The following entry is a reprint of an open letter that I sent to librarians through my publisher Penguin/Random House. You can and download the original letter here.
It’s no secret that I love libraries. My first novel, The Bookman’s Tale, was partially set in a university library; First Impressions featured two spectacular private libraries; and my new novel, The Lost Book of the Grail, is set in an English cathedral library. Not surprisingly, I spend a lot of time visiting libraries—to read, to do research, to speak and sign books, and sometimes just to soak up the ambience that only comes from a building filled with books.
Researching The Lost Book of the Grail was especially exciting, because it took me to several cathedral libraries and gave me the chance to see books, manuscripts, and other materials rarely on public display. At Hereford Cathedral, I found the largest surviving chained library in the world. Before modern security measures, the best way to keep readers from walking away with valuable books was to chain them (the books, not the readers) to the shelves. As soon as I saw the rows and rows of ancient volumes with chains dangling from their covers, I knew I wanted to include a chained library in my novel. Those chains become problematic in the first scene, when bombs are falling near my fictitious cathedral during WWII and members of the community are trying to get the books to safety.
I didn’t visit the library at Canterbury Cathedral until after my book was finished, but when I heard that the only part of the cathedral to be destroyed by bombing during the war was the library, I realized my opening scene was even more apt than I had thought. Luckily, at Canterbury most of the valuable books and archives had been removed before the bombing raid. Inside Canterbury’s rebuilt library I saw documents dating back to the Saxon period, a contract signed by Archbishop Thomas Becket (murdered in the cathedral in 1170), and a 700-year-old musical manuscript with words in Latin that I had sung myself just a few days earlier.
At Worcester Cathedral I spent a delightful couple of hours with one of the other great treasures to be found in virtually every library—a librarian. I had signed up for a tour, but when my wife and I arrived we discovered we were the only ones in the “group.” Our guide showed us a tenth-century book still in its original binding, manuscripts with graffiti drawn in the margins by monks hundreds of years ago, medieval books on medicine and agriculture used by those living in the monastery before the Reformation, and some of the earliest printed maps of Europe. Several of the pieces she showed us made it into my novel in some form or other, but the most valuable part of the experience was just spending time in a library that traced its roots back a thousand years. While it’s true that I do some of my research online, there is no substitute for spending time being physically present in the sort of space in which I want a book to be set, and in this case Worcester Cathedral Library was the perfect place to let the feel of such a space seep into me.
Whether I’m perusing shelves of vellum and leather-bound manuscripts dating from before the time of printing, researching in a local archive, or just looking for something good to read, libraries are a part of my work and a part of my life. In The Lost Book of the Grail, Arthur and Bethany argue about the place of libraries in a changing world, but there is one thing they agree on—libraries (and librarians) are essential elements of our culture.