The Best Libraries in London

Sam Peet / © Culture Trip
Sam Peet / © Culture Trip
Photo of James Gunn
7 March 2019

England is home to the elite Oxford and Cambridge universities – and London has similarly lofty seats of learning. But you don’t have to be super brainy, or pay (similarly lofty) tuition fees to access the collective knowledge of the capital. Instead take a trip to one of the best libraries in London, where you can scan rows of bookshelves or grab yourself a quiet spot to read.

The British Library

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London, UK - May 12 2018: The British Library is the UK's national library and the largest national library in the world by number of items catalogued
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The British Library is the largest library in London in terms of number of items catalogued. Though you have to register to access the reading rooms and the 150m items from across the world, membership is free. This public library was established in 1973 and holds a copy of everything ever published in the UK. Before that, it was part of the British Museum. It hosts many ground-breaking exhibitions and research projects throughout the year.

The London Library

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As the name might suggest, The London Library is a good place to find a book in the capital. With more than a million titles, it sits among the elite libraries in London, and has provided intellectual support for some of the great minds of British culture since 1841. If a full (paid-for) membership doesn’t take your fancy, there are regular free evening tours of this charmingly labyrinthine space.

Guildhall Library

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Guildhall, London
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The first of the specialist libraries on our list, the Guildhall Library is the definitive resource for researching the history of London. It has 200,000 primary documents dating from the 15th to 21st centuries, including special collections dedicated to 17th-century diarist Samuel Pepys, 18th-century journalist and politician John Wilkes and the Tudor judge and Catholic martyr Thomas More. The nature of the collections means the Guildhall Library is a great place to research the social history of London, or even delve into your family tree.

National Art Library at the V&A

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V&A Cafe
Courtesy of Victoria and Albert Museum, London
The Victoria and Albert Museum is one of the leading establishments in London for exploring art and design. So, unsurprisingly, the National Art Library at the V&A is the best library in London for topics including drawing, painting, sculpture, fashion, textiles and woodwork. The workspace here is among the most spectacular in the capital, and, should you feel peckish, the V&A Café – which was designed by Victorian artists including William Morris – is renowned for good reason.

The Poetry Library at the Southbank Centre

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The most comprehensive collection of modern British poetry in the country can be found in the Poetry Library at the Southbank Centre. You can browse thousands of poetry titles while taking in views of the Thames and Somerset House from the terrace on the side of the Southbank Centre that runs along the river. The library serves as a centre for poetry in London, and runs regular events and competitions in which anyone can get involved.

Bishopsgate Institute Library

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Similar to the Guildhall Library, the Bishopsgate Institute Library is in the Square Mile and specialises in the social history of London. However, what differentiates the Bishopsgate is that it’s one of the best libraries in London for studying the radical, social, labour, feminist and LGBTQ history of the capital. The wonderful glass dome that sits above the workspace is worth a visit in itself. The institution is open to the public, with free wifi– irresistible if you’re caught with a spare hour near Liverpool Street Station.

Wiener Holocaust Library

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The Wiener Holocaust Library is dedicated to the study of the Holocaust and has an authoritative archive on the Nazi era. Founded in 1933 by Dr Alfred Wiener in Amsterdam, in a bid to use intellectual freedom to counter Nazism, the library relocated to London in 1938 and moved to the Russell Square premises in 2011, funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund. Heavily reliant on volunteers and charitable donations, this compact library hosts regular exhibitions and events to continue the work of its founder, raising awareness not just of the Holocaust and anti-Semitism, but of other humanitarian crises around the world.

Wellcome Collection Library

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The Wellcome Collection building on Euston road, London
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The Wellcome Collection Library is a world-leading resource for the study of medical history as well as being an influential voice in contemporary medicine and biomedical science. It is known for dynamic and boundary-pushing exhibitions, which do not shy from squeamish topics one might associate with medical research. Yet, it is the interdisciplinary nature of many of the events and exhibitions here that makes it an accessible and rich exploration for people of all intellectual backgrounds and inclinations.

St Bride Library

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The St Bride Foundation – originally a social, cultural and recreational centre for the Fleet Street print industry – now preserves the traditions and artefacts of an industry under threat in the digital age. As well as the St Bride Library, which houses famous original texts including Johnson’s Dictionary, there is a theatre, the opportunity to learn traditional printing techniques and a packed schedule of print-related lectures and exhibitions.

The BFI Reuben Library

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The BFI Reuben Library
Courtesy of BFI Southbank
With a mission statement to provide “comprehensive coverage of the moving image in Britain,” the BFI Reuben Library has a selection of textual, film and digital collections. The staff here stand out for being especially helpful and attentive towards researchers, and are able to assist large groups or individuals in the excellently equipped Edwin Fox Foundation Reading Room.

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