The UK is known for excellent research standards across the board at its universities and often finds itself at the forefront of cutting edge learning in many different disciplines. It is not a surprise, then, that supporting this intellectual prowess is a network of libraries which provide a benchmark standard for archives, exhibitions and research capabilities. As one would naturally expect, London is home to many of these institutions.
The British Library is not just the largest library in terms of number of items catalogued in London, but the world. Though you need to a be a resident of the UK to be able to access the reading rooms, once you are eligible the membership is free to the 150 million items, sourced from across the world. A copy of everything ever published in the UK is held by the library which was created in 1973 and the institution plays host to many ground-breaking exhibitions and research projects conducted throughout the year.
As the name might suggest, if you are looking for books, The London Library wouldn’t be a bad place to start. With a collection of over one million books and anyone eligible for membership, The London Library takes pride in its position amongst the elite of literary institutions in the capital, providing intellectual support some of the great minds of British culture since 1841. If a full membership doesn’t take your fancy, there are free evening tours of the library happening regularly throughout the year.
The first of the specialist libraries on our list, the Guildhall Library is the definitive resource for London history. It has 200,000 primary documents dating from the 15th to 21st century, including special collections dedicated to Samuel Pepys, John Wilkes and Thomas More. The nature of the collections means that the Guildhall Library is a great place to conduct historical social research of London as well an invaluable research for plotting out your own family tree.
The Victoria and Albert Museum has always been at the forefront of thought in art and design. The National Art Library supports this ambition and provides access to collections which are central to the V&A mission, including extensive research on topics like drawing, painting, sculpture, fashion, textiles and woodwork. The workspace in the National Art Library is among the most spectacular in London and should you feel peckish, tea at the V&A café is renowned for good reason.
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 the thousands of poetry titles while taking in the breathtaking views of the Thames and Somerset House atop the Southbank Centre. Given its status, the library serves as a centre for poetry in London, and runs regular events and competitions that anyone can get involved in. It is open everyday between 11am and 8pm, apart from Monday when it is closed to the public.
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 Institute Library is that it caters for interests in the radical, social, labour, feminist and gay history of the capital. The wonderful glass dome that sits above the workspace is worth a visit in itself. The institution is completely open to the public with free wi-fi – irresistible if you’re caught with a spare hour in and around Liverpool Street station.
The Wiener Library is dedicated to the study of the Holocaust and has an authoritative archive for the Nazi Era. Originally founded in 1933 by Dr Alfred Weiner in Amsterdam in a bid to use intellectual freedom to counter Nazism, the Weiner Library relocated to its Russell Square premises in 2011, funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund. Heavily reliant on volunteers and charitable donations, the library hosts regular exhibitions and events to continue the work of its founder, raising awareness not just of the Holocaust but of other humanitarian crises around the world.
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. The Wellcome Collection is known for its dynamic and boundary-pushing exhibitions which do not shy away from the squeamish topics one might associate with medical research. Yet it is the interdisciplinary nature of many of its events and exhibition which makes it an accessible and rich exploration for people of all intellectual backgrounds and inclinations.
Originally a prominent social, cultural and recreational centre for London’s print industry in Fleet Street, the St. Bride Foundation now serves an important purpose of preserving the traditions and artefacts of an industry so under threat in the digital age. As well as the St. Bride Library, which has famous original texts like Dr Johnson’s Dictionary; there is a theatre, opportunities to learn traditional printing techniques in workshops, as well as a packed schedule of print-related lectures and exhibitions.
With a mission statement to provide a ‘comprehensive coverage of the moving image in Britain’ The BFI Reuben Library and its textual, film and digital collections also remains international in its scope. The staff at the Reuben Library stand out for being especially helpful and attentive to researchers, able to assist large groups or individuals who choose to work in the excellently equipped Edwin Fox Foundation Reading Room.