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The Refectory Library

One of the hidden gems of the cathedral, the Refectory is one of the most beautiful library spaces in the North East. It is home to over 11,000 early printed books.

Where is this space?

Where is this space?

The Refectory Library is found at the top of a small set of stairs off the Cloisters.

How is it used today?

How is it used today?

The Refectory Library holds the Cathedral’s collection of 11,000 early printed books, dating from the 1500s to 1800s. It also stores historic music collections and important archives. The Refectory is also a working space for library and collections staff, such as basic conservation and collections care, or digital imaging of items from the shelves.

At present, visitors can only see this space on special events and displays of books, but we are working on opening access to this space as much as we can.



The Refectory was where the monks would eat when the Cathedral was a Benedictine Priory. This was thought to be more on Feast days, such as the Feast Day for St. Cuthbert in March, rather than for regular meals.

The Priory was dissolved in 1539, and it fell into disrepair until the 1680s. The Dean of Durham, John Sudbury (1604 – 1684) gave a lot of his own money to install the library shelves still seen today. The design of the library was inspired by the libraries at Oxford and Cambridge, which were brand new at the time.

There are 14 alphabetical bookcases. Books are stored on numbered shelves in height order. In the past, readers looked at books on the angled book rests at the bottom of each bookcase.

Between the shelves are ark-shaped stands for storing even more books, as well as for reading books standing up.


Wheelchair users and visitors with limited mobility

Due to the historic nature of Cathedral buildings, access to the Refectory Library is limited to a staircase at present.

Deaf visitors and people with a hearing impairment

At present, the Refectory is only open to visitors for special displays and events which usually have written labels and descriptions of the books on display. There is currently no induction loop functionality at present.

Blind and partially sighted visitors

Light levels in the Refectory are sometimes at a lower level to protect rare items in our collections from damage.Labels for any books on display at displays and events are printed in an accessible format.

Neurodiverse visitors

The Refectory has controls on its temperature and light levels to look after the collections, which can often mean it is colder for much of the year. Like many libraries, it does smell very strongly of old books. Only limited numbers of visitors can be in the space at once owing to its historic nature.