Meet the woman who cares for Norfolk's 'little treasure trove'

Dr Gudrun Warren, librarian at Norwich Cathedral. Pictures: Brittany Woodman

Dr Gudrun Warren, librarian at Norwich Cathedral - Credit: Brittany Woodman

“There’s this whole, huge world that opens up when you open up one of these books,” says Dr Gudrun Warren. 

Since 2003, she has been librarian and curator of the library at Norwich Cathedral and has more than 30,000 books in her care.  

There are around 25,000 volumes in its theological collection. And the historic collection is home to 8,000 ancient texts, which date back to the 15th century. 

Dr Gudrun Warren, librarian at Norwich Cathedral. Pictures: Brittany Woodman

Dr Gudrun Warren, librarian at Norwich Cathedral - Credit: Brittany Woodman

“I was a great reader when I was young, I always had a book on the go,” says Dr Warren.  

“Being surrounded by them is such a joy, and this sort of historic collection I find particularly inspiring, because there’s something about the whole structure of the books and the history - it reaches you back to people long since gone, and some of the books tell you stories about the people that have owned them in the past.” 

As Dr Warren explains, there’s been a collection of books on the site since the cathedral and monastery were founded in 1096.  

“Because it’s a Benedictine monastery, Benedict’s rule says that any monastery should have certain books, so the books you need for services, obviously the bible, but then Benedict also expected his monks to read other things like the Church Fathers, so people like St Basil is one of the names that he actually says in the rule.  

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“And we know from surviving letters from Herbert de Losinga, the founding bishop, that right from the beginning he was putting together a collection of books for the cathedral priory.” 

Around the cloister you can see the remains of cupboards where some of the books were originally kept. 

“Then what happens is a gradual development in the way that books are kept and that people start bringing their books together in a room that becomes known as the book room, the library room, and we know that there was something like that at Norwich by the latter part of the 15th century," Dr Warren explains. 

“The library does seem to have suffered at the period of the Reformation,” she continues.

“But by the latter part of the 17th century, there’s a very definite move made to re-establish a library collection,” she says. 

The library has been located above the South Walk of the cloister since 1913 and was expanded in the early 2000s. To enable people to enjoy the collection, the library is open to the public three days a week.

Dr Gudrun Warren, librarian at Norwich Cathedral

Dr Gudrun Warren, librarian at Norwich Cathedral - Credit: Brittany Woodman

The oldest printed book in the historic collection dates back to 1474 – The Divine Institutes by Lactantius, who was writing in around the 4th century. 

“It was printed in Italy in 1474 and the moveable type printing press was invented in about 1450, so it really is quite an early one,” says Dr Warren. 

One of the most interesting books is a Book of Common Prayer, which was published in 1845. 

“Although it’s a printed book, it is decorated almost as if it’s an illuminated manuscript,” says Dr Warren.  

“It’s got decorations around the sides of the pages, it’s got full page images every so often, and to me it shows how somebody who’s producing a book wants it to be something that you would treasure as an object to handle, so it’s not only putting the contents in an appropriate form, it’s giving you something that you could really enjoy holding and using.” 

In addition to theological texts, the cathedral library is also home to a large collection of important local books – including a three-volume first edition of the Paston Letters, a collection of correspondence between the prominent Norfolk family which gives a glimpse into life during the Wars of the Roses and the early Tudor period.  

Dr Gudrun Warren, librarian at Norwich Cathedral. Pictures: Brittany Woodman

Dr Gudrun Warren, librarian at Norwich Cathedral. - Credit: Brittany Woodman

Other highlights of what Dr Warren describes as a “little treasure trove” include clergyman and antiquarian Francis Blomefield’s history of Norfolk and works by members of the cathedral clergy, right up to Pevsner’s Buildings of England. 

It is tantalising details hidden within the pages, such as handwritten dedications and annotations to the texts, that bring the past to life. 

One example Dr Warren gives is a 17th century book which has been owned by a whole series of well-known local families. 

“Anna Gurney, of the Gurney family, who was cousin to Sarah Buxton, of the Buxtons, were cousins. Anna has given the book to Sarah and they have given it later to their friend, Elizabeth Wilson, who married into the Upcher family, who had Sheringham Park and it goes down the Upcher family,” she says.  

“So, in one page there we’ve got at least three important Norfolk families represented and an understanding of how they interacted with each other. And the sense that as a book it’s something that people want to give from one person to another – they're handing on a book that is an old book and building up its history in doing so.” 

Dr Gudrun Warren, librarian at Norwich Cathedral. Pictures: Brittany Woodman

Dr Gudrun Warren looking over some of the historic books in the Norwich Cathedral Library collection - Credit: Brittany Woodman

Dr Warren also looks for signs of use to give her clues about a book’s history.   

“It’s one of the things that if somebody came into a library today and started marking the books I would get very angry with them.

"But when you open a book that’s several hundred years old and see people’s markings in it then it’s actually telling you something about how the book was used and who used it.” 

The ways in which the books are made and constructed also give a fascinating glimpse into the past. They vary in size from huge volumes to tiny (literally) pocket books about an inch high. 

“I think publishers produced them just to demonstrate their skill in being able to produce the tiniest things possible. 

“They have tiny, tiny type, and bear in mind that all this type has to be cast or laid. There are so many implications of having a little book like this that,” she says. 

Other hints can be found in the book’s construction and binding – one example that Dr Warren takes from the shelf shows what a book would have looked like bought from the printer. 

“The printer would cover the text block in this slightly stiffened card, just to protect it, then you could take it to a binder who would cover it in something like calf skin. The other clue that you’ve got there that this hasn’t been through the process is that these edges are very uneven – part of the binding process is actually to trim off those edges. 

“The spine is not covered on this one, which at one level means there’s been a deterioration of the covering material, but then it means that you can actually see the whole structure of the book and the way the text book is actually sewn together.

"So, in a way, not having everything in perfect condition means that we have another way of looking at the collection.” 

Dr Gudrun Warren, librarian at Norwich Cathedral. Pictures: Brittany Woodman

There are around 8,000 books in Norwich Cathedral Library's historic book collection - Credit: Brittany Woodman

Of course, to preserve the important collection for future generations, conservation and keeping the books in their current condition is an important part of Dr Warren’s work.  

She keeps a close watch for any environmental changes which could affect the delicate pages – and, with the help of the cathedral’s volunteers, they’re in the middle of a long-term cleaning project. 

“The shelf gets cleaned with a mixture of methylated spirit and water to make sure that’s nice and clean and then the books get cleaned – the dust, which can provide food for insects, is brushed off them,” explains Dr Warren.  

One of the volunteers helping with Norwich Cathedral Library's book cleaning project

One of the volunteers helping with Norwich Cathedral Library's book cleaning project - Credit: Brittany Woodman

“It also means that we can check the books to see what kind of condition they’re in and make sure that we haven’t got issues with things like mould. If we find any then I tend to get a professional conservator to have a look at it. 

“We’re making the books nicer to handle and showing them a bit of love and care. We started about five years ago now and we’re just over half way through, so it’s a long, slow job and the kind of thing that when we get to the end we could just start again.” 

Dust is removed from the books using a type of vacuum cleaner

Dust is removed from the books using a type of vacuum cleaner - Credit: Brittany Woodman

Norwich Cathedral Library is open to the public on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays from 10am-4pm.  

For more information visit cathedral.org.uk/learning/library