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7 of the Best Libraries in Britain You Need to Visit

Great Britain has some extraordinary libraries that do much more than just stock books. Find out what else they have to offer with our short guide to 7 of the best – and how to get there by train

Books, cafes, shops, exhibitions, activities and more, today’s libraries are dynamic, vibrant spaces that have a lot to offer people of all ages and interests. And Britain is home to some absolute wonders, from big names to lesser-known gems, which you can read all about below. 

 

Oh, and one more thing – they’re all easy to get to by train, and more affordably, too, with 1/3 off tickets when you book and travel with a Railcard(external link, opens in a new tab).

1. The British Library, London

One of the largest libraries in the world, The British Library(external link, opens in a new tab) is estimated to contain over 13.5 million printed books, with stacks and stacks of them on display. A highlight is the unmissable 6-storey glass tower that rises from the heart of the building. It contains books that used to belong to King George III no less. 

Beyond the multitude of books, the library also hosts temporary and permanent exhibitions – including the Treasures of the British Library – offers tours, and has cafes and restaurants for refreshments, as well as hard-to-resist gift shops. 

Nearest station: London Kings Cross

2. John Rylands Library, Manchester

Manchester’s John Rylands Library(external link, opens in a new tab) – or Rylands to the locals – is best known for its vast collection of rare books, manuscripts and archives. It houses 100s of special collections on everything from 19th-century North African culture and British pop music to LGBTQ+ history and Western European manuscripts.  

As well as a rotation of events and exhibitions, Rylands, which is based within a Grade I listed neo-Gothically-inspired building, also runs regular drop-in activities. Head here for talks, tours and live demonstrations of its Columbian press.  

Nearest station: Manchester Oxford Road 

 

3. National Art Library (V&A Museum), London 

If it’s an art-themed library experience you’re after, look no further than the National Art Library(external link, opens in a new tab), whose reading rooms are packed with one of Britain’s largest and most diverse collections of artistic literature.  

Leaf your way through the pages of over a million books of prints, photographs and writings on everything from fashion and furniture to design sculpture and ceramics. That’s on top of the countless journals, comics and auction house sales catalogues. 

Nearest station: Kensington Olympia 

 

4. The Bodleian Old Library, Oxford 

Walking through the historic reading rooms of Oxford’s Bodleian Old Library(external link, opens in a new tab) is like stepping back in time – its rich mahogany shelves are packed with everything from ancient history and classics to philosophy and theology.  

The labyrinthian library also has a nook and cranny for every type of reader. Settle into the south end Lower Reading Room for a device-free zone or the Upper Reading Room for study seats equipped with sockets. For a behind-the-scenes look at the entire old library, book a 30-, 60- or 90-minute guided tour.   

Nearest station: Oxford 

 

5. Central Library, Liverpool 

Whether you’ve got an appetite for the history of the world or the history of your family (if you have history in the city), Liverpool’s Central Library(external link, opens in a new tab) has you covered. As well as housing over 15,000 rare books, it also displays local book enthusiast Hugh Frederick Hornby’s private collection, featuring 1,000s of fine prints and ornate editions.  

If you’re looking to build your family tree, head to the library’s Record Office to dig through centuries of official documents, clippings and photographs. Or, to lose yourself in a good book for an hour or so, take a seat in the beautiful Grade II listed Picton Reading Room. 

Nearest station: Liverpool Lime Street 

 

6. The Sir Duncan Rice Library, Aberdeen 

In contrast to many other great British libraries, Aberdeen’s Sir Duncan Rice Library(external link, opens in a new tab) is a more modern construction. Built in 2012, it packs in almost half a million books on everything from arts and humanities to sciences and sociology.  

As well as shelves upon shelves teeming with knowledge, the architectural masterpiece includes 1,200 dedicated reading spaces and a ground-floor gallery that regularly hosts events and exhibitions open to the public. Should you tire of wandering its 7 floors, the Hardback Café  is on hand with sandwiches, cakes and drinks.  

Nearest station: Aberdeen 

 

7. Gladstone’s Library, Hawarden 

Want to spend more than a day in one of Britain’s finest libraries? Book a stay at Gladstone’s Library(external link, opens in a new tab) in Hawarden. Built and named in honour of the former 19th century UK Prime Minister, William Gladstone, the residential library hosts guests in its 26 bedrooms, cosy lounges and restaurant. 

While you’re here, you could easily spend days exploring the 150,000-item-strong collection and your evenings enjoying the historic and luxurious surroundings, from your cosy room to the reading rooms. It’s also well worth checking out what’s on while you’re here – there’s always an expert talk, guided tour or masterclass happening.  

Nearest station: Hawarden 

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Gladstone’s Library image credits: © 2024, Gladstone’s Library. All rights reserved.