Libraries are often public spaces with a rather private focus, each visitor engrossed in quiet contemplation or simply curled up with a good book. However, the beauty of London is found in its nooks and crannies, so let’s take a look at eight libraries that are tucked a little further off the beaten track.
St. Bride Library
Bride Lane, Fleet Street, London EC4Y 8EE
One of the many typographic treasures at St. Bride Library (photograph by Kim Anh)
Within an 1894 brick Victorian building, the St. Bride Library specializes in “something for everyone in the world of graphics.” This means more than 50,000 books on printing techniques, visual styles, typography, graphic design, and calligraphy, as well as a massive store of artifacts spanning the 17th to the 20th centuries, including wood blocks, copper plates, and lithographic stones. A strong smell of ink permeates the space, so you can get a whiff of the history of hundreds of years of printed word.
Aldermanbury EC2V 7HH
Three queens, Elizabeth I, Anne, and Victoria, carved in 1873 on the outside of the Guildhall Library (photograph by Julian Walker)
The Guildhall Library prides itself as the library of London history, and its collections comprise over 200,000 titles from the past seven centuries. Books, pamphlets, periodicals, and other materials cover every aspect of life in London, ranging from clockmakers’ records and British parliamentary papers to books on wine and maritime history.
Entrance of the Guildhall Library (photograph by Darren Hurley)
The Women’s Library
10 Portugal Street, London WC2A 2HD
Exhibition in the Women’s Library (photograph by David Nottingham)
Located within the London School of Economics, the Women’s Library emphasizes the political, economic, and social changes in the lives of women in the United Kingdom over the past 150 years. The collections include over 60,000 books and pamphlets, 3,000 periodical titles, 500 archives, and over 5,000 artifacts. Notable items include the campaign materials of women’s suffrage societies and personal archives of British female activists.
The Wiener Library for the Study of the Holocaust & Genocide
29 Russell Square, London WC1B 5DP
Reading room in the Wiener Library (photograph by Peter Hess)
As the world’s oldest Holocaust library, the Wiener Library holds over one million items documenting the horrors perpetuated on the Jews by the Nazis. It was founded in the 1920s in Berlin by a German Jew named Dr. Alfred Wiener, before being moved to Amsterdam. In 1958, the library relocated again to London to dwell in a scrappy Marylebone townhouse, before settling into its current home in Russell Square. The library played a key role in assisting the prosecutors at the Nuremberg Trial, and helped start the recording of survivor testimonies.
Examples of the extensive collection include a historic board game that is won by the player who rounds up the most Jews, telephone directories marked with addresses of Jewish residents who would be displaced, and articles written by former SS officers. The Wiener Library is constantly given material (boxes of letters, diaries, etc.) by Jewish families who want to ensure that the lessons of the Holocaust are not lost.
The Saison Poetry Library
Royal Festival Hall, Level 5, London SE1 8XX
Reference shelves at the Poetry Library (photograph by kevandotorg/Flickr)
As the most comprehensive collection of British poetry from 1912 onward, the Poetry Library, founded in 1953, has more than 200,000 items. All titles published in the UK are kept in stock, and a rotating exhibition space features works by artists engaging with text and poetry. An interesting service provided by the Saison Poetry Library is the Lost Quotations query, where the librarians and the general public can help track down the full poem based on just a line or two that might have stuck in someone’s head.
Westminster Music Library
160 Buckingham Palace Road, London SW1W 9UD
Westminster Music Library (photograph by Tom de Grunwald)
Nestled within the Victoria Library, the Westminster Music Library is the largest clearinghouse for public music in the United Kingdom. With over 80,000 items, the library’s highlights include orchestral sets available for hire to professional and amateur groups, and original manuscripts and printed music from the 18th century. And of course, the Westminster Music Library often serves as a venue for a wide variety of musical performances.
Marx Memorial Library
37A Clerkenwell Green, London EC1R 0DU
Outside of Marx Memorial Library (photograph by Justinc/Wikimedia)
The Marx Memorial Library holds tens of thousands of books, newspapers, and pamphlets covering Marxist and Scientific Socialist thought, and the general history of the working class. The building that houses the library used to be the headquarters of various radical organizations like the London Patriotic Society, as well as the publishing centre for leftist newspapers. A large fresco-style mural by Viscount Hastings, a protégé of the Mexican artist Diego Rivera, decorates the wall of the first-floor reading room. Entitled “The Worker of the Future Clearing Away the Chaos of Capitalism,” the mural depicts events and major people in the history of the British Labour movement. While in exile, Lenin worked in the building from April 1902 to May 1903, editing and printing the journal ISKRA (The Spark), which was smuggled into Russia. This little office is well-preserved and open to the public.
The Vinyl Library
Just a taste of the offerings available at the Vinyl Library (via the Vinyl Library)
The brainchild of two garage DJs — Elly Rendall and Sophie Austin — the Vinyl Library has only been around for about a year. Until July 2014, it lived in a small storefront next to a luxury kitchen shop in Stoke Newington. Volunteer-run and certainly not-for-profit, this vinyl-only lending library is stocked entirely with donations from the general public. Joining the Vinyl Library costs just ten pounds a month and gives members access to events (such as listening evenings, pop up workshops, and mixing lessons) and of course to the vinyl. Due to rent increases, the Vinyl Library has left its north London home and is in search of its next place to roost.
Want even more hidden sites for bibliophiles? Check out our guide to Secret Libraries of New York City.