7 Of Britain's best libraries

Laura Dean-Osgood

These beautiful havens for book lovers prove that, despite cutbacks and closures, they’re still a much-treasured institution

Chetham’s Library

Manchester

Chetham's Library

Founded in 1653 and steeped in literaryhistory, Chetham’s is known as the oldest public library in the English speaking world. Its Medieval building and magnificent 17th-century interior—deemed magical enough to feature in the Harry Potter films—is home to over 100,000 books, 60,000 of which were published before 1851.

When the library was first conceived, the north of England wasn’t equipped for independent study, and the founder Humphrey Chetham set out to acquire a range of books that would teach and inspire “the sons of honest, industrious and painful parents”, and rival the colleges of Oxford and Cambridge.

And over the centuries, Chetham’s Library has done just that, attracting a great number of scholars, writers and philosophers—including Karl Marx, who began writing The Communist Manifesto alongside Friedrich Engels within these very walls.

 

Norfolk & Norwich Millennium Library

Norwich

Norfolk and Norwich

Having suffered the loss of their library through fire in 1994, Norfolk County Council created a bigger and better public space in its place. The Forum, a vast glass-fronted building, is home to the new Norfolk & Norwich’ Millennium Library (NML), which since its opening in 2001 has gone on to become the most visited library in the country, seven years running.

Set over three floors and with an incredible amount of natural light, it billed itself as “Britain’s most advanced library” when it opened and currently offers a number of services to its 2.5 million visitors every year. One of the NML’s big attractions is its Heritage Centre, which houses over 60,000 items relating to life in Norfolk, with 8,000 of them having been painstakingly restored after the fire.

As well as the tens of thousands of books in the library, the NML also holds regular events with the aim of engaging the local community, including board-games afternoons and expert-advice sessions—a winning formula for a library that continues to buck the trend for declining use.

 

St Bride Foundation Library

London

St Bride Foundation Library

Located just minutes from London’s famous Fleet Street, the St Bride Foundation was created in 1891 as a creative hub and essential resource for the print industry, which was growing exponentially at the time. It includes a theatre, bar and exhibition space, while the library of print, media, communications and design is said to be the largest of its kind in the world, holding over 50,000 print items relating to all aspects of printing, typography and graphic design.

Although the library is currently undergoing essential refurbishment, it still remains very active, continuing to hold regular exhibitions, workshops and talks.

 

Gladstone’s Library

Flintshire

Gladstone Library

“Sleep is good…and books are better,” wrote the novelist George R R Martin. But at Flintshire’s grand 19th-century residential library, visitors can combine the two and check into one of the 26 rooms to spread their reading or research over several days.

With over 250,000 printed items on the open shelves, Gladstone’s is considered one of the most important research libraries in Wales. It’s also proudly traced over 300 books that have been “inspired, started, revised or finished while the writer was at Gladstone’s”, highlighting its importance to literary heritage.

The staff are also delighted to be working in such an historic location: “There’s no greater enjoyment than spreading knowledge and preserving the past for the future,” says library assistant Gary Butler. “Working at the library is incomparable. I never forget how lucky I am to work with such a historically significant collection, a unique community of readers and brilliant colleagues—and, of course, our wonderful cafe!”

 

The Chained Library

Herford Cathedral

Chained Library

Hereford’s 11th-century cathedral is home to the largest “chained” library in the country, from a period that saw books secured to shelves across Europe as a security measure.

“It’s an amazing place to work,” says librarian Rosemary Firman. “As well as the only surviving library of its type, we have the largest and most detailed medieval world map.”

This is a reference to the Hereford Mappa Mundi, which dates back to 1285 and, after several moves, now sits in its rightful place at the Cathedral. The map will be a centrepiece of their exhibition to celebrate the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta, running until the end of September.

 

Innerpeffray Library

Crieff

Innerpeffray Library

Scotland’s oldest free public library lies within the sweeping Perthshire hills—just a stone’s throw from the ruins of Innerpeffray castle—and was founded in the late 1600s by the third Lord Madertie, who wished to make books available to ordinary people. Today, the library also offers visitors a unique insight into the history of Scotland and the local area, and runs exhibitions and events guided by enthusiastic volunteers.

“It’s a world of wonders,” says guide Bill Gray. “Every day provides opportunities to discover how the past has shaped the present. Then there’s the delight of sharing these discoveries with awestruck visitors.”

The library also offers pre-arranged out-of-hours tours, as well as serving as a beautiful wedding venue for small parties looking for an historic setting.

Innerpeffray Library

Visit innerpeffraylibrary.co.uk for details

 

Wordsworth Library

Lake District

Wordsworth Library

Dove Cottage, the first family home of William Wordsworth, is the site of the world’s foremost collection of literature and first-edition books relating to the works of the Romantic Poets.

“At the heart of our collection are approximately 90 per cent of Wordsworth’s original manuscripts, as well as unique material by his sister Dorothy and fellow poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge,” says Jeff Cowton, curator at The Wordsworth Trust. “In all, there are some 64,000 manuscripts, books and works of art that tell the story of a movement that shaped the way we see the world today.”

As well as visiting the library, guests can take a guided tour of the house, wander “beside the lake and beneath the trees”, enjoy an exhibition or attend a talk (below).