AS the row over the return of the Lindisfarne Gospels to the North-East simmers on, the region can console itself with the fact that it is already home to a veritable treasure trove of the written and printed word.
The Palace Green library of Durham University accommodates a breathtaking collection ranging from a sheet of papyrus written in Egypt in the Second Century to the actual tiny book of poems which WH Auden gave to his fiancee.
There are 70,000 books printed before 1850 and 300 prior to 1500, plus around 100 medieval manuscripts.
The list of great rarities includes the best-preserved 11th Century service book produced in the aftermath of the Norman Conquest; the manuscript of the works of Lawrence, prior of Durham from 1149-54; one of only four surviving copies of a book by William Caxton; a unique copy of Thomas More’s first assault on Martin Luther; and four items from the workshop of the aptly-named printer Wynkyn de Worde.
The collections are not confined to books. There are the letters of the poet Gerald Manley Hopkins, and one of England’s most important political archives in the documents of the Grey family of Howick in Northumberland relating to the Great Reform Bill of 1832 which is celebrated by Grey’s Monument in the centre of Newcastle.
The Palace Green library, next to Durham Cathedral, also holds the biggest collection on Sudan outside of that country, including stunning photographs, currency signed and issued by Gordon of Khartoum, and the golden sword of the last Sultan of Darfur.
Now the extent of the collections is revealed in a new book which details 50 of the most outstanding items and which has been edited by Richard Gameson, Professor of the History of the Book at Durham University.
This brings together the studies of the many aspects of books from illumination and medieval and modern libraries through to the transition from manuscript to print.
At the historic core of the Palace Green collections is the library assembled by John Cosin, Bishop of Durham from 1660-72, and still housed in what is his original building.
The collections have been regularly strengthened by a number of additions over the years, including 8,500 items from the Bamburgh Castle library and 27,000 from the library of Martin Joseph Routh, who died in 1854 and was president of Magdalen College, Oxford.
“The treasures of the Palace Green library have been Durham’s best-kept secret,” said Prof Gameson.
“Aside from the issue of the Gospels, the North-East has spectacular manuscript treasures and we should be celebrating these fantastic items.
“The Centre for the History of the Book does celebrate these great riches. For example, there is a work of 1200 which is a masterpiece of craftsmanship which looks as good today as it did in 1200.”
Today, of course, books are everywhere and easily affordable. But it was not always so.
Palace Green, says Prof Gameson, illustrates what a luxury books once were.
“In the past books were regarded in many different ways – as art objects, repositories of information, and a luxury item which was the equivalent of a Rolls-Royce.”
This is echoed by Bill Bryson, best-selling author and Chancellor of Durham University.
He said: “Living as we do in an age in which books are cheap and available everywhere, it is easy to forget what wondrous and valued instruments they once were.
“For much of their history, books were things of beauty in their own right, and at least as valuable to their owners as furniture and paintings.
“Medieval manuscripts were not only hugely labour-intensive but were consumers of costly materials, and much the same could be said of printed books for at least their first 200 years.
“Books not only provided aesthetic satisfaction, but could also be kept for diversion, instruction, devotion and record keeping.
“So books have always been prized and one of the greatest collections in England is at Durham.”
But does the rapidly advancing age of information technology herald the last chapter for the book? Not so, says Prof Gameson.
“Electronic media sharpens our perceptions of what books can and cannot do.
“Books have dominated for centuries and will always be there because they offer qualities that no computer, CD or DVD at the moment can offer.
“The book complements what we can do with the computer, but it also offers qualities such as the layout of type on a page and portability.”
Treasures of Durham University Library edited by Richard Gameson, (Third Millennium Publishing, £9.99)