If nothing makes you happier than peace, quiet and the smell of old books then we’ve just the guide for you. Here’s our pick of the best historic libraries in the UK, to while away blissful silent hours
John Rylands Library
The interior of the stunning John Rylands Library feels more like a cathedral than a library. The spectacular vaulted ceilings, stained glass windows and sweeping stone staircases make this building one of the best examples of neo-Gothic architecture in Europe. The library was founded in 1900 by Enriqueta Rylands in memory of her husband, John Rylands, and now houses the University of Manchester’s special collections – one of the finest collections of books, manuscripts and archives in the world. The collection spans 5 millennia, comprising written works on almost every medium imaginable in more than 50 languages.
One of the oldest libraries in Europe, the Bodleian is the main research library for the University of Oxford, and is open to the public to explore independently, with an audio guide or through guided tours. The library is in fact a series of different buildings and libraries, the most distinctive of which being the round Radcliffe Camera building. Now housing the Bodleian’s Radcliffe Reading Room, the building was established in the early 18th century under the will of famous physician John Radcliffe – doctor to William III and Queen Anne – who left vast sums of money to set up and maintain a scientific library.
The oldest part of the Bodleian dates from 1488, and was built to house a collection of books which had outgrown its home at the University Church of Saint Mary the Virgin. However, the library was not well cared for and by late 16th century only three of the original books remained. It was in 1600 that the library was given a new lease of life, when it was re-founded by Thomas Bodley, who grew the collection at a staggering rate by both donating his own books and encouraging benefactors to do the same.
The Library of Innerpeffray
Situated in a small building in the hamlet of Innerpeffray, in Perth and Kinross, Innerpeffray Library was founded by David Drummond, 3rd Lord Madertie in around 1680 and was the first free public lending library in Scotland. Originally housed in the attic of St Mary’s Chapel, the library was moved next door to a purpose-built building in the mid-1700s – the handsome Georgian building remains today.
Although the library no longer lends its books it is still open to visitors to peruse and those with ancestors from the local area will find the library’s Borrowers’ Register particularly poignant as it contains the records of all the books borrowed from the library complete with entries often written in the borrower’s own handwriting. Visitors come from across the world to see what their relatives read, and even hold the books themselves, experiencing a unique tangible link to the past.
Housing books dating up to the 18th century, collected by the canons throughout the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries, the library at Wells Cathedral is a fascinating example of a ‘chained library’. Before the techniques and materials were developed to quickly and accurately print them, books were printed by hand, page by page, or even handwritten. This made them extremely valuable, and in some cases extremely rare. To protect the books from theft, they were physically chained to the bookshelves with thick metal chains, with the fore edge rather than the binding facing out, so they could be read without being detached from the shelf.
The Chained Library at Wells Cathedral houses a vast collection of theology books, as well as books relating to science, history, languages and medicine, and can be seen either from the Reading Room, or on a pre-booked guided tour.
If you close your eyes and imagine the perfect library then you might just picture something like the National Art Library, housed within the V&A Museum. From the entrance you’re greeted immediately by chandeliers, ornate coving, sturdy dark wood desks and a mezzanine floor brimming with books – all focusing on the fine and decorative arts. The library counts exhibition catalogues, artists’ books, illuminated manuscripts and early print books among its treasures.
The vast depth of the collection make it the UK’s most comprehensive public reference library of literature relating to art and design. It’s open to all to visit, and it’s free to register if you wish to use the collection.
Situated within the headquarters of the United Grand Lodge of England at Freemason’s Hall – the oldest Grand Lodge in the world – the Library and Museum of Freemasonry has an extensive collection of artefacts, documents and books relating to the secretive society. The building was opened in 1933 and is a splendid example of Art Deco design –the only one of its kind in London still used for its original intended purpose. A visit to the museum and library will reward you with wonderful angular interiors, while a tour will take you even further into the Grand Lodge to see the gold gilt, bright murals and rich symbolism of the Grand Temple.
The library is open to the public and can be used free of charge by anyone who registers as a reader, opening up the library’s wealth of books and documents on masonic history, music and poetry for exploration – as well as items relating to various friendly societies, such as the Oddfellows.
Palace Green Library
Originally an episcopal library, the site which is now Palace Green was founded in 1669 by Bishop John Cosin, and was the first public lending library in the North East of England. Palace Green Library today is part of Durham University and home to several historic libraries and contemporary galleries, which together make for some fantastic state of the art temporary exhibitions drawing on the university’s special collections.
The extensive collections at Palace Green include early printed books from Cosin’s original collection, medieval manuscripts, maps, photographs, prints and thousands of metres of artefacts and archives.
Founded in 1653 and housed in a splendid 15th century baronial hall, Chetham’s Library is the oldest public library in the English-speaking world, and has been in continuous use for more than 350 years. Established under the will of Humphrey Chetham, a highly successful textiles merchant, Chetham’s Hospital comprised the library and a blue coat school (now Chetham’s school of music), which offered education to ‘poor boys from honest families’.
The collection at Chetham’s Library has been growing ever since its inception, and today it houses many thousands of books and manuscripts, as well as a huge collection of ephemera. Key objects include a collection of books belonging to scientist, mathematician and occultist John Dee, an extensive collection of manuscripts and documents relating to the Peterloo Massacre and a recently rediscovered volume of prints by Hogarth. As well as this visitors can also glimpse some of the library’s vast fine art collection, interesting architectural features such as the ‘mouth of hell’ and the desk where Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels studied together.
If you’re mourning the loss of the British Museum’s glorious Reading Room while it’s closed for redevelopment, a trip to King’s College London’s Maughan Library might help cheer you up. The building as we know it today was built in 1851 and was formerly the headquarters of the Public Record Office. Modelled on that of the BM, Maughan’s beautiful dodecagonal Reading Room is open to university students as well as bona fide independent researchers. But don’t despair if you’re not a researcher – you can still visit the Weston Room, the surviving part of a former medieval chapel, which today showcases special collections from the library’s impressive holdings of books, manuscripts, maps, journals, prints and recordings.
Among Maughan’s estimated 5 million documents are many key collections including the historical collections of the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office, The Carnegie Collection of British Music, Guy’s Hospital and St Thomas’ Hospital collections as well as the Liddell Hart Centre for Military Archives.
Gladstone’s library was founded in 1889 by former Prime Minister William Gladstone who, at the age of 85 personally transported 20,000 of his own books nearly a mile between his home and the library, with the help of his daughter and his valet. After his death in 1898, a public appeal was launched to raise funds to build a permanent building, to replace the temporary iron rooms with the building we see today. Today, the collection has grown to more that 150,000 books, journals and pamphlets, with an emphasis on Gladstone’s particular areas of interest: theology, literature and history.
For those looking to totally immerse themselves in a world of books the Library close to the Welsh/English border offers you the rather unique opportunity to do just that. Following its founder’s vision, Gladstone’s Library is the UK’s only residential library, and has 26 bedrooms which were funded by the Gladstone family themselves – so you need never leave. However, if you’re hoping to visit for just the day to take in the sights of the historical library and peruse its brimming shelves then day membership is free.
Hereford Cathedral’s historic Chained Library is the largest surviving example of a chained library in the UK, having all of its chains, rods and locks intact. Its oldest book is a medieval manuscript of the Hereford Gospels, which dates from the 8th century, and many of the books in the collection date from around the 12th century, which is when a library was first established at the cathedral.
The Chained Library was set up in the 17th century by Precentor Thomas Thornton and can today be seen in its original arrangement – with books chained to the wooden shelves by their covers with the fore edge facing outwards, so they can be read at the desk without twisting the chains, but cannot be removed.