A chained library is a library where the books are attached to their bookcase by a chain, which is sufficiently long to allow the books to be taken from their shelves and read, but not removed from the library itself. This practice was usual for reference libraries (that is, the vast majority of libraries) from the Middle Ages to approximately the 18th century, as books were extremely valuable during this period. The chains were used to provide sufficient security.
It is standard for chained libraries to have the chain fitted to the corner or cover of a book. This is because if the chain were to be placed on the spine the book would suffer greater wear from the stress of moving it on and off the shelf. Because of the location of the chain attached to the book (via a ringlet) the books are housed with their spine facing away from the reader with only the pages' fore-edges visible (that is, the 'wrong' way round to people accustomed to contemporary libraries). This is so that each book can be removed and opened without needing to be turned around, hence avoiding tangling its chain.
The earliest example in England of a library to be endowed for use outside an institution such as a school or college was the Francis Trigge Chained Library in Grantham, Lincolnshire, established in 1598. The library still exists and can justifiably claim to be the forerunner of later public library systems. Marsh's Library in Dublin, built 1701, is another non institutional library which is still housed in its original building. Here it was not the books that were chained, but rather the readers were locked into cages to prevent rare volumes from 'wandering'. There is also an example of a chained library in the Royal Grammar School, Guildford as well as at Hereford Cathedral.
Chained libraries in popular culture
- In Terry Pratchett's Discworld series of comic fantasy novels, the library of the magical Unseen University also has a number of chained books—however, in this case the purpose of the chains is to prevent the more vicious magical books from escaping or attacking passers-by.
- David Williams has written a mystery, Murder in Advent, that features a chained library.
- In the film Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, the Restricted section of the library features chained books.
- Heald, Tim. "David Williams obituary". The Independent. Retrieved 10 November 2010.
- Streeter, B. H. The Chained Library: a survey of four centuries in the evolution of the English library. London: Macmillan, 1931.
- Alston, Robin. Library history database: chained libraries (covering England)
- The Mappa Mundi and Chained Library at Hereford Cathedral — accessed 26 June 2011
- Chetham's Medieval Library - Manchester, England[dead link]
- Wimborne Minster Chained Library — accessed 6 January 2007
- Oriel College Library — accessed 12 March 2007[dead link]
- A chained library surviving at a school (The Royal Grammar School, Guildford) — accessed 6 January 2007
- Another school's chained library (Bolton School Boys Division) — accessed 6 January 2007[dead link]
- Chain Reaction: The Practice of Chaining Books in European Libraries - An overview of the practice of chaining libraries — accessed 6 January 2007
- Marsh's Library - accessed 15 December 2007