Few pleasures match the beauty and sanctity of these gorgeous libraries.
Ahh, libraries. Not only are they invaluable repositories of history and knowledge, but they also look damn good if you catch them on camera (posing with a book is entirely optional). As one of the most important cultural centres on Earth, as well as the setting for countless literary classics, London’s libraries are some of the finest around, whether they be Victorian classics or boldly modern. Feast your eyes upon our guide to the most amazing libraries in London, but don’t forget to return your books on time… (Featured image: @alixelay)
1. The Maughan Library
This one can only be admired from the outside (unless you’re a King’s College London student, or manage to get in during Open House Weekend), but boy is it a piece of eye candy. The nineteenth-century Grade II-listed neo-gothic building was designed by Sir James Pennethorne and built in 1851. The library’s rather splendid dodecagonal reading room has made an appearance in The Da Vinci Code, amongst others, but is more often used as a study space. A £35m renovation made the Maughan the largest new university library built in the UK since World War II, so perhaps it’s worth going back to university for?
100-113 Chancery Lane, WC2A 1PL. Nearest station is Chancery Lane. More info here.
2. Bethnal Green Library
Bethnal Green Library will celebrate its 100th birthday in 2022, which means this place is sporting a fair amount of Edwardian flair. The blue-hued central space is flooded with natural light from the huge skylights, whilst the wood-panelled entrance hall seems to transport you back in time. It’s earned that Grade II-listed status, for sure.
3. The London Library
The London Library is one of the world’s largest lending independent libraries, and a veritable literary institution. It’s also rather a e s t h e t i c, too. Founded in 1841, the library holds a remarkable collection of over one million books and periodicals, with some 8000 new volumes added annually. A yearly subscription fee of £500 may seem a little steep, but that’ll get you access to some astonishing rarities, an eclectic mix of titles, and the chance to rub shoulders with your fellow members, amongst them an embarrassment of literary giants. Plus, a recent appearance in Killing Eve has given it a certain millennial cache.
14 St James’s Square, SW1Y 4LG. Nearest station is Piccadilly Circus. More info here.
4. Senate House Library
Nothing pairs quite so well with a good book as an insanely comfortable chair. And those studded leather armchairs you can see make for as fine a place as any to while away the hours in the company of Mrs Dalloway, Frodo Baggins, Captain Nemo, or any other literary friends you might wish. Day tickets and summer memberships are available, but students at the University of London get free rein since it’s their main library. The building’s austere exterior has also appeared in Batman Begins, which I suppose is why the bat signal was beamed onto Senate House last year.
Malet Street, WC1E 7HU. Nearest station is Russell Square. More info here.
5. Guildhall Library
No copies of Pride and Prejudice here, but instead you’ll be best with something equally valuable: one of the most complete histories of London to be found. Over 200,000 titles fill the shelves of Guildhall Library, aiming to provide an all-encompassing look at the life and times of our city – whether that be through seventeenth century cookbooks, Victorian pamphlets, or trade directories. The library is an invaluable tool for historical research, especially if you’re interested in Samuel Pepys, Thomas More, or John Wilkes, as it hosts special collections dedicated to each.
Aldermanbury, EC2V 7HH. Nearest station is St Pauls. More info here.
6. The British Library
No self-respecting list of London libraries is complete without it, really. The British Library is the national library of the United Kingdom, boasting a whopping 170 million items – including artefacts from every age of written civilisation, which is damn impressive. The library doesn’t rest on its laurels, either, as three million new items join the collection each year. Anyone is welcome to visit (although the Reading Rooms are for members only), and the library’s inner six-storey glass tower, which was inspired by Yale University’s Beinecke Library, has become a rather photogenic addition. The tower is home to the the King’s Library, accommodating 65,000 printed volumes, 19,000 pamphlets, and manuscripts and maps collected by King George III between 1763 and 1820. Cheers George!
96 Euston Road, NW1 2DB. Nearest station is Kings Cross St Pancras. More info here.
7. Kensington Central Library
Another Grade II-listed spot, Kensington Central Library was built on the site of a grand old house destroyed during the blitz. Dark wood and sumptuous stripy pillars provide the aesthetic appeal – although the design did provoke protests during construction – and regular events for adults and kids make it an excellent community library.
8. SOAS Library
Looking a little like it’s tumbled out of an Andreas Gursky photograph, the School of Oriental and African Studies’ library is a mesmerising labyrinth of concrete and paper. Architect Denys Lasdun is the man behind the striking design, all Brutalist efficiency and stark lighting, but it certainly catches the eye. Furthermore, 1.3 million volumes are housed here, a collection which is important enough to draw scholars from all over the world.
Thornhaugh Street, WC1H 0XG, Nearest station is Russell Square. More info here.
9. The National Art Library
The pictures really do it justice; The National Art Library is breathtaking. Ornate, gilded, and with a muted green palette throughout, it’s understandably quite popular with the Instagram set. Housed on the first floor of the Victoria & Albert Museum, it acts as London’s major public reference library for the fine and decorative arts. You’ll find books on prints, drawings, woodwork, textiles, and metalwork here – if you can tear your eyes away from the decor, of course. Best of all, it’s free to use for all members of the public!
Cromwell Road, SW7 2RL. Nearest station is South Kensington. More info here.
10. The Wellcome Library
The Wellcome Collection is well worth a visit anyway, what with the though-provoking exhibitions, historical medical artefacts, and really top-notch cafe, but their beautiful library is the icing on the cake (do indulge in the cafe’s options, whilst we’re on the subject). The library deals with the subject of health and medical history, and you can join whether you’re a budding doctor or just a curious mind. Expect books on everything from gender and obesity to alchemy and witchcraft here!
183 Euston Road, NW1 2BE. Nearest station is Euston Square. More info here.
11. BFI Reuben Library
Another specialist library, the BFI Reuben Library is – rather unsurprisingly – dedicated to films, TV, and the moving image. Sure, there’s plenty of books here about the craft and history of film, but dedicated viewing stations around the joint will let you dive into the BFI’s vast back catalogue of films. Special events are a frequent occurrence, and since the library is free to use, we’d strongly advise paying a little visit.
Belvedere Road, SE1 8XT. Nearest station is Waterloo. More info here.
12. Peckham Library
A controversial choice, perhaps, but fans of modern architecture will find a lot to love about this library. Peckham Library’s unusual shape and striking colours make for an eye-catching building that has become very popular with the local community. The L-shaped, copper-clad building is rather popular with the architecture lot too, having scooped the prestigious Stirling Prize back in 2000. Check out the view from the rear, as coloured glass panels transform your view of the city skyline.
122 Peckham Hill Street,
13. Canada Water Library
Come for the jazzy tiling and zigzagging shelves, stay for the cool, wood-enclosed spiral staircase. Canada Water Library may lean rather precariously over the water, but the bronzed, hexagonal exterior hints at the flair interiors, which lend themselves perfectly to a little photoshoot. A full programme of events, including creative writing groups, author talks, and English language classes are a nice draw, and with a 150-seat performance space on the ground floor, there’s plenty of room for events. Still, those interiors – libraries really are just an excuse for architects to go wild, aren’t they?
14. The National Poetry Library
Less aesthetic than some of the libraries on our list, the National Poetry Library makes the grade thanks to the fact that it’s the largest public collection of poetry in the whole world. It was founded in 1953, and opened by T.S. Eliot, but relocated to its home at Southbank Centre in 1988, when Seamus Heaney was roped in for cake-cutting duties. You’re allowed to take books out on loan, but since they’ve got bean bags scattered throughout, I’d suggest you grab some Carol Ann Duffy and curl up right here.
Level 5, Royal Festival Hall, Southbank Centre, SE1 8XX. Nearest station is Waterloo. More info here.
If you’re as mad about books as we are, you’re going to love our guide to London’s loveliest bookshops!
Also published on Medium.