The Best Libraries in London
Bookworm or not, London’s library offering is impressive. From cosy reading nooks to incomparable grandeur or modernist edge, as with most things, the capital has got it all. Whether you’re in the market for a new study spot or just somewhere to read in peace, like Goldilocks and her porridge, these are the finest libraries in London.
Best Libraries in London
Part library, part museum, The Wellcome Collection originally began as a cabinet of curiosities belonging to a certain Sir Henry Wellcome. His huge wealth came from medicine, so it’s no surprise that this library is the obvious choice if you’re a scientist enthusiast, since it boasts one of the world’s best health and medical history catalogues. Those interested in humanities don’t leave empty-handed either: pour over books on travel, gender, witchcraft on a sofa at The Reading Room’s cosy corner. Membership is free to all, and day passes are available, but on a first-come first-served basis.
The grand dame of English libraries, The British Library has the most number of items catalogued in the world. Sprawling bookshelves across the five floors and 11 reading rooms of this spectacular Grade-I listed brick building, you’ll find a copy of every journal, periodical, book every published in the UK; 150 million items sourced from across the world are at your fingertips – as long as you’re a resident of the UK. For the most treasured and rare of the bunch, head to the Sir John Ritlat Treasures Gallery which houses the Magna Carta, Leonardo Da Vinci’s notebook and the original copy of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, scrawled in the handwriting of C.S. Lewis himself.
An authority in all things pretty and historical, it’s no shock that the Victoria and Albert Museum houses a particularly beautiful library. Upon entrance you’ll find art and fashion students reading up on fine art and design, painting, textiles, furniture, print and sculpture on the dark wood desks dotted around the Reading Room overlooking the John Madejski Garden. Members of the public are welcome to browse (quietly) and once sufficiently inspired head to the adjoining museum for an extra dose of art.
Grand and striking, King’s College’s Maughan Library stands proudly in Holborn as part of the university’s Strand Campus. Pretty as a picture, the 19th century neo-gothic building has been featured in a handful of iconic films – you’ll likely recognise the beautiful dodecagonal Reading Room with its glass-domed atrium from The Da Vinci Code. Bibliophiles will delight at the sheer volume of books towering above you from every direction. As a university library, entry is strict but keep an eye out for university tours to get a glimpse into this book haven.
Although The Wellcome Trust’s specialty is a little niche – medical history – the library has a wealth of other resources that cover an array of esoteric topics including Ancient Egypt, if you’re looking to branch out from your usual murder mystery. What it’s lacking in grandeur and history, the Wellcome Trust more than makes up for in comfort and cosiness; abundant in floor cushions, snug nooks and a welcoming atmosphere (no one is going to pass ag glare at you if you sneeze), it’s the perfect place to cuddle up with a book (second best only to your bed). Poetry readings and art exhibitions are also regularly on the agenda here.
Another university library for the books (pun definitely intended), The School of Oriental and African Studies’ library bids adieu to the lacquered wood and leather , instead a mid-century Brutalist masterpiece courtesy of Denys Lasdun. Grey panelling is made less boring with touches of bronze aluminium trim, glinting in the light given off by the pyramid shaped ceiling fixtures. Architecture aside, the library houses more than 1.2 million volumes and electronic resources, attracting scholars from all over. General public can apply for reference and borrowing memberships – although you’ll have to get there early to vie for a spot amongst the hordes of students.
Although not strictly an academic library, eating carrots will most definitely be frowned upon in what is predominantly studying territory. The Grade II listed building stand tall and pretty in the famously fancy Kensington area, and while interiors are nothing special, Kensington Central is a brilliant space to buckle down and get some work done – plus within walking distance to Whole Foods for a study break lunch. Forewarning, however, if you’re looking to get a spot during exam period you’re looking at an early wake-up call.
For all London queries or really all things London related at all, Guildhall Library should be your first port of call. Founded by Lord Mayor Dick Whittington in the 1420s, despite a huge loss of books in a World War II bombing, the library still boasts the world’s largest collection in the world of material dedicated to the history of a single city; manuscripts, prints, maps, drawings and printed books dating back to the 11th century line the shelves. While admittedly not holding a broad appeal, Guildhall Library’s esoteric offering will be the perfect fit for those existing in the cross-section between history buffs and London lovers.
Film buffs need look no further than the BFI Reuben Library on the Southbank. A modern but welcoming atmosphere sets the scene for an afternoon spent trawling through books, journals and digitised material on the history of cinema. The library prides itself particularly on its comprehensive tracking of the moving image in Britain but you can also find international resources if you’re looking. Southbank Centre Food Market is primely situated for snack breaks and sugar fixes to keep you going.
Boasting over 1 million books and a fascinating history dating back to 1841 when Scottish historian Thomas Carlyle proposed a new lending Library be established in the city, St. James’s The London Library is one of the capital’s finest. Writers such as Rudyard Kipling, Agatha Christie and Virginia Woolf are said to have been members, while T.S. Eliot became president of the library in 1952. Inside, you’ll find all sorts of rooms dedicated to art and literature, from reading and writing rooms, to the Grade II listed book stacks.
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