St Paul’s Wren Library: the real chamber of secrets

CHURCHES

A £10,000 grant from Allchurches Trust is supporting the conservation of the 17th Century Wren Library at St Paul’s Cathedral – restoring its historic fabric and opening up access to visitors, as never before, to this unique heritage gem.

St Paul’s Library was completed in 1709 by Christopher Wren and is classed as being of outstanding historical significance. The library documents not only St Paul’s vast heritage, but also the development of London and the nation. It houses around 13,500 volumes, including printed books, tracts and manuscripts forming an amazing collection used extensively by researchers and beloved by members of the public. 

After 300 years of use, the library and its contents were under threat from a leaking roof and the wet heating system, which meant the gallery was visibly sagging, the books and manuscripts were in a poor state, and the library was at risk of closure.

Book and manuscript conservation

An essential part of the Wren library project is to clean and survey (for the first time) the library’s collection of texts. The most valuable items were retained for treatment, including an illuminated Book of Psalms, dating from 1200 – one of the oldest books in the library, which will take centre stage in the new ‘Treasures of the Library’ display.

2018 was the first chapter of this exciting conversation project. The library books and manuscripts were removed, packed and taken off site which allowed for the vital restoration work to take place and enabled the conservation work to begin on the collection of books.

Fast forward to 2019, and after six months of environmental monitoring of the chamber, the electrical and heating system was removed and trials undertaken for new lighting and humidistat-controlled heating systems.

In February 2020, the major work could begin and high level scaffolding was erected to create a temporary level above the library book shelves, so that contractors had unprecedented access to the chamber’s upper levels for stonework repairs and conservation, as well as access to the chamber roof for cleaning and painting – it’s believed that this is the first time that this has taken place in over 400 years!

“St Paul’s Wren Library is an important part of England’s heritage, offering an insight into our rich history and the chance to see some one-of-a-kind texts.

“We are delighted to play our part in the restoration of this most loved library and we know that it will be an invaluable resource for research and learning.” Chloe Ewen, Grants Officer for Allchurches Trust

Conservation of the book presses and gallery joinery is well on the way and following the conservation of the chamber’s tongue and groove floor – a piece of masterful craftsmanship in itself – new underfloor electrics will provide power to a new heating system, readers’ desks and a display case. This vital phase of works will conclude with the installation of new lighting, and the new systems will be trialled for a few months before the precious cargo (aka. books and manuscripts) are returned. 

The restoration of this historical gem presents a unique opportunity for the cathedral, transforming its visitors’ ability to engage with this awe inspiring collection of books and encouraging more people to visit St Paul’s. From Autumn 2021, the cathedral will open up access to its treasures for visitors on site and audiences online – including tours, films, specialist talks and school learning resources.

Although the COVID-19 pandemic has delayed the project, in July 2020 work on the library was able to safely continue and it is hoped that the library can reopen in October 2021 and offer a window into some of St Paul’s great treasures.

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