United Kingdom

7 Totally Rad Things to See at the British Library

The British Library in London is the largest library in the world. Their collection of books, maps, newspapers, magazines, music, and other objects exceeds 150 million items, with at least 3 million added every single year. I had visited the library last summer to see their temporary propaganda exhibition, but until a few weeks ago I’d never been simply to see the library and its permanent contents.

The British Library is located just a few steps from the King’s Cross/St Pancras underground station. If you enter via the portico on Euston Road you’ll be greeted by the iconic “Newton” statue by Eduardo Paolozzi in the piazza. There is also a very cleverly named indoor-outdoor cafe, The Last Word, in this area.

While it’s not my favorite building in London in terms of beauty, the British Library certainly takes the cake in terms of size. The library has over 112,000 square meters of floor space spread out over 14 floors. (That’s over 1,200,000 square feet for those of us who can’t quite grasp the metric system yet.) It was the largest public building built in the UK in the 20th century, and I suppose it has to be to accommodate its ever-expanding collections!

7 Totally Rad Things To See At The British Library In London

7 Totally Rad Things To See At The British Library In London

7 Totally Rad Things To See At The British Library In London

There are three free permanent exhibition rooms in the British Library – the Sir John Ritblat Gallery, the Philatelic Exhibition (stamp collections), and Conservation Uncovered, a small exhibition about preserving books and music. The majority of my favorite things to see at the British Library are found in the Sir John Ritblat Gallery where over 200 treasures are displayed, but there are quite a few interesting things to see outside of this popular gallery, too. Keep reading for seven totally rad things you won’t want to miss seeing at the British Library!

I apologize for the quality of the following pictures. Using a cell phone camera in extremely low lighting is never a good idea!

7 Totally Rad Things To See At The British Library In London

7 Totally Rad Things To See At The British Library In London

The King’s Library

If you make it past the front entrance, you won’t be able to miss this one. The King’s Library is an impressive six-story glass tower at the center of the library housing King George III’s collection of over 85,000 books and manuscripts. Most date from the 1400’s to 1800’s and can be requested for viewing in the Rare Books and Music reading room.

7 Totally Rad Things To See At The British Library In London

Mozart’s Musical Diary

For the last eight years of his life, Mozart kept a hand-written notebook of his compositions – date, title, and instrumentation on the left; first few bars of music on the right. It’s behind glass, of course, so you can’t look through the pages, but it’s still pretty spectacular to see the handwriting, with its smudges and corrections, of someone so brilliant.

Works by other composers, such as Beethoven and Chopin, are also displayed here in the Sir John Ritblat Gallery.

7 Totally Rad Things To See At The British Library In London

Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures Under Ground

If you can read the text in the grainy photo, there’s a pretty neat story behind this book that most of us now know as the popular children’s book, Alice In Wonderland. Touchscreen computers are scattered throughout the gallery where you can flip through and read the pages of this book, plus a few others. (In the time Cory and I spent walking around the gallery, Lexie had already read over half of Alice’s Adventures Under Ground!)

Other important handwritten pieces of literature can be seen here as well, like Beowulf, Jane Austen’s Persuasion, selected works by Charles Dickens, and Shakespeare’s First Folio.

7 Totally Rad Things To See At The British Library In London

The Gutenberg Bible

Printed in 1454 and only one of a few remaining copies, the Gutenberg Bible was the earliest printed book in Europe using Johann Gutenberg’s printing press, an invention allowing multiple copies of one material to be printed quickly. The thing that caught my eye here was the beautiful illustrations. I never had anything like that in my old King James version!

Sidenote: If you’re looking for the oldest ever known printed book, that would be The Diamond Sutra, a book printed on a scroll in 868 in China, and it’s also on display in the Sir John Ritblat Gallery.

The Magna Carta

Sorry, no picture for this one. The Magna Carta is kept in a separate room attached to the Sir John Ritblat Gallery under even lower lighting than the rest of the pieces in the gallery. It was difficult to make out the text with human eyes, so my dinky phone camera certainly couldn’t have captured it. Still, it’s absolutely worth seeing. The Magna Carta was a charter, signed in medieval England between King John and his barons, that eventually led to the rule of constitutional law in England and inspired other famous documents, like the U.S. Constitution. Only four copies of the original version remain – two are here at the British Library.

7 Totally Rad Things To See At The British Library In London

7 Totally Rad Things To See At The British Library In London

The Beatles’ Handwritten Song Lyrics

My personal favorite thing to see at the British Library are The Beatles’ song lyrics, handwritten by members of the band. You can tell these lyrics were written on a whim as anything and everything was used to copy them down – backs of envelopes, torn out notebook pages, and even the back of a birthday card meant for John’s son, Julian. (The age before everyone just used the Notes app on their smartphone!)

An unsent letter by John is also displayed here with doodles of himself drawn on it. A pair of headphones rest next to the small exhibit allowing visitors to listen to The Beatles introduce themselves or choose from a selection of popular songs. This is a must-see for Beatles fans!

7 Totally Rad Things To See At The British Library In London


Although it’s displayed in a somewhat less obvious part of the library, make sure you check out this unique piece of 3D art by Patrick Hughes located on the lower ground floor before you leave. (Just ask a library employee – they’ll be able to point you in the right direction!) I won’t ruin the surprise for you, but to get the full effect you’ll need to walk back and forth in front of the piece, keeping your eyes trained on it. It’s a very cool illusion!

Visiting the British Library and its permanent galleries, including everything mentioned above, is free, but if you’re coming here to check out a particular book, keep in mind that materials inside the library are not available for loans. If you’d like to use items in the library for reading or reference, you’ll need to submit documentation for a pass to one of the library’s reading rooms.

The British Library is open every day. There are tours available for all of the public areas, as well as the reading rooms, but you’re also always welcome to explore the public areas of the library on your own like we did!

British Library: Website
Address: 96 Euston Road, London NW1 2DB

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7 Totally Rad Things To See At The British Library In London

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  • LM
    March 30, 2014 at 7:47 PM

    I thought the British Library was actually the second largest library in the world, the first the US Library of Congress. Just curious?

    • Sarah Shumate
      March 31, 2014 at 12:33 PM

      Interesting that you brought that up – I had to Google it since I was going on information I was told at the library for this article. You may be right. It looks like that title goes back and forth between the British Library and the Library of Congress, depending on how many materials they acquire each year. Either way, it is safe to say that they are the two largest libraries in the world – no others even come close!

  • Anna
    March 26, 2014 at 10:21 PM

    I love how you bring some of these things to life. To be honest I hadn’t even thought of visiting the British Library and now it’s on my ‘must’ list. What an inspiring collection of things. I’m definitely making a trip as soon as I can!

  • Emmymom
    March 26, 2014 at 8:09 PM

    Okay that building is huge!! So many amazing displays and awesome things to see. My bible doesn’t have all those pretty pictures either :)

  • Sammy @ Days Like This
    March 26, 2014 at 1:14 PM

    I’ve never thought of going here before. Looks really interesting! It’s on the London list ;)

    • Sarah Shumate
      March 26, 2014 at 3:14 PM

      Along with 100 other things, right? :) I have a list that I keep checking things off of, but I keep adding things faster than I check them off!

      • Sammy @ Days Like This
        March 26, 2014 at 4:59 PM

        Yes. I reckon. My list just keeps getting longer. I feel like I need about 10 years in this city!

  • Tammy Chrzan
    March 25, 2014 at 4:16 PM

    PS… how did you get your tweets to show up on the side of your blog?? So cool!

    • Sarah Shumate
      March 25, 2014 at 4:21 PM

      It’s a widget within Twitter. Go to your Settings, choose Widgets from the list on the left, and click Create New. It’ll allow you to size it correctly for your blog. Then just copy the code into a new gadget in Blogger and you’re good to go!

  • Jamie | The Healthy Passport
    March 25, 2014 at 9:29 AM

    This is amazing…..I could stay in there for days!!

  • Miwa
    March 24, 2014 at 12:17 PM

    Wow, thanks for the info! This looks like such an amazing place. I could definitely spend days in there. First stop… the Beatles Letters & Lyrics ;)

  • Dannielle @ Chicadeedee
    March 24, 2014 at 4:41 PM

    I actually had no idea there was so much history within the british library! I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised. Now I really want to go!

  • Tammy Chrzan
    March 24, 2014 at 3:34 PM

    Okay. Just wow.
    We all know that Libraries are awesome because well… They have books! But the British Library?? OH HELLO!! I so need to hit this on my next trip! I think I would need a full day in there though, I get a little lost when I see books… put some history in there as well and you may not see me for hours!
    Loved the pictures, and loved this piece!
    I hope you have a great week Sarah!
    Much love to you,
    Tammy x

    • Sarah Shumate
      March 25, 2014 at 9:28 AM

      The little gallery we were in didn’t take more than an hour or so to see, but yeah…if you wanted to visit the Reading Rooms, it might take all day!

      • Tammy Chrzan
        March 25, 2014 at 4:15 PM

        Oh girl please! I so wouldn’t go to the Library without actually READING!!!

  • Amanda Kendle
    March 24, 2014 at 5:43 AM

    Great post, I am a big library lover and love to visit them when I travel – so far the New York Public Library is a favourite but I will definitely check out this one some time.

  • Mar
    March 23, 2014 at 2:46 PM

    What a cool looking place! So much history.

  • rorybore
    March 23, 2014 at 4:14 AM

    I think I could quite easily spend hours upon hours there. My dream has always been to have a real English style library in my house. Not likely to ever happen, but a girl can dream! The Beatles exhibit would be so cool.

  • Sara Louise
    March 22, 2014 at 12:38 PM

    WOW WOW WOW! I could spend a day lost in there! Actually I WANT to spend a day lost in there :)

  • Carly @ Let Us Wanderlust
    March 22, 2014 at 3:05 AM

    I love museums and the British Museum seems to something for everyone! I’d love Mozart’s diary and the handwritten lyrics by The Beatles! I think that’s so cool :)

    • Sarah Shumate
      March 23, 2014 at 7:00 PM

      This is actually the British Library, but the British Museum is pretty cool, too! :)

    • Carly @ Let Us Wanderlust
      March 24, 2014 at 5:12 AM

      Oops I mean LIBRARY! Those wonderful “museum-like” exhibitions totally fooled me! It seems nothing like a normal Library I’ve been to and more like what you’d find at a museum – and that’s why I love it! So cool :)

  • Emma @ AdventuresofaLondonKiwi
    March 22, 2014 at 12:14 AM

    I’s quite a place, though I didn’t see/know about the Beatles links! One time we went and stumbled upon Jack Kerouac’s original manuscript for On The Road. It’s quite something else!

  • Alyx
    March 21, 2014 at 8:25 PM

    I honestly never thought of a library as a place to see when traveling, but this makes me think that maybe I should re-think that.

  • Jenn
    March 21, 2014 at 8:18 PM

    I NEED to go here!

  • Sara Andrea Vera
    March 21, 2014 at 7:33 PM

    Hello! I read your blog frequently but I think this is the first time I comment.

    I have a question: are photos allowed (without flash, of course)?

    • Sarah Shumate
      March 23, 2014 at 6:59 PM

      Hi Sara! Thanks for reading! :) Good question about the photos – I’m not really sure. I didn’t ask because I didn’t want to be told no. Ha! No one approached me and told me not to take them, but that doesn’t mean it’s allowed. If you’re worried, you might want to check by asking at the front desk when you walk in!

      • Sara Andrea Vera
        March 26, 2014 at 4:04 PM

        Thanks! I think I don’t want to be told no either :P

  • Katrin
    March 21, 2014 at 6:44 PM

    Can I move in there? I would really love to live in that library. Thank you. :) Thanks so much for sharing this, I guess you know how much I love the post!

  • Jo
    March 21, 2014 at 1:23 PM

    Oh these are great!

  • Nicole @ Treasure Tromp
    March 21, 2014 at 4:36 PM

    time out. these are all incredible!! I had no idea this was all there!

  • Sara Downton
    March 21, 2014 at 9:10 AM

    Confession: I’ve been working across from the British Library for about a month now, and still haven’t been there! I think this post might be the final push I need to just cross the street and go in one afternoon!

  • Jacintha | Urban Pixxels
    March 21, 2014 at 7:42 AM

    I’ve been meaning to go here for such a long time now. It looks really interesting! Did you do the tour? I’d also still like to see the ‘old reading room’ of the British Museum which looks very impressive on pictures.

    • Sarah Shumate
      March 23, 2014 at 6:54 PM

      We didn’t take the tour – we just went through on our own, but that also meant we didn’t get to see the Reading Rooms. Maybe some other time I’ll apply for a pass just so I can check them out! I hope you had fun visiting on Saturday!