments, document the administration of Westminster Abbey. Apart from the materials discussed above, the archive houses records of the Abbey’s vast land holdings, key figures in the church, as well documents relating to coronations, charters, and royal burials. Access to the library and muniments is restricted to appointment only. The library is quite small, further restricting the number of researchers able to utilize the materials. The Abbey’s archival catalogue of the medieval and early modern records in available at the library and at the Bodleian in Oxford but is not accessible online. The administration of the Abbey’s library is very similar to that of St. Paul’s Cathedral. One noticeable difference is that St. Paul’s does not house its own archive. Archive materials related to the cathedral are kept at the London Metropolitan archives.