Inside Britain’s Best Libraries

Talk about a dream to write! Here is a feature on Britain’s Best Libraries for Spectator Life.

The stories behind libraries are often as interesting as the stories they contain. For example, when Marsh’s Library in Dublin opened in 1707, they had so many book thefts that they resorted to locking visitors in cages while they read to ensure no further books went missing.  It is with a mixture of amusement and concern that I learned that the book featured in the Top Ten Most Borrowed from the House of Commons Library most consistently in the past ten years is called ‘How Parliament Works’ (although this was pipped at the post in 2012 when ‘How to be an MP’ was borrowed more often.) Here are some more libraries with intriguing back stories…

Senate House, London

Senate House was London’s first skyscraper and epitomises Art Deco architecture. King George V laid the first foundation stone in 1933. Three years later, disaster struck when a skip hit some of the affiliated University of London officials, including the Principal at the time, Sir Edwin Deller, who died from his injuries. Students whisper that his ghost haunts the lift towers in the building. After its completion in 1937, Senate House was taken over by the Ministry of Information and used as a controversial centre of propaganda during the Second World War. Senate House itself was the inspiration for the Ministry of Truth building in George Orwell’s 1984, which ‘towered vast and white above the grimy landscape.’ In real life, you can get a day pass to look round Senate House for a small fee or join as a member. 

Library of Birmingham

In 2013, a time when local library closures produced regular headlines, Birmingham welcomed a new library in its city centre. An international design competition run by RIBA was announced to find an architect and Francine Houben at Mecanoo Architecten was proclaimed the winner. Its striking design is symbolic of Birmingham’s heritage: the black rings on the building symbolise its industrial gasometers and the silver and gold rings reflect its famous jewellery trade. Bookshelves (holding over 1 million books) grow out of the interlocking shapes that continue inside. Spread over 10 floors, it has computer areas and a cafe too. It also holds the oldest book printed in this country: William Caxton’s Cordiale, which dates back to 1479. Two hundred copies were printed at the time and this is only one of three to survive. It sits next to another historic highlight: the Ptolemy Cosmographica from 1482, in full, brilliant colour. 

Bodleian Library, Oxford

The University’s first library was established in approximately 1320 in a small room in the University Church of St Mary the Virgin, but it was soon expanded upon. The Duke of Gloucester, younger brother of Henry V, gave the University his valuable collection of manuscripts and the University built a library especially for them. However, 60 years later, the Dean of Christ Church, hoping to purge the English church of all traces of Catholicism, removed all the library’s books. It was saved by Sir Thomas Bodley. In 1598, the old library was refurnished to house a new collection of 2500 books. In 1610, Bodley entered into an agreement with the Stationers’ Company of London ensuring a copy of every book published in England and registered at Stationers’ Hall would be deposited in the new library. The library has changed a lot since then. The Bodleian is made up of over thirty libraries, the inner workings of which are particularly interesting: since the Bodleian’s foundations in 1602, the buildings have struggled to keep up with the growth of the collection. Millions of books are stored in the surrounding areas of Oxford – and also in a salt mine in Cheshire. A new storage facility was built just outside Swindon a few years ago and holds around 8m books. Between 2000 and 3000 books a day travel in each direction between the storage facility and the libraries based in central Oxford. Someone visits the Bodleian libraries every fourteen seconds – make sure at some point that’s you. Two of its venues, the Old Bodleian and the new Weston Library are open to visitors daily. 

Gladstone’s Library, Flintshire, Wales

William Gladstone founded his library in Wales with his collection of approximately 30,000 books. The first building to be established was known as the ‘Tin Tabernacle’ and Gladstone helped to transfer his books from neighbouring Hawarden Castle in a wheelbarrow. Some people think Gladstone’s library is the blueprint for the American Presidential Libraries. Gladstone’s isn’t just a library, however. There is a Chapel, a bistro-restaurant and it also offers accommodation and popular retreats for writers.  Edward VII visited the library in 1908. It is the home of the British Crime Writing Archive and it even has its own classmark system unique to the library.

Chetham’s Library, Manchester

Chetham’s Library boasts the title of the oldest public library in the English-speaking world. But that is not its only accolade. It also houses a first edition of John Donne’s poetry, a wooden printing press and an impressive collection of glass slides. Ben Jonson’s copy of Plato can be found at Chetham’s as well as a 1539 copy of Prosper of Aquitaine, bound in white deerskin for Henry VIII. It hosts regular lectures on a variety of topics, such as false gothic furniture, or you can see a recital by Chetham’s Early Music group. 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s