Durham Cathedral Library descends from the library of the monastery founded on Lindisfarne by St Aidan in 635. When the community left Lindisfarne in 875, the monks took with them relics of St Cuthbert, and a number of books. These probably included the famous manuscript now known as the Lindisfarne gospels. The community settled at Chester-le-Street in 883, where it continued to acquire books. In 995 it moved to Durham, where it built the 'White Church' completed in 1017.


In 1083 the Bishop of Durham, William of St Calais, founded a Benedictine priory to replace the community which had served the White Church and shrine of St Cuthbert. The new priory inherited books from all these predecessors, including 7th and 8th century manuscripts of Northumbrian origin, some of which are still in the Cathedral Library today. The priory gradually amassed a substantial library, including books written in its own scriptorium. Most books were housed in the Spendement off the west cloister, cupboards in the north cloister, and (from the early 15th century) a new library room above the east cloister.


After the dissolution of the monastery in 1539, some of the contents of the Library were dispersed. The Cathedral was re-founded under a Dean and Chapter who inherited what survived of the priory's collection of manuscripts and printed books. Further severe losses occurred in the later 16th century, including the Lindisfarne Gospels (now in the British Library; a facsimile is on display in the Cathedral Treasury). Nonetheless, over 300 manuscripts and some 60 printed books from the monastic collection still remain in the Cathedral Library today.

Initially the Library was rather neglected but, thanks to the initiative of John Cosin and other canons, it was reformed in the 1620s. During the civil war and Interregnum it suffered less depredation and dispersal than many other cathedral libraries. After the Restoration, the former monastic refectory was restored and fitted out as a library by Dean Sudbury, and the old library room above the east cloister ceased to be used for library purposes. The book collection grew rapidly, both by purchase and gift, and by 1676 the stock had increased to almost 1000 volumes.

The collections expanded substantially in the 18th century with less emphasis on theology and more on antiquities, history, travel, topography, and natural history. In 1742 the library received the important bequest of the music books and scores of Philip Falle, and in 1757 the Dean and Chapter bought the manuscripts (ca. 150 volumes) collected by the local antiquary Dr. Christopher Hunter, including several which had once belonged to the medieval priory library.

Between 1823 and the end of the century a number of important additional collections of local antiquaries were acquired (Allan, Longstaffe, Raine, Randall, and Sharp MSS, and, a little later, the Surtees MSS). The Library began to outgrow the Refectory. In 1849-54 the former monastic Dormitory was restored and fitted out as a library.


The Library's steady growth continued in the 20th century. Significant developments include the transfer to the Cathedral Library in the 1930s of the Durham part of the Archdeacon Sharp Library, followed by the music manuscripts and printed scores from the Bamburgh Castle Library which are also owned by the Lord Crewe Trustees, The German language Meissen Library was established in the 1990s through gifts from the German Protestant Church but has recently been transferred to the University Library.

In the twenty first century, as alternative library provision in the region has increased, the range of subjects covered by new acquisitions is being coordinated with other local theological libraries and has been gradually narrowed. Acquisitions for the Chapter Library are now concentrated on the cathedral itself (history, architecture, liturgy, music), its contents and collections, and the region it serves, and on major reference works and critical studies to set those topics in their wider contexts.