honeycomb slide

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Not So ‘Strange’ After All

Like many people, I saw the new Doctor Strange movie in theaters this weekend. I expected a fun, visually exciting film (which I got); but I wasn’t expecting a lot of library screen time, so needless to say, I was pleasantly surprised! Without spoiling anything, the library is the scene of some important plot developments, and features some very interesting set pieces, including books chained to a honeycomb-like sliding rack alongside the more traditional bookshelves.

While the sliding rack may not have been recognizable to librarians of old, the practice of chaining books certainly was. From the Middle Ages to the late 17th century, books were expensive and precious objects that weren’t allowed to be removed from the library willy-nilly. However, due to both their value as objects and as containers of knowledge, books were under a very real threat of being borrowed for reference and never returned. Initially, books were kept in large locking chests for security, but as libraries began to expand, the chests no longer provided enough room for storage and the books had to be moved onto open shelves. And so, much like dogs kept on a leash to prevent them from running off, the books were chained to the shelves.

It is unclear exactly when and where the first books were chained, but the practice caught on all over Europe.The chains were linked to a metal rod that ran the length of the shelf, which meant that in order to reference the books, readers were literally “chained” to the spot! To remedy this, desk areas were often placed in front of the chained shelves, such as these in the chained library of Hereford Cathedral.

There are some lovely examples of chained libraries that survive today, such as that of Hereford and a smaller one in Chetham’s Library in Manchester. If you get a chance, pay one a visit! It’s amazing to see a snapshot of what a medieval reader would’ve been faced with when entering a library. However, if you can’t make it to Europe, at least you can get a peek of the concept and feeling in Doctor Strange!