IT is the smell that hits you first. Musty, rich, the smell of ages. The smell of old books, thousands of them. Antonio Jimenez smiles delightedly at the expression on our faces.

“People often come in here and say this is the only library that smells like a library,” he says.

We are in the inner sanctum at the York Minster Library. The anteroom we are standing in is 19th century: but, with its book-lined walls, it is impressive enough.

It is nothing to the room Antonio, the library assistant, leads us into next, however.

This is the Old Library itself, which dates back to the 13th century, when it was the private chapel of Archbishop Walter De Gray.

Pink and gold light filters through a stained glass window and falls across the plain wooden floor and the high walls lined with books. There is space here, and air, and utter stillness. Bells toll faintly outside, accentuating the quiet.

Antonio leads us through to the back, and another narrow annexe lined with leather-bound books. There is a metal spiral staircase at the end, which leads up on to a balcony overlooking the library.

We stand in silence, absorbing the beauty of the place. I brush my hand along a row of books. Willetts Catholican, reads the spine of one, Becons Reliques of Rome, the binding of another.

There are more than 120,000 volumes in the Minster Library. They include, in the main body of the library, an extensive collective of theological books and church commentaries, but also the finest collection of books about Yorkshire in the country, plus works on art, literature and history.

There are old newspapers – including a 1774 edition of the York Chronicle, popular with American visitors because it coincides with Independence Day, says Antonio – and a wonderfully entertaining collection of old playbills. One, a Theatre Royal bill dating from August 8th 1843, is for Mungo Park: Or, The Arab Of The Niger. It includes a drawing of a man in a turban fighting off a lion and a tiger.

“Not withstanding the very serious expense of bringing Mr Carter with his animals to York, there is no extra charge for admission,” says a line beneath.

All the books in the library’s general collection are available for use by the public. There is a comfortable reading room where you can come free of charge, and you can even borrow many of the books.

“You can just come here, look at the old playbills, read the old newspapers, and have fun,” says Antonio.

Here in the Old Library, however, it is different. This houses the rare and old books collection, some of which are priceless.

Antonio takes down one slim, anonymous-looking volume. “This is one of my favourites,” he says, opening it with great care.

It is a Bible, printed in 1631 by Robert Barker. Antonio leafs through carefully to find Exodus 20:14, and the Ten Commandments. They’re all there: thou shalt not murder; thou shalt not steal. But one of the commandments contains a printing error: a ‘not’ missed out. “Thou Shalt Commit Adultery,” the Bible commands sternly.

The mistake earned this particular Bible the nickname The Wicked Bible.

“When they realised the mistake, the poor printer was fined two years salary, and they tried to burn them all,” Antonio says. Only 12 copies of that Bible now survive.

Equally precious is a magnificent 1592 Atlas, the maps hand-coloured. There is a surprisingly accurate map of the Americas, and detailed maps of each European country. Antonio turns to Spain, and picks out a small town on the east coast, Blanes. “That’s my home town,” he says.

Another Bible has a luxurious red suede cover, with ornate metalwork hinges and a gilt cross on the front. The binding was a gift from King Charles 1, Antonio says.

Then he pulls out another large, leather-bound volume. It is entitled the Tomus Novus and was printed in 1534. The flyleaf is a page of even older, beautifully handwritten manuscript.

Antonio turns to the next page. There’s a signature there that looks oddly familiar. ElizabethR, it says, the tail of the R swooping away to the right and then left. I look at it, struck with awe.

“That’s not…?” I say. Antonio nods. The signature of Queen Elizabeth I, he says. It is not 100 per cent certain, but everything fits. The book was a gift from the Queen to her friend, the Bishop of Durham. “The date is right, the handwriting is right, the style is right,” he said.

It’s quite a thought. The hand of England’s greatest monarch once traced out those words on this very page.

Keeping the books

IT IS not only old books that are kept in the Minster Library, the cathedral’s extensive collection of archives are housed there too.

Cathedral records dating back to 1150 are kept there, along with records relating to the maintenance of the fabric of the great cathedral going back to 1360.

Archivist Peter Young is also responsible for the cathedral’s magnificent collection of medieval and post-medieval manuscripts, as well as its rarer manuscript volumes hand-written on parchment.

He dons a pair of white gloves to take out of a case an ancient, hand-written letter, carefully preserved beneath a laminate sheet. It is an account of the battle of Marston Moor written by Parliamentary general Sir James Lumsden.

He has sketched out with a deft hand on the sheet of paper the dispositions of the Parliamentary forces at the battle. The tiny, crabbed writing is difficult to decipher, but Peter is, after all, an expert. He peers closely, then reads out: “The Lord Fairfax had in his wing 3,000 horse under the command of his son, Sir Thomas.”

Another treasure is the Killingholme Medicinal, a medical treatise handwritten on parchment in about 1500. Peter leafs carefully through the book. The pages are leathery, and slightly shiny: you can even see the grain of the cow or sheep-skin from which they were made.

It contains, among other things, a recipe for the treatment of lechery.

“Take hemlock on the fourth day of the new of the moon and bear it upon him, and he shall not have no lust to lechery,” it instructs.

Further in there is a urological chart – a coloured diagram showing the different colours of urine and the diseases associated with them. The three darkest colours, including black, lead to an ominous diagnosis: “These three urines betoken death!”

The archives and manuscripts are not generally open to the public, being too precious. But scholars and local and family historians wishing to do research can make an appointment to view materials by phoning 01904 611118.

Minster Library info...

The Minster Library, housed in an extended 13th century chapel in Dean’s Park behind the Minster, is open to the public from 9am-5pm. You can browse through the general collection, study the playbills and old newspapers, and use the comfortable reading room.

Library staff are happy to show you around the Old Library, although to look at some of the rarer books in the collection, you will have to make a request in advance.

Some books are so precious that they are only brought out in special circumstances.

•To find out more, phone the library on 01904 625308.