London's Best Specialist Libraries

Kyra Hanson
By Kyra Hanson Last edited 11 months ago
London's Best Specialist Libraries
A world of books. Photo: Darren Johnson (2012)

In our teched up, plugged in world libraries can often seem like the stuffy preserve of academics — yet these great sanctuaries to the printed word contain ideas, people and places which reveal the hidden narratives of our city. Discover which library played a crucial role in prosecuting the Nazis, take a wander around the offices of Lenin and Marx or settle down with some 19th century poltergeist footage. If books aren't your thing, admire the architecture instead.

Paranormal activity

The Society for Psychical Research examines paranormal phenomena using scientific principles and it's built up a disconcertingly healthy 6,000 volumes all related to unusual goings on.

Highlights
Amazingly the collection includes over 150 press reports of poltergeist cases, dating from the early 19th century to the present day — including video recordings of the incidents. Either our eyes have been deceiving us for hundreds of years or these poltergeists are a stubborn bunch. The archive can be visited by appointment.

Address:
The new premises will be at 1 Vernon Mews, W14 ORL, nearest tube: West Kensington

The library of stamps

The Royal Philatelic Society's library situated near Regent's Park charts the history and literature of the postal system over three floors. If this one caught your eye it's likely that you already have a burgeoning stamp collection. If not, this library — which contains over 2,250 stamp catalogues — might inspire you to start one.

Highlights
Home to the first stamp collection in the world which was started by French official Alfred Potiquet. His 1861 catalogue features hand-drawn illustrations of the stamps.

Address:
41 Devonshire Pl, W1G 6JY, nearest tube: Regent's Park
The library is open Monday to Friday.

Library of Freemasonry

Freemason's Hall in Covent Garden. Photo: shadow_in_the_water (2012)

Wondering what this fraternity club is all about? Find out at the Library and Museum of Freemasonry in Covent Garden. This grade two listed building is the only Art Deco building in London which has been preserved 'as built' and is still used for its original purpose.

If you can bear to tear your eyes away from the architectural details, you'll find the shelves are lined with a comprehensive collection of books on every aspect of Freemasonry, including the mystical and esoteric traditions, poetry and literature. Look out for the 18th and 19th century book bindings.

Highlights
You don't have to be a Freemason to appreciate the architectural beauty of the building. The interior is extravagantly decked out with mosaics, stained glass and marble. We recommend taking a free tour of the Grand Temple and ceremonial areas which occur daily, though Saturdays require booking.

Address:
Freemasons Hall, 60 Great Queen St WC2B 5AZ, nearest tube: Covent Garden/Holborn
The library is open Monday to Friday.

Marx Memorial Library

Where an exiled Lenin edited the political paper Iskra

In a leafy corner of Clerkenwell you'll find Marx Memorial Library, dedicated to advancing the ideas and science of Marxism since 1933. The collection includes material on Socialism, Trade Unions and the working class movement as well as stocking all the back issues of the Daily Worker and Morning Star.

Highlights
Have a nosy round the office where an exiled Lenin edited the socialist newspaper Iskra (The Spark) which then had to be smuggled into Russia. Notice the mural on the wall of the first floor reading room created in 1934 by Viscount Hastings. It fittingly depicts a worker sweeping aside the "chaos of capitalism". Check the website for upcoming events.

Address:
37A Clerkenwell Green, EC1R ODU, nearest tube: Farringdon
The library is open Monday to Thursday.

Nazi library

Literature on the Holocaust from The Wiener Library

The Wiener Library has a fascinating and heroic history. It was founded by Dr Alfred Wiener, a German Jew who, on returning from World War One, was appalled by the raging antisemitism which blamed Jews for the defeat. So appalled, he began gathering information on the Nazis which would later assist the prosecutors at the Nuremberg Trial.

Anyone researching The Holocaust should start here. The Wiener Library has been collecting material related to the Holocaust since 1933 and its hefty collection includes 65,000 books and pamphlets, over 17,000 photographs and over 3,000 titles of periodicals, as well as audio-visual testimonies, press cuttings, posters and objects.

Highlights
The Wiener Library contains the largest number of books related to the Holocaust in the UK. Within this there are a number of special collections which range from Nazi children's books to anti-Nazi pamphlets, which were often disguised as adverts for tea and shampoo. The Wolfson Reading Room is open to the public on weekdays free of charge.

Address:
29 Russell Square, WC1B 5DP, nearest tube: Russell Square
The library is open Monday to Friday.

The Women's Library

At The Women's Library at LSE (London School of Economics) you can leaf through 500 years worth of women's history with particular emphasis on the social, political and economic changes of the last 150 years. Alongside the 60,000 or so books the archive encompasses photographs, pamphlets, badges, banners and ceramics.

This is not to be confused with The Feminist Library (currently looking for new home) which contains a large archive on the Women's Liberation Movement from the 1960s-1990s, as well as poetry, fiction and zines.

Highlights
The Women's Library has recently opened an exhibition space to showcase some of the highlights of their extensive collection. Campaigning: Causes and Connections explores struggles for the vote, peace, gay and women's rights.

The Feminist Library usually puts on a varied programme of events.

Address:
LSE Library, 10 Portugal Street, WC2A 2HD, nearest tube: Holborn
The library is open Monday to Friday.

The Feminist Library, 5 Westminster Bridge Road, SE1 7XW nearest tube: Elephant and Castle/Lambeth North

ZSL Library

The library at London Zoo

With so many real life animals on display at ZSL you probably haven't had a chance to check out the ones on display in the library, but you should. Founded in 1826, it contains over 200,000 volumes on zoology and conservation. The library is open on weekdays and registration is required.

Highlights:
If picture books are more your thing, the library houses an extensive collection of animal drawings from the early 17th to the late 20th century, as well as galleries dedicated to extinct animals and the zoo's former inhabitants.

Address:
The Zoological Society of London, Regent's Park, NW1 4RY, nearest tube: Camden Town
The library is open Monday to Friday.

The Wellcome Collection library

Thanks to Henry Wellcome's book collecting habit which started way back in the 1890s we now have access to tons of material on the history of medicine, mental health and sociology. Henry Wellcome's art section includes over 250,000 prints and drawings which document the historical and cultural context of health and medicine from all over the world.  

Highlights:
The Wellcome library is home to one of the largest video and sound collections on medicine, health and welfare from the 20th century and beyond. Have a listen to an 1890 recording of Florence Nightingale or a 1949 programme containing the sound of heart murmurs. The library runs regular free tours on a diverse range of topics like midwifery, the occult and life in London.

Address:
183 Euston Road, NW1 2BE, nearest tube: Euston
The library is open Monday to Saturday.

Freud's Library

Freud's couch at Freud Museum. Photo: Mark Walton1 (2010)

The Freud Museum in Hampstead was Freud's family home up until the 1980s and his study is preserved as he used it. Freud's library is testament to his varied interests in religion, archaeology, science and medicine.

Highlights:
Our top five things to see at The Freud Museum includes the infamous couch where Freud counselled his patients and Dali's portrait of the man himself.

Address:
20 Maresfield Gardens, NW3 5SX, nearest tube: Finchley Road
The Museum is open Wednesday to Sunday.

Typography

The original Passmore Edwards reading room at St Bride Library

This list wouldn't be complete without including a library dedicated to the printed form itself. The St Bride's Foundation was established in 1891 in Fleet Street, then the heart of the print industry. It boasts a 50,000 strong collection of books which include Dr Johnson's Dictionary from 1755 and books on early printing techniques.

Highlights
Although the reading room is currently closed, (not permanently despite financial hardship) you can still get stuck into various events. St Bride Library also run printing and binding workshops.

Address:
14 Bride Lane, EC4Y 8EQ, nearest tube: Blackfriars
The gallery is open every day and is free to attend. Check the events page for details of upcoming events and workshops.

With thanks to Alice Ford-Smith for her extensive knowledge of London's libraries which helped with the selection you see here. Alice occasionally runs walking tours on London's library history. You can follow her on Twitter @Zone1Librarian

With thanks to the following for allowing us to use their images from the Londonist Flickr Pool: Mark Walton1, shadow_in_the_water, Darren Johnson

Last Updated 06 March 2017