Canterbury Cathedral


Cressida Williams - Archives and Library Manager

Cressida Williams, Library and Archives Manager for Canterbury Cathedral, talks about the collection, which is designated as "outstanding significance to the UK” and has been given a UNESCO Memory of the World Award.

Dating back from the 8th century, the Cathedral's collection has suffered some tragedies over the years, particularly during the Reformation. However, the Library still retains an impressive collection, including material related to William the Conqueror and the Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Becket.

Cressida talks about her hopes of digitising the collections which were dispersed during the Reformation, and digitally reuniting the material that has found its way into other Archives.




Please Note: This is an automated, machine-generated transcription. We have presented this 'as is' and have not undertaken any editing.

hello and welcome to the max communications 2020 podcast a series of podcasts where we explore various organisations and collections my name is faith williams and i'm joined today by cressida williams archives and library manager with canterbury cathedral hi cressida would you like to introduce yourself and tell us about what you do at canterbury cathedral yes thank you so i lead the team of in the archives and library of the cathedral i've been here for some years now but it's it's a wonderful enriched job and there's lots to there's lots to do how do you spend an average day then well obviously we're not in average times and not in normal time so this is at the moment things are very far from normal and so if we're thinking at the moment the majority of the team is currently on furlough and the reading room is closed so we don't have users of the collections coming in today i've done some filming of contributions for local students and answered the inbox we have a work experience placement as well so it's much more i'm doing a little bit of everything at the moment but in normal times the reading room is open three days a week and tuesdays wednesdays and thursdays and it's well used and we get a good number of group visits particularly students from local universities and schools we get perhaps 100 group visits a year so that keeps us busy as well and we do get a a good a good mail mailbox many queries coming in to us about our holdings cathedral history in general that's interesting that you get school visits and what type of thing have they come for so we we have we get school visits from primary schools and typically they might be looking at the vikings and anglo-saxons so we can talk about some of our anglo-saxon holdings here particularly our charters and secondary schools we get some local schools who do medieval history at a level so they're coming for a little bit of in-depth study looking at some primary sources from the time and occasionally we get groups school groups from overseas particularly france oh do they come for different reasons or is it the same as it sort of medieval history that would tend to be medieval history canterbury's so close to the continent that schools in normal times bring groups just for the day to spend the day in canterbury learn a little bit about the language the culture and they come to the cathedral as well to learn about medieval history and not so often but we did have a school that brought repeat groups of students to look at items from the collections well that's nice that you're having an impact on younger generations what other type of queries do you get do you get academic or religious enquiries well we get a lot of academic inquiries because of the nature of the archives behold so obviously we have the archive of the cathedral canterbury cathedral which dates from the late 8th or early 9th century right up to the present day so there's a very very significant body of medieval documents in that archive and that archive has actually been recognized by unesco so it's on the unesco uk memory of the world register so that archive is invaluable for the study of medieval history not by any means church history it can be used for social history economic history and it had there are documents that relate well beyond canterbury so the cathedral held estates throughout kent throughout east anglia and it even held it even had some property in southern ireland so the geographical interest of the collection is huge oh wow so are you still adding to the collection uh yes so we aim to tell today's history to future generations so from the cathedral's point of view we continue to collect material so records of services some recordings digital photographs that sort of thing in addition to the cathedrals archive we are also the record office for the city of canterbury that's a rich collection dating from the 12th century right up to the present day and that is still added to and we are the record office or a diocesan record office for church of england parishes in eastern kent and those parishes regularly deposit new material for us so we very much still continue to collect always a challenge as that means storage space runs out physical storage space as well as digital storage space if you're part of the city orchard does that mean you have sort of records of births and deaths those kind of things well we've got records of baptisms marriages and burials as part of the parish collections so that is our key family history resource we do also have other family history related material so we do we do have burial records in the city's cemeteries for instance but for parrot for family history the key resource is parish registers you must get a lot of inquiries into them we do yes we have worked with find my past which is a major family history website so that the majority of our parish registers are available through that source but we still do get inquiries particularly from people who are just digging a little bit deeper and going beyond the sort of basics of parish register research so you've got material accessible well normally accessible in your reading room and then you digitize some of it how big is your collection do you know yes so we have perhaps one and a half to two kilometers of shelving so it's a pretty large collection for an institution of our size we have 50 000 printed books around about in our library collection so overall it's it's a significant amount and that's over a wide period of time what are the particular challenges that come with managing that sort of range well the buildings that we operate in do present their challenges because we are the main archive building is actually a 1950s building replacing a building which was destroyed by bombing in world war ii but some of our other buildings are more historic and the cathedral as a whole is grade one listed a scheduled ancient monument and part of a unesco world heritage site so we do have challenges around maintaining some of our old buildings space is very much an issue for us partly because of the the challenges of the buildings and any expansion within the site the collections themselves on the whole our environmental conditions are pretty good so our levels of humidity and our temperatures we do want monitor them extremely carefully another thing we very much keep an eye on is emergency procedures just because of the the risk because we're in quite a confined precinct there's a wall around the cathedral grounds we are a little bit difficult to access for emergency services so we're very sure that we've got our emergency procedures well rehearsed and well documented well that's something i had not thought of but you are right that is important yes it's a it's a major consideration we also aim to package our collections as well as possible partly to protect them from dirt so to keep them good and clean to make them easier to produce in the reading room and and also in the event of a disaster there's we aim to have things packaged and boxed up as well as possible what are your hopes for the future of the collection and you've mentioned there's good there will be problems with expansion so presumably that's not something that you have earmarked but are there sort of projects that you would like to go ahead with well it would be wonderful to secure more space that there's no real way forward unfortunately at the moment with that but it's something that i always keep on the agenda we enjoy sharing our collections and there are many communities in canterbury that we can share our collections with whether primary school secondary school students or university students so we'd like you to be able to share our collections as widely as possible and a way forward with that is digitization so it would be wonderful to be able to progress some more digitization projects to get a wider range of material out there and available for people to use there are some collections which require more detailed cataloging so that their content can be made available via our online catalog and that's because of the specialized nature of our some of our collections that is quite a specialized task there are collections which are in a poor state of repair so they need extensive conservation treatment and again there are some specific projects that i'd very might much like to progress in the not too distant future can you share with us what they are or are you keeping them top secret in the meantime no not at all so conservation projects there are some items which were damaged in a fire actually back in 1670 and there's one item in particular which is a religious book called a breviary which is connected quite closely with the story of saint thomas beckett canterbury's most famous saint who was martyred in 1170 so that volume at present simply cannot be consulted because it is so damaged by fire it's a parchment volume and the pages have crinkled up if you like and and welded together so it would be a major project to make that accessible again but it would be wonderful to conserve the pages open up the pages flatten the pages digitize it and share it as widely as possible and interpret it as well for a wide range of audiences so that's certainly one project another project would be to digitize some of our medieval theological works so books that were in the cathedral library in medieval times before the reformation the reformation meant that the majority of the cathedral's books were dispersed and many of them are now in other collections other books were destroyed so we don't have a huge amount at all of the medieval library here and it would be wonderful to digitize what we have and to share it and perhaps digitally reunite it with material that is now in other collections so that would be potentially a cool project with i don't know the british library or something like that to bring these materials virtually together yes absolutely but it's a wide range of institutions which hold books that were once in canterbury's library so yes it would be quite a wide collaboration and it would be fantastic to to create that virtual library if you like what is your favorite item of the collection what what do you like best of all well it's difficult to say because we have such wonderful treasures here perhaps our most famous document but not necessarily my favorite is a document which bears the autograph cross of william the conqueror so the equivalent of really william the conqueror's signature and william the conqueror made that cross in the year 1070. it's a document called the accord of winchester which establishes the superiority of the archbishop of canterbury over the archbishop of york but an item i certainly prefer to that or it's closer to my heart is a medieval pocket bible which we call the lyfield bible and it's entirely written by hand and illustrated by hand and it's not quite it's a large pocket format if you like but it's about the size of perhaps a bible that one can buy in the shops today it was produced in the late 13th century and it is the complete bible so the writing is very very small it also has a really interesting history of ownership or provenance and we know that it was owned by one of the cathedral monks right at the point of the reformation so when canterbury cathedral changed forever the reformation of henry viii changed the cathedral from being a priory so a monastery to being a secular so no no monks here institution and it's it's a very very beautiful thing it's got it's exquisitely made it's the sort of bible one can hold in one's hands so it's a lovely object to hold and it's got such an interesting story to tell and it's kind of an everyday object as well something that people would actually use and not just have sitting on their shelf absolutely so it's it's very much a possession there's a little bit of evidence of use but it was obviously very carefully looked after over the centuries but another reason why it's a favorite item of mine is that we were able to purchase it some years back so we we bought it back for the collections and that did involve some quite extensive fundraising and a lot of work to make that purchase happen but it's such a wonderful story that we were able to bring that bible back to the place where it had been held and in many ways to the place it belongs thank you so much for joining me today kresta it's been really interesting hearing what an impact your collection has been making on especially children and having numbers of school groups is really exciting and impressive for you as part of the canterbury community i really hope especially that you managed to conserve your fire damaged item from 17th century that would be very exciting to be able to finally sort of have access to the information in there wouldn't it it would be yes and there are going to be many stories to tell when those pages are reopened at last so i very much hope it's possible at some stage thank you very much chrysler that's a pleasure it's good to talk to you cheers thank you goodbye