Norfolk Heritage Centre

The Norfolk Heritage Centre, situated on the second floor of the Norfolk and Norwich Millennium Library, in the Forum building in the very heart of Norwich, is home to a magnificent collection of Renaissance books — one of the city’s least known, but most valuable treasures.

This impressive collection has its origins in the Norwich City Library, which was founded in 1608 by the city’s mayor, Sir John Pettus (1550-1614), whose house you can still walk by on picturesque Elm Hill. Norwich City Library was the first public library to be established in England outside of London, and this significant collection still remains in public ownership today.Originally housed in Blackfriars Hall in the centre of the city, and intended for the use of Norwich’s clergy, the library has been expanded over the centuries, most notably thanks to the addition of a large number of books collected by Jeremiah James Colman (1830-1898), whose family created and manufactured the city’s celebrated mustard. To read more about the Norwich City Library, don’t miss the pioneering and foundational study by Clive Wilkins-Jones, Norwich City Library 1608-1737 (The Norfolk Record Society, 2008).

The collection contains thousands of volumes, ranging from impressive illustrated books from the earliest years of the printing press, through to spectacular works of Renaissance history, map-making, literature and religion, including copies of some of the most influential translations of the Bible. Several of the books contain unique handwritten annotations or ‘marginalia’, written by some of their earliest readers, which offer us fascinating insights into the ways these readers engaged with the very same texts we can hold in our own hands today, so many centuries later. The collection also includes many books with specifically East Anglian connections, including the very first book ever printed in Norwich, which was printed in Dutch for the ‘Strangers’ community of Huguenot refugees. For more information about the library’s contents and to find out how to access the rare books collection for yourself, please visit the NHC’s website.