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The London Library - reading room
Philip Vile

London’s most beautiful libraries

Shhh... These gorgeous London libraries have a lot more to offer than just reading material

By Things To Do Editors and Ellie Walker-Arnott
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Have you chosen a book to curl up with for World Book Day (March 5) yet? Yes? Good. If you need somewhere peaceful to enjoy your new find, London is full of fantastic hideouts: in the shape of libraries.

From big libraries to secret libraries, tiny libraries and aesthetically-pleasing libraries, each of them are bursting with books to borrow and read.

Some of them are historic lending archives that have existed in the city for centuries and others are modern celebrations of the written word. Some are famous, while others are well-kept secrets... but all of them are great little spots to spend an afternoon exploring a fantasy world between the pages. 

RECOMMENDED: The best bookshops in London

The most beautiful libraries in London

1. Bethnal Green Library

Attractions Libraries, archives and foundations London

Standing on the busy intersection outside Bethnal Green tube, you might think you've stumbled across an out-of-place stately home in the middle of east London. You haven't. You're actually looking at the beautiful buildings of Bethnal Green Library, which first opened its doors way back in 1922. Today it boasts a fully-stocked library of treasures for both adults and children, as well as two hireable rooms for up to 100 people each. That's one massive book-slam just waiting to happen. 

2. Canada Water Library

Attractions Libraries, archives and foundations Canada Water

This modern-but-pretty public library was opened in 2011 and now welcomes an average of 37,000 visitors per month. As well as reading material, the venue offers live music, theatre, author events and writing groups in its culture space.

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3. Kensington Central Library

Attractions Literary events Kensington

This public library was the final building designed by English architect E Vincent Harris, who also built the damn fine-looking Manchester Central Library, among many other civic beauties. With nearly 50 years' worth of experience behind him when the project began in 1958, it’s no surprise his swansong is such a stunner – just check out that spacious floorplan and those bold, authoritative pillars.

4. The Library and Museum of Freemasonry

Museums Libraries, archives and foundations Covent Garden

Freemasons’ Hall, the eye-catching bombastic stone building where Long Acre becomes Great Queen Street, is the headquarters of the United Grand Lodge of England and the principal meeting place for Masonic Lodges in London. In addition to the Grand Temple, there is a library and museum, which houses a collection of Masonic material, and everyone from historians to conspiracy theorists is welcome to visit.

Venue says Something different in the heart of London

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Venue_londonlibrary_readingroom_2010press_CREDIT_Paul Raftery.jpg
Venue_londonlibrary_readingroom_2010press_CREDIT_Paul Raftery.jpg
© Paul Raferty

5. The London Library

Attractions Libraries, archives and foundations St James’s

Bill Bryson, Sebastian Faulks, Joanne Trollope: nope, not this year’s Man Booker shortlistees, but a rundown of famous writers who are all members of The London Library. It’s the Shoreditch House of book stacks: you pay a subscription fee (around £500 per year), but you don’t have to talk to anyone. And members can borrow books from its 17 miles of shelves for an absurdly long time (or until another member requests the same one). For those not on the bestseller list, the library hosts free evening tours twice a month: just keep an eagle eye on its website to book a place.

6. Maughan Library

King’s College London’s main research library is a nineteenth-century neo-gothic building that was home to the Public Record Office before King’s bought it in 2001. The magnificent dodecagonal (12-sided) reading room featured in ‘The Da Vinci Code’ and regularly receives filming requests, but its day-to-day purpose is as a space for actual learning. As such, you have to be a member to access it, though Maughan Library is usually open to the public as part of Open House

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National Art Library, V&A
National Art Library, V&A
© Victoria and Albert Museum, London

7. National Art Library at the V&A

Museums Art and design South Kensington

This gorgeous library is hidden away within the V&A, but once you've been in you'll wonder how you never noticed it. Its collection contains books on prints, drawings, woodwork, textiles, metalwork and many more subjects relevant to the museum it’s housed in. As a major public reference library, it’s free to join – all you need to do is provide ID with proof of address. Or you can just peer in through the glass in its huge double doors.

8. Peckham Library

Attractions Libraries, archives and foundations Peckham

If there’s any confusion as to what this copper-clad minimalist beauty of a building is, the word ‘library’ is helpfully written in huge letters on its roof. The alien-like structure won the Stirling Prize for architecture in 2000 – the only local library to win so far – and between the interior’s space-age pods and bulbous wooden desks there’s a fantastic collection of works by black authors, the largest collection of African CDs in the borough and a great choice of graphic novels.

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9. Swiss Cottage Central Library

Art Galleries Swiss Cottage

If you’re a fan of symmetry, you’ll love the brutalist exterior of the Swiss Cottage Library, while every element inside looks like a shot from a Wes Anderson film. It’s a dramatic swirl of mirror-image staircases and 1960s curves. The collection is strong on the philosophy and history front, and there’s a big open space where you can swot up in comfy chairs.

10. Senate House Library

Attractions Libraries, archives and foundations Bloomsbury

It’s been a Ministry of Information (during World War Two) and a Court of Justice (in ‘Batman Begins’) but this magnificently authoritative-looking building just north of the British Museum is also home to the central library of the University of London. The library occupies the building’s fourth-to-eighteenth floors and is ordinarily only open to members, but you can access it for reference purposes by purchasing a day ticket or the special summer membership. 

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11. SOAS Library

Things to do Schools and universities Bloomsbury

The School of Oriental and African Studies’ library is housed in this impressive concrete beast from mid-century master Denys Lasdun. Inside, Lasdun’s trademark brooding grey panels are offset with flashes of bronze-anodised aluminium trim, all of which is illuminated by a grid of pyramid-shaped ceiling lights. Anyone who thinks Brutalism can’t be beautiful ought to pay a visit immediately; the general public can apply for both reference and borrowing memberships. 

Flaxman Gallery, UCL Main Library
Flaxman Gallery, UCL Main Library
© Some Driftwood on Flickr

12. UCL Main Library

Attractions Libraries, archives and foundations Bloomsbury

North Londoners will have spotted UCL's rather fancy library from the bus window on their way into town – it's housed in the university's famous domed main building. The Flaxman Gallery (pictured) makes a stunning centrepiece to the library's hushed corridors – so stunning, in fact, that it starred in Christopher Nolan's 'Inception'. Access to the library is limited to those who actually need to use the books, so you'll have to find an academic excuse to explore its lovely galleries and study rooms.

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13. The Wellcome Library Reading Room

Museums Science and technology Euston

Full of squishy floor cushions and hanging copper lamps, the second floor of the Wellcome Collection is the comfiest spot in the capital to read up on medical history. The mezzanine library – free for those who sign up for membership – holds scientific treasures including an Ancient Egyptian prescription and the papers of scientist Francis Crick. Meanwhile the Reading Room below is a wonderland of cosy study spaces and gallery exhibits where you can play games and listen to poetry readings.

14. West Greenwich Library

Attractions Libraries, archives and foundations Greenwich

Just one of Greenwich’s many assets, this lovely library originally opened in 1907 and refurbished just over a century later. It features a gallery space (pictured), which displays the work of local artists, as well as the usual computers and books.

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