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Britain’s best libraries

Britain’s best libraries

The pleasure of collecting and decorating with books has been a major source of inspiration for our autumn collection. With that in mind, we’ve put together a list of some of our favourite libraries around the UK, all of which are open for the public to enjoy…

The National Art Library at the V&A, London

Painted a restful shade of sage green and boasting an elegant book-lined upstairs gallery, this neoclassical library is tucked away on the third floor of the V&A, where most visitors never find it. However, it’s open from Tuesday to Saturday and anyone can register to browse its titles – which, naturally, focus on the same decorative arts that are in the museum’s collection. If you’ve been inspired by something you’ve seen on display, this is just the place to find out more about it. vam.ac.uk

Swiss Cottage Central Library, London

Designed by Modernist architect Sir Basil Spence in 1964, this Grade II-listed library is beautiful inside and out. The curved exterior is made up of fine concrete ribs, while the interior plays with symmetry and the interaction between circles and straight lines. The twin spiral staircases at either end of the building are a highlight. As well as the general reading collection, there’s also an art gallery, café and children’s library. camden.gov.uk

Gladstone’s Library, Hawarden, Wales

This grand Victorian library, with its lofty medieval-style timber reading room, owes its existence to the philanthropy of 19th-century Prime Minister, William Gladstone. Wishing to donate his personal library for the good of the local population near his Welsh home, Hawarden Castle, he ferried 32,000 books in a wheelbarrow to this site a quarter of a mile away. It opened in 1902, shortly after Gladstone’s death. Those seeking an extended period of quiet study can stay in one of 26 rooms in the Gothic stone building – it’s Britain’s only residential library. gladstoneslibrary.org

Library of Birmingham

Designed by Dutch architects Mecanoo and opened in 2013, this contemporary building proves that libraries are still relevant in the 21st century. Its gold and silver ziggurat-style façade, overlaid with a lattice of metal rings, instantly made it a landmark on Birmingham’s skyline. Inside, reading rooms branch out from a round atrium; leafy rooftop terraces provide more space to sit quietly and read. The library has one of the best collections on Shakespeare, as well as archives of modern photography and fashion. libraryofbirmingham.com

Chetham’s Library, Manchester

Founded in 1653, Chetham’s is the oldest public library in the English-speaking world and shares a site with the famous Chetham’s School of Music. The atmospheric half-timbered interior has welcomed distinguished readers including Daniel Defoe and Karl Marx. Be sure to visit the oak-panelled reading room, furnished with sturdy timber furniture from the 1650s. Here you can see bookcases containing chained books – a practice once common in libraries to protect them from theft. library.chethams.com

Wren Library, Trinity College, Cambridge

Although it houses the manuscript of Winnie the Pooh and the papers of philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, you won’t have much time for reading here – as an academic library it’s only open to the public for two hours each day during term time. That’s long enough, though, to drink in Sir Christopher Wren’s magnificent neoclassical design dating from 1695, with its ornate white plasterwork, wood carvings by Grinling Gibbons and busts of famous alumni such as Lord Byron. Some of these busts stand atop the carved wooden bookcases, which were also designed by Wren. trin.cam.ac.uk

Signet Library, Edinburgh

Opened in 1822, this library was famously described by King George IV as ‘the finest drawing room in Europe’ – and visitors can’t fail to spot why. It’s recognised as one of the best examples of Georgian architecture in Scotland, with elegant colonnades along its length and arched windows. It’s still used as a law library, although we can’t help but wonder how much work gets done as lunches and afternoon teas are now provided alongside the books. King George’s assessment remains as accurate as ever. thesignetlibrary.co.uk

Wordsworth Library, Lake District

Romantic souls (and lovers of Romantic poetry) should visit this small but perfectly formed library at poet William Wordsworth’s scenic home, Dove Cottage. Housed in a two-storey converted coach house adjacent to the cottage museum, it contains treasures of all kinds related to the Romantic movement, from books to paintings and, of course, Wordsworth’s manuscripts. The interior is simply decorated in white and wood, befitting the local architecture. Once you’ve finished browsing, you can wander the shores of Grasmere just as Wordsworth did. wordsworth.org.uk

Linen Hall Library, Belfast

Founded as the Belfast Reading Society in 1788, this library still has a monthly reading club. Its current name comes from the building it has occupied for over a century, a former linen warehouse that’s now filled with wooden bookcases and elegant curved staircases. A contemporary glass extension by Hall Black & Douglas architects has added a multi-purpose events area, which means that as well as borrowing books, visitors can enjoy a varied programme of exhibitions, lectures, and craft and music workshops. linenhall.com

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