“The British Library Complex at St. Pancras,” by S.M. O’Connor


Established in 1973, The British Library is an offshoot of The British Museum like the Natural History Museum.  It legally became a separate entity in 1973 and moved into its own quarters in St. Pancras in 1998.  Sir Frederick Sydney Dainton (1914-1997),[1] Chairman of The British Library Board from 1979 to 1985, convinced Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher that The British Library needed a building of its own.  Sir Colin Alexander St John (“Sandy”) Wilson (1922-2007) designed The British Library building.

The King’s Library, which had been amassed by King George III (and should not be confused with the Old Royal Library), and donated to The British Museum by King George IV in 1823, is now housed in the six-story King’s Library Tower.  Wilson designed The King’s Library Tower, which also houses the Greenville Collection.  The British Library stated, “Many of the books are on view to visitors behind UV-filter glass which, together with the environmental control system, helps maintain appropriate light, temperature and humidity levels. Behind the moveable bookcases containing George III’s books, there is in fact another row of shelves containing a similar collection formed by Thomas Grenville (1755-1846)… The King’s Library remains a working library, and throughout the day volumes are retrieved for readers working in the Rare Books and Music Reading Room.”

The British Library Complex at St. Pancras

When The British Library left the physical premises of The British Museum in 1998, the organization moved only a few blocks north.  From the east end of the block on which The British Museum sits, one would walk north up Southampton Row, which becomes Woburn Place to the intersection with Euston Road.

The University of London campus is also nearby, on Gower Street, bounded by The British Museum to the south and Euston Street to the north.  The London Zoo is also a short distance away, in Regent’s Park to the west of The British Museum.

The British Library occupies an entire city block north of Euston Road/A501 highway. The block is also bounded by Midland Road to the east and Ossulston Street to the west.  The address is The British Library, 96 Euston Road, London, England NW1 2DB.

It is across the street (Midland Road) from St. Pancras International Station.  [The latter is a terminal train station that consists of two grand Victorian buildings.  A train shed designed by engineer William Henry Barlow (1812-1902) that was the largest single-span building on Earth when it opened in 1868 is fronted by the Gothic Revival-style Grand Midland Hotel building designed by Sir George Gilbert Scott (1811-1878).][2]  St. Pancras International Station is a terminal station for the Midland Main Line, Eusostar, and Southeastern railways.  The British Library is also very close to King’s Cross, a terminal station for both the East Coast Main Line and Great Northern railways.  King’s Cross is at the intersection of Euston Road and York Way.  It is across the street from St. Pancras International Station, the street being Pancras Road.  The two terminal railway stations are served by London Underground’s largest interchange station: King’s Cross St. Pancras, where six of London Underground’s lines meet.  Combined, the main-line railway and subway stations form one of the biggest and most important transportation hubs in London.

The British Library and railroad stations are in the St. Pancras district of the London Borough of Camden.  The St. Pancras district is named after St. Pancras Parish in Somer’s Town in Central London.[3]  Students at Maria Fidelis Catholic School[4] and Regent High School, both of which are to the northwest, are in a particularly good position to use The British Library.


Figure 1 Credit: Ian Hay Caption: This is The British Library at St. Pancras and environs.  The British Library is at the center, the St. Pancras train station and hotel complex is at the right, and the Francis Crick Institute is at the top.


Figure 2 Credit: Paul Grundy Caption: This is an aerial view of The British Library, the plaza of which was originally called the Concourse and now is called the Piazza.  The splendid Gothic Revival-style St. Pancras Chambers building can be seen in the top right hand corner of the picture.


Figure 3 Credit: The British Library Caption: This is an aerial view of the Poet’s Circle in The British Library’s Piazza.


Figure 4 Credit: Paul Grundy Caption: This is The British Library seen from the intersection of Euston Road/A501 and Ossulston Street.


Figure 5 Credit: Paul Grundy Caption: Architect Sandy Wilson commissioned the Italian-Scottish sculptor Sir Eduardo Luigi Paolozzi (1924-2005) to produce the bronze sculpture Newton After Blake (1995), which sits in the Piazza.


Figure 6 Credit: Paul Grundy Caption: This is another view of The British Library Piazza.


Figure 7 Credit: Paul Grundy Caption: Paolozzi was inspired by poet, painter, and printmaker William Blake’s 1795 print that illustrated how Sir Isaac Newton’s equations changed the way humanity views the universe to being governed by mathematical laws we can discern.


Figure 8 Credit: Paul Grundy Caption: This is the Foyer.


Figure 9 Credit: Paul Grundy Caption: This is another view of the Foyer.

The Reading Rooms are open Mondays through Saturdays.  There are nine sets of reading rooms. The Humanities Reading Rooms are on the first and second floors.  The Rare Books and Music Reading Room, the Social Sciences Reading Room, and the Business & IP Centre are on the first floor.  The Manuscripts Reading Room and the Newsroom are on the second floor.  The Science Reading Rooms are on the second and third floors.  The Asian & African Studies Reading Room and the Maps Reading Room are on the third floor.


Figure 10 Credit: Paul Grundy Caption: Kids, this is what we call a “reading room.”  This one is the Manuscripts Reading Room on the second floor.


Figure 11 Credit: Paul Grundy Caption: This is a reading room that overlooks another reading room.


Figure 12 Credit: Charles Birchmore, The British Library Caption: This is the Issue Desk in the Newsroom at The British Library, as seen on April 14, 2014.


Figure 13 Credit: Charles Birchmore, The British Library Caption: These are study booths in the Newsroom at The British Library, as seen on April 14, 2014.


Figure 14 Credit: The British Library Caption: This is the Harry M. Weinrebe Learning Centre, as seen on September 15, 2010.


Figure 15 Credit: The British Library Caption: This is another view of the Harry M. Weinrebe Learning Centre, as seen on September 15, 2010.


Figure 16 Credit: Paul Grundy Caption: This is The King’s Library Tower in The British Library.


Figure 17 Credit: Paul Grundy Caption: This is a view of The King’s Library Tower and the King’s Library Café in The British Library.

What Happened to The British Museum’s Central Library?

After The British Library moved out of The British Museum, the latter’s Central Library remained in the Reading Room.  The holdings include books on the history of The British Museum, a few of The British Museum’s rare books, and a collection of rare books from the House of Commons.  In 2007 the Central Library moved into the Paul Hamlyn Library, a reference library The British Museum had established in 2000, and effectively merged with it to clear the Reading Room to become exhibit space.  In 2007, The First Emperor: China’s Terracotta Army was the first special exhibit The British Museum held in the Reading Room.

The British Museum later announced a few years ago that it had to close Paul Hamlyn Library “as part of efforts to accommodate a 15% cut to the Museum’s grant-in-aid budget.”  Regrettably, that remains the case.  The Centre for Anthropology library remains open to all museum visitors while researchers may access the curatorial departmental libraries (Ancient Egypt & Sudan, Asia, Coins & Medals, Greece & Rome, Middle East, Prehistory and Europe, and Prints & Drawings) by appointment.

The Paul Hamlyn Library, Central Library, and House of Commons joint collection, contains 50,000 books and journals. The subject matter includes archaeology, history, art, numismatics, Egyptology, Classical antiquities, Oriental art, and museum studies.  It covers the range of cultures and types of collection covered by The British Museum. There is a collection of works relating to the history of The British Museum, including guidebooks dating back to 1762. The collection includes a copy of every British Museum publication.  There is a collection of ephemera relating to past exhibitions, including a poster archive.

Eateries and Retail Operations

There are a number of restaurants and cafes in The British Library.  The Terrace Restaurant, located on Floor 1, sells artisanal breads, quiches, sausage rolls, scotch eggs, and seasonal salads, as well as Nude Espresso coffees and teas.  It has a view of the terrace.

The Terrace Café, also located on Floor 1, serves hot meals and has a salad bar.  The range of drinks includes wines and beers as well as juices and hot drinks.

The Origin Café, located in the Entrance Hall, is a pop-up espresso bar.  It sells doughnuts, pastries, and, of course, coffee.

Origin Coffee, Euston Road, is on Euston Road.  It sells coffee, espresso, sourdough toast, poached eggs, pork bellies, smoked salmon, quiches, vegetable rolls, sausages rolls, and sandwiches.  Click here to see the menu.  Anna Hart of Hart Miller Design, who designed the interior, wanted it to mirror The British Library’s interior.

The Rotunda Bar is located not within a rotunda as the name implies, but in the Piazza.  When the sun is shining, customers can enjoy drinks and snacks in the open air and when it is raining customers can enjoy their snacks under canopies.  Also located in the Piazza is The Last Word, which sells freshly ground coffee, tea, cold drinks, sandwiches, cakes, pastries, and snacks.


Figure 22 Credit: The British Library Caption: This is The British Library Piazza with The Last Word visible in the bottom left hand corner.

The King’s Library Café is located on the First Floor.  King’s Library Coffee Bar is located at the entrance of The King’s Library Café. It serves tea and coffee from Nude Coffee.


Figure 23 Credit: Paul Grundy Caption: This is a closer view of The King’s Library Tower and King’s Library Café.

The Upper Floor sells sandwiches, salads, cakes, and snacks, and a full range of hot and cold drinks.

The British Library Shop sells books (of course) and literary-themed gifts.  The Online Shop sells books, stationary, notebooks, postcards, magnets, keyrings, socks, maps, atlases, globes, and sextants.

Members have access to the Member’s Room, which overlooks The King’s Library and has its own bar.  They also have unlimited free access to The British Library’s exhibits, priority booking for events, and a 20% discount at public restaurants, cafes, and shops.

Renting Out the Conference Centre

One can rent out facilities in The British Library, including The King’s Library Gallery and the Terrace Restaurant.  The King’s Library Gallery can accommodate eighty people for a dinner or 150 for a reception.  The Terrace Restaurant can accommodate up to 200 people indoors and 400 people in combined indoor and outdoor spaces.

The Knowledge Centre (formerly called the Conference Centre) has the Knowledge Centre Theatre (formerly called the Auditorium), which can accommodate 255 people, and five “break out rooms” (meeting rooms), each of which are named after a famous author or authoress: the Chaucer Room, the Elio Room, the Dickens Room, Brontë Room B, and Brontë Room A.  [That is to say, the Brontë Room can be divided into two rooms.]  The Foyer, which features Spanish steps, has a private bar that can be used for catering for events in the Auditorium.

The British Library Boardroom Suite is located on the fourth floor and has private life (elevator) access.  In addition to the actual British Library Boardroom, it features a foyer and four meeting rooms: Cotton, Sloane, Harley, and Burney.


Figure 29 Credit: The British Library Caption: This is one of The British Library’s two copies of the Magna Carta being prepared for display in the Conservation Centre.

2018 Statistics

Last year, according to the 46th Annual Report of The British Library (2018-2019), The British Library acquired 413,000 printed items.  This included the reception of 290,000 physical items under legal deposit, everything that had been published that year in the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland.  They filled eight kilometers of shelving space, which added to a national collection of 746 kilometers of shelving space, 70% of which meets international standards of environmental storage conditions.  People made 418,000 visits to the British Library Reading Rooms at St. Pancras and Boston Spa.  There were 10,600,000 users of The British Library’s digital learning resources.  Approximately 1,100,000 people attended exhibits or exhibitions at The British Library at St. Pancras.  Over 100,000 people visited the exhibit Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms: Art, Word, War.


Figure 40 Credit: Jan Kattein Architects Caption: The Story Garden was supposed to open for the first time for the Somers Town Festival on July 13, 2019.  A temporary stage called the Piazza Stage was also set up for the event.


Figure 41 Credit: The British Library Caption: These are flags Central Saint Martins students made for the Somers Town Festival.


[1] A chemistry professor and university administrator, in 1986, he received a life peerage from Queen Elizabeth II and from them onwards would have been known as Baron Dainton or Lord Dainton.

[2] The Grand Midland Hotel closed in 1935, which would have been several years into the Second Great Depression.  From 1935 to 2011, the building provided administrative office space for the railroad (and later British Rail).  It was then known as St. Pancras Chambers. The Manhattan Loft Corporation (M.L.C.) renovated the building to contain a mixed-used hotel and apartment building with the apartments on the upper floors.  The hotel is called St. Pancras Chambers London Hotel.  The building also contains the Booking Office Bar and Restaurant, Hansom Lounge, MI + ME, and The Gilbert Scott Restaurant.

[3] St. Pancratius was martyred as a teenager in 304 A.D.  St. Pancras Old Church was built in his honor.  The oldest parts of the church date back to Norman times and it has been the site of Christian worship since the 4th Century.  The church has been restored four times since it became derelict in 1847, and has an active congregation.  The parish states, “Our worship stands very much in the catholic tradition of the Church of England and there is both incense and fervent preaching at our Sunday morning mass and everyone is welcome to join us.”  The Parish of Old St. Pancras includes two other old churches in the area – St.  Mary’s Church and St. Michael’s Church – as well as St. Paul’s Chapel.   St. Pancras Parish Church, also known as St. Pancras New Church, was built about one kilometre away on Euston Road between 1819 and 1822 to the Greek Revival designs of William Inwood (died 1843) and his son Henry William Inwood (1794-1843).  Its motto is “Liberal Anglican Christianity in Central London.”

[4] Maria Fidelis was founded in 1830 at the direction of Mother Marie-Madeleine D’Houët (1781-1858), Viscountess Bonnault D’Houët, a French aristocrat, widow, and single mother who, in 1820, founded the Faithful Companions of Jesus (F.C.J.), an institute of religious sisters who help the needy.  She was inspired by The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius, St. Ignatius (in this case) being Saint Ignatius of Loyola (1491-1556), the founder of the Society of Jesus.

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