Palace Green Library – Durham, England - Atlas Obscura

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Palace Green Library

Durham University

This library dates back to the late 17th century and was one of the first public lending libraries in England.  


The Palace Green Library sits adjacent to the Durham Cathedral and Castle and was once the city’s market square. The library was the University of Durham’s main library for 150 years until a new building was constructed. The old library was turned into a repository for the University’s archives and collection of historic books.

The library contains well over 70,000 pre-1850 books (including several that are pre-16th century), 30,000 maps and prints, and 100,000 photographs. The building is open to the general public and in addition to its library functions, also houses space for temporary exhibitions and two small permanent exhibitions (on the first floor). One exhibit details the history of Durham, while the other is a small military museum dedicated to the Durham Light Infantry (DLI).

The temporary exhibition space is known as the Dennyson Stodart Gallery. It operates a one-way system of entry and exit. As visitors leave the gallery, they emerge opposite the library’s bookbinding and conservation workshop. It’s possible to look through the window for a glimpse of the important conservation work carried out in the library. In 2013, the gallery was used to display the Lindisfarne Gospels, including St Cuthbert’s Gospel, Europe’s oldest intact book. It was purchased in 2012 jointly by the Durham Cathedral, the University of Durham, and The British Library for £9 million. In January 2020, the gallery displayed sketchbooks from famous local artist and former coal miner, Norman Cornish.

The library was originally founded by Bishop John Cosin during the 17th century and was the first public lending library in Northeast England. Along with the 15th century Exchequer Building next door, both buildings became the basis of the University’s library system during the 1850s. Although tied to the university, it retained its public lending function.

A purpose-built library was added onto the structure in 1858. These three buildings formed the main part of the Palace Green Library until a further extension was erected in 1968. The Cathedral’s Diocesan Registry (built in 1822) was incorporated into the Palace Green Library in 1978. These buildings are now recognized as part of the Durham Cathedral and Castle UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Know Before You Go

The library is open 11 am-3 pm Wednesday to Sunday, plus Bank Holiday Mondays (except Christmas). Access is only via steps. Consult the website for other options, and for booking details.

A regular bus runs from the Durham railway station to the Cathedral. Admission is free except for special exhibitions. In 2020, the adult charge for the Norman Cornish exhibition was only £2. 

Anyone may consult the university's amazing special collections once they have completed the registration process and signed up to the library's rules.

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February 21, 2020

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