Exterior photo of the British Library
British Library, Euston Road, London listed at Grade I © Historic England
British Library, Euston Road, London listed at Grade I © Historic England

British Library Listed at Grade I

The British Library has been listed at Grade I by the Heritage Minister, Tracey Crouch, on the advice of Historic England. Additionally, seven later 20th century libraries have been listed at Grade II.

The British Library listing

The British Library is arguably the most significant new public building of the later 20th century in England. Its architecture is both immense and extraordinary and its warmth and quality of spaces, finishes and sculpture have made it a much-admired building. It is set back in a stately fashion behind the distinctive brick piazza and portico and holds its own amongst a parade of Grade I buildings: St Pancras Hotel and Station and King’s Cross Station.

Heritage Minister Tracey Crouch said: “The British Library divided opinion from the moment its design was revealed, but I am glad that expert advice now allows me to list it, ensuring that its iconic design is protected for future generations to enjoy.”

Roger Bowdler, Director of Listing at Historic England, said: “The British Library is one of England’s finest modern public buildings. Listing it at Grade I acknowledges its outstanding architectural and historic interest. Colin St John Wilson’s stately yet accessible design incorporates fine materials and a generous display of public art. The Library’s dramatic and carefully considered interiors achieve its ultimate goal: of creating a space to inspire thought and learning.

“Historic England has had a really constructive consultation with the British Library throughout. The way it has been listed celebrates its qualities, and points out just what does make it special. This will enable it to go on flourishing as a dynamic public building, in which appropriate change is welcomed.

“It joins a select group of other listed post-war public libraries on the National Heritage List for England. Even in today’s digital age, there is a clear future for these buildings. They illustrate a wide range of architectural styles, and together represent the very best in public architecture.”

Seven post-war libraries listed

Historic England carried out extensive new research into post-war libraries and we have identified the ones that meet the highly selective criteria for listing. In the 1960s there was a lifting of government controls on building which saw an unprecedented spate of library building with 350 being built across the UK. The Public Libraries and Museums Act of 1964 made it a duty for local authorities to provide a library service. Scandinavian building styles dominated and for small libraries, circular or polygonal buildings were popular.

Bebington Central Library in The Wirral is a bold, modernist style with local, nautical references in its use of giant porthole windows. The main space rises dramatically through two floors to provide an open lending library, conducive to browsing, an enclosed children’s library, and a more intimate, reference library, conducive to studying. Many original fixtures and fittings survive including original, angular timber bookcases, bold, geometric floor tiles, over-sized timber doors with horizontal oblong lights and solid timber doors, staircase and balcony balustrades with grey marble inlay, original peg boards for displaying art work, and a pottery tile wall mural in the former coffee bar. It was designed by Paterson, Macaulay and Owens in 1965 and built in 1967-71.

Milton Keynes Central Library, built in 1979-81, was a major addition to the commercial centre of the new town and a prestigious building. The library has an imposing, monumental façade which is in keeping with the style of the ultra-modern town, incorporating curved elements and details in rich russet brick. The library is also significantly enhanced by original artworks, incorporated in and around the building, particularly ‘Fiction, Non-Fiction and Reference’ by Boyd and Evans.

Chandler’s Ford library was the showpiece of the Hampshire County Council Architect’s Department which was noted for its inventive and successful school buildings. The quality of the library is evident in its thoughtful planning, the structure and use of materials and in its fixtures and fittings, notably the mural by Graham Crowley. The library was well-received on completion, (it was designed and built in 1981-2) both in the architectural press and by the public, drawing large numbers.

West Sussex Library in Chichester is a large and impressive example of a county library. It’s a curved building tucked into a narrow street and has an understated elegance with sculptural interiors. The open plan lending and reference libraries wrap around the central drum where the double height space and cantilevered staircase has a sense of drama. The building has changed little since it was built in 1965-6.

The futuristic exterior of Bourne Hall Library in Epsom, Surrey resembles a flying saucer. A mezzanine exhibition space overlooks semi-open plan reference and reading room areas. The main space is generously day lit from the high windows and roof lights, and incorporates wood and strip panelling between the exposed concrete ribs. The integration of a raft of community services under a big roof captures something of the inclusivity and breadth of ambition of the mid-20th century welfare state. It was built in 1967-70 to the designs of architects A.G. Sheppard Fidler and Associates.

Lillington Library in Leamington Spa is relatively early for its type, as a smaller branch library built in 1959-60. It has a strikingly colourful façade in Festival of Britain style. It is relatively little altered, and importantly, retains its original aluminium full-height windows. The architect, Henry Fedeski took care to consider the structure in its setting, its two-storey design balancing a block of flats opposite and its position, set back from the road, to allow for planting to soften and enrich the new roads and buildings.

Suffolk Record Office in Bury St Edmunds, built in 1963-5, was designed by Donald McMorran who is regarded as one of the most sophisticated designers of neo-classical buildings in the post-war period. The library remains largely unaltered, externally and internally, and retains the majority of its original furniture and fittings including parquet floors throughout and an elegant stairway.

Commenting on all eight listings, Tracey Crouch said: “Libraries are the cornerstones of the communities they serve. They act as meeting places, provide areas to learn and are a credit to the volunteers at the heart and soul of the service. Many of these libraries have stood proudly in their communities for more than 50 years and I am thrilled that they will continue to do so for many years to come.”

The listing for these buildings concentrates on what makes the buildings special and carefully exclude areas or fixtures that are not special. This approach helps to ensure that the special character of these working libraries is protected while enabling sensitive change.

Late 20th century libraries already listed

  • Kensington Central Library, RB Kensington & Chelsea, E Vincent Harris, 1958-60 Grade II*
  • Westcliff Branch Library, Southend-on-Sea, Essex, Patrick F Burridge, 1958-60, Grade II
  • St Austell Branch Library, Cornwall, F Kenneth Hicklin, 1959-60, Grade II
  • Jesmond Branch Library, Newcastle upon Tyne, Harry Faulkner-Brown of Williamson, Faulkner-Brown & Partners, 1962-63, Grade II
  • Swiss Cottage Library, London Borough of Camden, Basil Spence, Bonnington & Collins, 1963-64, Grade II
  • Hornsey Library, Crouch End, Haringey, Ley and Jarvis (Hornsey MB), 1963-65, Grade II
  • Fulwell Cross Library, High St, Barkingside, Redbridge, Frederick Gibberd & Pts, 1965-68 Grade II
  • Maidenhead Public Library, Bucks, Ahrends Burton & Koralek, 1970-73, Grade II
  • Wallsend Library, Ferndale Avenue, North Tyneside, Harry Faulkner, 1965-66, Grade II

Listing welcomed

MJ Long, architectural partner to Colin St John Wilson and his wife said: "The British Library must be the last public building in Britain where the architect helped write the brief, did all the feasibility work, the construction information and the design including the furniture down to the door handles. We designed it to last 250 years, and designed it from the inside out starting with the visual and tactile experience of the individual reader, which for me is its strength. Between us my husband and I spent 59 years on the building and having it listed Grade I is very exciting."

Henrietta Billings, Senior Conservation Advisor at the 20th Century Society, said: "The British Library, together with its specially commissioned public art is a magnificent building of international standing. The Grade I listing is a well-deserved celebration of its design, quality and contribution to twentieth century British architecture.

Billings added: "We are delighted that the architectural and historical significance of these public library buildings has been recognised. They showcase a fantastic range of architectural styles and materials, and we hope that the listings will increase awareness of twentieth century library architecture - a building type that is increasingly under threat."

Nick Poole - Chief Executive, Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals (CILIP) said: "Public libraries physically represent the enduring importance of access to knowledge and learning for all. A great public library brings together good design, appropriate architecture, skilled staff, and services that inspire and serve their community. Where this happens libraries truly have the power to change our lives."

Next steps

Find out more about the development of post-war libraries in England