Not necessarily a library in someone’s home, a private (or independent) library is one that relies on membership fees and donations rather than public funds. Centuries ago, nearly all libraries in the UK were private except for Chetham’s Library in Manchester. While public libraries are now the norm, many private libraries still exist that require membership in order to enter, borrow, and use other library resources. While many are associated with colleges and universities, some are more publicly available, provided you pay the fee.
King’s College London
One of the city’s many academic libraries, one typically has to be a student, faculty member, or alumnus to join the library. However, visiting academics are also eligible to apply for membership. The campus’s main library is the Maughan Library which forms part of the Strand Campus of the college. The gorgeous 1851 building features a number of architectural wonders, including the Weston Room, which dates back to the reign of King Henry III when it was a chapel, as well as the reading room, where the great glass dome was featured in the film The Da Vinci Code.
University College London
Another academic institution, UCL’s Main Library is located in the Main Building on campus and is dedicated to the arts and humanities. The university has another sixteen libraries dedicated to various subjects from archaeology to medical sciences, and a couple more that feature later in this list. One of the most popular features of the library is the Donaldson Reading Room, located on the library’s first floor and housing most of the library’s collection of law books. It was built in 1849 and served as the college’s original library.
London Mathematical Society
One of the nation’s learned societies for mathematics (the other being the Royal Statistics Society), the LMS Library holds a collection of books on math that began in 1866. It was originally housed as part of UCL, then moved out, and then back to UCL in 1928, where it remains today. The library is open to students, faculty, alums, and LMS members. Joining the LMS is probably the easiest way to gain access to the numerous textbooks, articles, essays, and other documents to help develop and encourage your own interest in math.
The Women’s Library
Housed in the London School of Economics, the Women’s Library was founded by the London Society for Women’s Suffrage in 1926, with its first librarian, Vera Douie, serving in the post for forty-one years and transforming it into a major resource on women’s history and the suffrage movement. As such, the Women’s Library is as much a library as it is a history museum. The library includes over 60,000 books and pamphlets, 3,000 journal titles, 5,000 museum objects, 500 archives, and much more related to the suffrage movement and the history of women in the UK. Membership is easy for students and faculty of the LSE, and memberships are available to the public by completing the application.
Dr. William’s Library
For an interesting look at the history of English Protestanism, the library founded by the will of Dr. Daniel Williams focuses on Protestant Nonconformist theology and opened in 1729. Dr. William’s original bequeathment totaled 7,600 materials and today totals over 40,000 books and pamphlets as well as 67,000 journals and even includes medieval manuscripts. Members of the public are permitted to enter the library on applying for a visitor’s card, but you must apply for membership and pay the £30 fee to join. A visit to the library can be an interesting time for anyone interested in theology and religious history.
Much as with Dr. Williams, the Wellcome library was founded by materials donated from the estate of Sir Henry Wellcome. Sir Henry had been a massive collector of books during his life, and on his death, the Wellcome Trust formed the library to support medical research, as those tomes formed a large portion of his collection, including books on alchemy and witchcraft. Those interested in joining can apply for a five-year membership card to gain access not only to the medical books, but also a vast collection of Asian works, some of which are printed on bamboo sheets. The library also includes a number of artworks, visual media, and sound files.
Senate House Library, University of London
While some university libraries are limited to students, faculty, and alums, the University of London has several membership schemes available to the general public. Senate House is the main administration building for the University of London, and floors four through eighteen house the library. The library holds around 3 million volumes, 5,200 journals, and the University of London Archives. During the early 20th Century, the Ministry of Information had offices here, which inspired several works including Graham Green’s novel The Ministry of Fear, its film adaptation by Fritz Lang, and the building itself was the basis for the Ministry of Truth from George Orwell’s 1984.
Institute of Advanced Legal Studies
Falling under the University of London’s School of Advanced Studies, the Institute of Advanced Legal Studies is available to legal researchers and students not only at the University of London, but from universities and law schools worldwide. IALS doesn’t just hold law-related books for the UK, but has a wealth of information concerning the laws of many other countries. There are over 304,395 volumes and 2,800 serial titles in the library’s collection. While the focus is on undergraduate students, graduate students, and faculty members, attorneys may gain membership with the payment of a fee and completed application.
Highgate Literary and Scientific Institution
HLSI was founded in 1839 by Harry Chester, who was caught up in the movements of the period to foster increased learning in the arts and sciences. Today, the library offers a wide range of materials and courses on languages, art, music, culture, history, and science. The library also pays particular attention to the works of Samuel Taylor Coleridge and John Betjeman, who were Highgate residents. Special collections also features a lot of material on London and the neighborhoods around Highgate, including Islington and Hampstead. An application and payment of at least £87 is necessary to join and access the library.
Perhaps the greatest subscription library in the city, the London Library is the largest independent lending library in the world. Thomas Carlyle founded it in 1841 after he became dissatisfied with the practices of the British Museum Library. Documents in its collection range from the 16th Century to the present, with a whopping total of around 1 million collectible and roughly 8,000 more added every year, of which 97% are available for loan to members. Membership fees are a bit heftier than other libraries, with a £495 annual cost that can be paid in monthly installments, while partners and children cost £298 each. Lifetime memberships are also available and depend on your age at the time of application.