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Archives and Special Collections: Rare and Early Printed Books: Historic libraries

Our collections

Books of all sorts for public use

Bishop Cosin's Library is an undisputed treasure among our historic book collections. Created by John Cosin, Bishop of Durham between 1660 and 1672, the books are still housed in the building erected on Palace Green in 1669. It is the earliest surviving public library in the north east of England.

Later Bishops of Durham continued to add books and manuscripts to the library. When the university was established in the 1830s, a gallery was added to house more collections. The library was also used for examinations and graduations.

In 2005, the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council (the predecessor to Arts Council England) awarded Bishop Cosin's Library Designated status in recognition of its national and international importance.

There is a separate guide to Bishop Cosin's Library where you can find more information about the collections, the building and John Cosin himself.

The arrival of Dr Martin Routh's extensive library at Durham in 1854 was an important milestone in the history of the University Library and with over 16,000 books it still is the most significant donation ever made to the university. According to the deed of gift discovered after his death, Routh was keen to support the new university, which he saw as a means of 'promoting the glory of God through the advancement of good learning' (A.I. Doyle, 'Martin Joseph Routh and his books in Durham University Library', Durham University Journal, June 1956, p. 106).

Apart from his career as President of Magdalen College in Oxford, Martin Routh (1755-1854) was a scholar of early Christian history and an enthusiastic collector of books and pamphlets in a wide range of subjects. He had an interest in bibliography, historic travel accounts, Renaissance humanism and early printed editions of Greek and Latin authors, the English civil war and early modern religious controversy. But he also kept himself informed with more recent aspects of English history.

Many of his books are annotated with background information and prices - sometimes noting with some glee that he had been able to get something cheaper than one of his fellow collectors. Among his collection are also a good number of booksellers' and auction catalogues, some of which are quite rare or - in the case of the auction catalogues - have been annotated with sale prices.

In old age, Routh acquired a reputation for eccentricity; he insisted on wearing a wig after it had stopped being fashionable and always appeared in public in full gown and cassock.


Bookplate of the Bamburgh Library

From private family book collection to public library, the Bamburgh Library tells a fascinating story about the reading habits of a family of eighteenth-century churchmen and the charity with which they became involved.

The family library has its origins in the books collected by John Sharp, Archbishop of York (1645-1714), son of a Yorkshire salter. It was then added to by his sons and grandsons before being transferred between 1779 and 1792 to the Lord Crewe’s Charity based at Bamburgh Castle on the Northumberland coast.

In the wind-swept keep at Bamburgh, the Sharps’ book collection was made available to the local community. In 1958, the Lord Crewe’s Trustees decided to deposit the early printed books at Palace Green Library.

The Bamburgh Library shines a light on sixteenth-, seventeenth- and eighteenth-century attitudes towards theology, science and learning against a backdrop of political upheaval and religious controversy. The Archbishop had an interest in natural philosophy and the collection has many publications by members of the Royal Society. His sons and grandsons were socially and politically engaged, deeply devout and musically talented. Granville Sharp, one of the Archbishop's grandsons, was involved with the abolitionist movement. Granville's older brothers John and Thomas played a key role as trustees for the Lord Crewe's Charity at Bamburgh.

We have catalogues and borrower registers from the time the Lord Crewe Trustees started to manage the Sharps' collection as a public library in 1797 up to the early twentieth century, which are a rich source of information about self-education and reading habits of the people living in and around Bamburgh.


Availability online (digital images)

These collections, with the exception of some archival materials related to Bishop Cosin's Library, have not been digitised.

If you would like to purchase digital copies of specific items from any of our collections, please use our online enquiry form.

If you are a member of teaching staff at Durham University and would like to use material from Archives and Special Collections within your lectures or seminars, we may be able to scan or photograph items for this purpose.  Please contact us as early as possible with any teaching digitisation requests.

See also our guide to Digitised Collections Online for further information on our digital resources.

Access to original sources

The collections mentioned above are located at Palace Green Library.  Our current opening hours are as follows, but see also below.

  • Monday to Friday: 10am to 4:30pm
  • Saturday: closed
  • Sunday: closed

For further information on visiting to use the collections, please use our enquiry form.

See separate Libraries and Site Information guide for further information on Palace Green Library.

Appointments are strongly recommended for all visits, please use the enquiry form to book.  Please give three working days notice when possible and include a full list of document references or shelfmarks so that we can best enable your research access.

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