Eight of England’s Most Magnificent Libraries

Libraries are ingrained into the blueprints of cities worldwide. As well as their obvious educational importance, they play a substantial role culturally and historically.

England is home to some of the greatest examples of library architecture in the world: here are eight of England’s most magnificent libraries.

The John Rylands Library

Historic England Archive © bl15841

The John Rylands Library was built from 1890-99 to designs by Basil Champneys for Enriqueta Augustina Rylands in memory of her husband, in a Gothic style in red sandstone. Built to house the theological library of John Rylands (a leading textile manufacturer and philanthropist), subsequently other collections were added over time and today it is a part of the University of Manchester.

Jesmond Library

Historic England Archive © DP163046

This branch library was designed by Harry Faulkner Brown of Williamson, Faulkner, Brown and Partners. Its beautiful ‘saw tooth design’ was built specifically to enable light to expose the bookcases. Awarded the RIBA Bronze Medal in 1965, the library is Grade II Listed and is now run by volunteers.

Beverley Library and Art Gallery

Historic England Archive © DP197404

This Edwardian public library was funded by a private endowment from successful industrialist and art enthusiast John Champney. Designed in the Jacobethan style, it was built in stages: the core block in 1906 was designed by John Cash in Jacobean-revival style and his son Herbert added a gallery extension and reference library in 1928.

Lillington Library

Historic England Archive © DP158329

Designed by Henry Fedeski and built by George Wimpey and Co., Lillington Library opened in July 1960 and is a good example of the first wave of post-war branch libraries.

Characterised by its mixture of brick, concrete and glass, the library is strongly representative of the exuberant Festival of Britain style, of which the Royal Festival Hall is probably the best known example.

Dulwich Library

Historic England Archive © DP177952

Dulwich Library was designed by Charles Barry and Son in the Elizabethan Revival style and erected 1896-7. It’s a Passmore Edwards Library – a reference to John Passmore Edwards, the Victorian philanthropist who funded a number of libraries, drinking fountains, schools and other civic needs.

The architect Charles Barry Junior was the eldest son of Sir Charles Barry the co-architect of the Houses of Parliament. Amongst other commissions he designed the Great Eastern Hotel fronting Liverpool Street Station, the extension to Burlington House in Piccadilly and the south wing of the Great Ormond Street Hospital for Sick Children. The original single-storey north-west wing which was damaged during World War II was replaced around 1950.

The Bodleian Library

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The Bodleian Library is one of the oldest libraries in Europe and one of the largest in Britain: home to over 12 million items. It’s actually a collection of five buildings, spanning 500 years.

The oldest building is the Duke Humfreys Library, which opened in the 15th Century and was absorbed into the Bodleian by its founder, Thomas Bodley, in the 16th and 17th Centuries. 

Penzance School of Art and Library

Historic England West Listing Team

Designed by Silvanus Trevail and Henry White, Penzance was the first art school to be established west of Bristol, and was the centre of art teaching and exhibition in Cornwall from the late 19th Century.

Regular classes took place at the school during the twentieth century, and visiting lecturers included such notable figures as Stanhope Forbes, Lamorna Birch, Thomas Cooper Gotch, Dod Procter, Peter Lanyon, Barbara Hepworth and Graham Sutherland.

Parts of the building have been adapted to serve changing needs and uses, but the level of survival of the principal spaces of the art school is very good.

Hove Library

Historic England Archive © DP054229

Hove Public Library was built in 1907 by Architects Percy Robinson and W. Alban Jones in the Wrenaissance style. It was originally topped with a cupola, which was removed in 1967. The construction of this library was made possible by a donation from Andrew Carnegie (another leading civic philanthropist, like Passmore Edwards) in 1903 and cost around £13,500.

Written by Tyreek Hudson, Listing and Content Intern

Further Reading

15 responses to Eight of England’s Most Magnificent Libraries

  1. Roger Simmons says:

    Why not state in which area (county) each library is. I presume that the Jesmond library is in Newcastle, but I have no idea where Lillington is!

    • Charlotte says:

      Hi Roger, thanks for your feedback. If you click on the title of each library you can find out more about where it is.

    • Alain Foote says:

      Lillington is in Warwickshire near Royal Leamington Spa

  2. Margaret Oliver says:

    Lovely to see Beverley Library featured. I worked there in the 1960s into the 1970s.

    • Charles Spurgeon says:

      What a joy to enter such a magnificent building and to have worked there must give you many happy memories. Thanks for your comment.

  3. Geraldine Grace says:

    Earleston library in Wallasey Merseyside is a beautiful Carnegie library

  4. Patricia Johnson says:

    Can’t believe you didn’t include Liverpool’s amazing library!!!

  5. Alison Fairchild says:

    My all-time favourite is/was the magnificent Birmingham Reference Library, with its soaring sweep of staircase. Demolished in the 60s? 70s? to make way for roads. Does anyone have any photos? I loved that place.

    • Juliet Shipman says:

      Yes, I remember it well, a great Victorian library. There must be photos taken before it was knocked down

  6. Sharon boothroyd says:

    Why not check out Brighouse library in West Yorkshire, a substantial impressive Victorian building known as The Rydings? It has a lovely little park in the grounds, a war memorial and the church is right next door too!

  7. Mark Ling says:

    If Historic England considers a follow up with “Eight of England’s Most Interesting Libraries” please consider Broomhill Library in Ipswich. The Grade II listed structure was built in 1942 as a bombproof decontamination unit and converted in 1948. It is surely the safest place to read a book in the country!

  8. Andrew Robley says:

    Check out St Albans Library, Victoria Street, St Albans, Hertfordshire. Built early C20th. Now a restaurant but mostly original externally and in part internally, including a stained glass window which commemorates Andrew Carnegie. who was its benefactor.

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