The history of Salisbury Cathedral’s library starts in the 11th century at the Cathedral’s original site on the outskirts of Salisbury, today known as Old Sarum. There, Saint Osmund (Bishop of Salisbury 1078-1099) established a scriptorium dedicated to the copying of manuscripts for the Cathedral’s own use. Many of these manuscript books survive in the Library today forming a continuous link between the original and present sites of the Cathedral. Today the Cathedral library is housed in a room over the East Cloister accessible by a stone spiral staircase of 37 steps. The library room was built in 1445: before then there was no purpose built space to house the Cathedral’s growing collection of manuscript and early printed books.
The Dean and Chapter resolved at a meeting in 1445 that it: 'was desirable for divers reasons to have suitable schools for lectures, together with a library for the safe keeping of books and the convenience of those who wish to study them, which library up to the present time they have been without, such schools and library shall be built as soon as possible over one side of the cloister of the church.'
Henry VI donated 30 oak trees from the Royal forests for the original bookcases, and the Dean and Chapter gave a cope to the Abbess of Shaftesbury in return for her nuns having granted a quarry at Tisbury to provide stone for the new library. Henry VI’s head has been carved in stone to the left of the library door and on the right hand side of the library door is the stone effigy of the head of Bishop Richard Beauchamp. The library was originally twice the size that it is today and stretched the whole length of the East Cloister with the far end being used as a lecture theatre and the near end for housing books.
Originally, as was common in many libraries, the books were chained to the shelves and many of the medieval book chains have survived. The chains were sufficiently long enough to allow the books to be taken from the shelves and read but not removed from the library itself, thus preventing theft. The practice of chaining books became less popular as printing increased and books became less expensive.
In 1758 the far end containing the lecture theatre was removed as the cloisters were unable to bear the weight of the room above. The result was the room we have today. In the 1970s another a major renovation took place when the current bookcases were made in situ by the Cathedral’s carpenters from Elm trees felled in the Close in the 1970s due to Dutch Elm Disease.