Libraries Old and New

June 29 – 30, 2016

We arrived in Durham, England, and were assigned to a residence at St. Mary’s College.  After depositing our bags, we attended an Evensong Service at Durham Cathedral.  The Cathedral is very unique and altogether exquisite in its own way.  Our visit was cut short, as we viewed where the remains of St. Cuthbert and the Venerable Bede were interred, by a voice announcing that the cathedral was about to be locked.  I regret that there was no opportunity to return.  The architecture is so special, it being a fine example of the Norman.

Leaving the Cathedral and University area where graduates and families were taking photos and generally enjoying the occasion, we went to a lovely pub with our host Jon Purcell, Library Director.  There we enjoyed an excellent meal and returned to St. Mary’s.

The following day we were introduced by Mr. Purcell to a history of Durham University, which was founded in 1832 as the third university established in England, after Oxford and Cambridge.  Oliver Cromwell had wanted to establish a university for the north of England after the overthrow of the monarchy in 1649 with the beheading of Charles I.  The Civil War ended in 1660 and it was not until almost two hundred years later that Durham University was started.  In the interim a college was set up that did not last.

The University is a member of the Russell Group, old metropolitan centers with research concentration.  According to the website,, “The 24 research-intensive, world-class universities that make up the Russell Group are all unique institutions, each with its own history and ethos, but they share some distinguishing characteristics.” Durham usually ranks between 4th and 6th after the all-time first and second places of Oxford and Cambridge.

There are a number of colleges affiliated with the University, some of which have libraries and others which do not, although Mr. Purcell is not responsible for all of the libraries. In whichever college a student begins her first year, he/she (interestingly, women were not allowed into the various colleges of the university until 1986-1987) is associated with (or “belongs to,” according to Mr. Purcell), forever. One library, Palace Green, has existed since 1668; therefore, the university already had a library upon its founding. Over the years the Palace Green Library was extended into other buildings until, finally, a “new” building had to be built in the 1950’s.

Mr. Purcell’s pride and joy is the current modern library, Bill Bryson, that was remodeled between 2009 and 2013. The library’s plan is completely open in design. As issues have come up based upon use, various changes have been made to accommodate students more adequately. Books are purchased based upon a patron-driven model. Both e-books and print books are purchased, although the library has moved mostly into e-journals from the print. The library has sixty-four laptops for checkout, and a space was converted into a total computer area based upon student complaints. When PHD students decided they wanted their own library, the third floor was re-designed for their use. However, since it receives very little use, he has asked for an extension for those particular students.

Our next stop was to the Palace Green and some very special collections. One is Bishop Cozin’s Library, beginning with his personal collection in 1666 and containing much theology and philosophy. We went also to another small special collections library and then on to the Dungeon for a look at the digitization room and learn that marvelous equipment is housed there. We were told that a Graphic Designer is also located in the Dungeon. A current digitization project is that of the Priory Library.


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