The London Library – London, England - Atlas Obscura

The London Library

More than a million titles fill the labyrinthine shelves of this prestigious private library. 


“You see this book? Virginia Woolf’s husband looked up rude words in this book.” Such is the type of story associated with many of the volumes held on the shelves of the London Library. It’s a literary lover’s dream, complete with labyrinthine aisles densely packed with a collection built up since 1841.

The Library was founded by Thomas Carlyle as an alternative to the library at the British Museum, which he claimed was filled with “snorers, snufflers, wheezers, spitters” interrupting his quiet study. His subscription, members-only institute would soon attract many famous names to come and browse through the reference books—past members include Charles Dickens, Arthur Conan Doyle, Charles Darwin, Agatha Christie, and Winston Churchill—some later providing their own books for the shelves.

The London Library’s relatively unassuming and narrow façade truly belies the size of the collection. The books are arranged alphabetically by subject matter on heavily-laden stacks, which stretch continuously from ground level to the upper stories. Metal grills were laid on the floor to provide walkways, thus allowing for more books to be packed in that regular floors would.

Its shelves are filled with more than a million titles, including first editions, books dating from the 16th century to the present day, plus journals and periodicals. Want to borrow the first book that was let out in 1841? You still can! Over 97 percent of the collection is available for loan, and unlike most other libraries, there is no due date.

Know Before You Go

Membership is open to all, coming in at an annual cost of £510 (reductions are available under special circumstances). For those who just want a peek inside though, the library does offer public tours on certain weekday evenings throughout the year.

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