Books and more; discover history, culture and heritage at British libraries

Published on : Friday, January 22, 2016

download (2)As Oxford University’s Weston Library heads towards its one-year anniversary this March, we look at why we should be shouting about British libraries. Even in this digital age, they’re real treasure troves at the heart of British towns and cities; some are even worth visiting just for their architecture. And not only are they a great resource for visitors – with their archives of local history and information on what to see in a destination – many also offer cultural events.


Take the British Library in London; it runs a multitude of events, from dating nights to Georgian-inspired DJs and performance artists. Once part of the British Museum, in 1997 it moved to a new building next to St Pancras station. Inside, it’s full of treasures; including the Diamond Sutra, the world’s oldest printed book, some of Leonardo da Vinci’s notebooks as well as two copies of the Magna Carta. It’s the largest library in the world and receives a copy of every book published in Britain. Anyone with proof of an address can apply for a reading pass and most of its exhibitions are free to enter as well; this year sees Shakespeare taking central stage to mark the 400th anniversary of his death – including the only known script in Shakespeare’s hand .


Shakespeare also takes a bow at the Library of Birmingham in 2016 with a special exhibition. The much-loved construction was built by Dutch architects Mecanoo in 2013 in the centre of the city. Last year more than two million people came through its doors, making it one of the most visited buildings in Britain. Google has set up an innovation lab, and there are also cafés and a full calendar of events. The library has one of the world’s best collections of Shakespeare, including two copies of the First Folio, first published in 1623; the playwright’s home was in Stratford-upon-Avon is just 40 minutes by train.


Just like the British Library, the Bodleian Library in Oxford, an hour from London, also automatically receives copies of every published book, so it’s the perfect place to hunt out that obscure graphic novel, as long as you’re a student at Oxford University. However, with the opening of the Weston Library annex last year, there’s space for more exhibitions and events that are open to the public. Even if you’re not a student, you can take one of the library’s regular tours, which cost £7, visiting the medieval Duke Humfrey’s library.


Britain’s smaller libraries are also worth searching out. Chethams in Manchester is the oldest public library in the English-speaking world, founded in 1653 for ‘the sons of honest, industrious and painful parents’ and is housed in a 15th-century building that was previously a prison in the English Civil War. With rich carvings and vaulted ceilings, some of the original reading stools are still in use. If you ask to visit or study there, you’ll be following in the footsteps of Karl Marx who started writing the Communist Manifesto at Chethams with Friedrich Engels and you can still see the alcove where they worked.


Before public libraries, subscription libraries were popular, places where gentlemen would pop in to read newspapers and borrow books. One of the few survivors of this time is in Linen Hall, in Belfast, Northern Ireland, which started life as a coffee house and discussion group meeting place in 1788. Now it’s housed in a stately Victorian warehouse and has a rich source of historical source material for ancestor-hunters. A temporary three-month membership starts at £37 and tours are available from £7, including tea and scones!

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