About Senate House Library

Senate House Library © Robert Mills

Standing at the centre of the University of London, Senate House Library was intended as a hub for research from inception. With floors seven to nineteen designed as book storage, London’s first skyscraper was created with the library at its core.

However, as the institution was formed as an examining body rather than for teaching purposes, it did not originally have a library. While the University was formed in 1836, it was in 1838 that the first books were donated, and the first recorded purchase was in 1839.

It was only in 1870, when the University moved from a house in Saville Row to its first purpose-built accommodation in Burlington Gardens, that a need for a dedicated library was realised. On 15 March 1871 the Liberal politician Julian Goldsmid, later to become Vice-Chancellor of the University, wrote to the then Vice-Chancellor George Grote:

“You know I have taken great interest in two things which I, in common with many others, thought of vital importance to the University of London, the one being the acquiring of a University Building, and the other obtaining Representation in Parliament. Both these questions being settled, it appears to me that there is one other object we should now have in view, and that is the establishment of a first-class University Library. Which I think will not only improve the position of the University, but also be of great service to its Students and Graduates.”

Goldsmid was so passionate about the success of Senate House Library that he gave the University £100 (the equivalent of £10,700 today- to buy Classical books. Following further donations the library quickly grew in size and reputation, and when the central university moved to the Imperial Institute in South Kensington the library moved with it.

The twentieth century saw the continual growth of the collections, which soon outgrew capacity. Books spread everywhere, including the kitchens, with some shelves tellingly marked ‘canteen cupboards’. The Library Committee report for 1924 ended: ‘In every branch of the Library’s work waste of labour and serious obstacles to further development are caused by lack of sufficient room both for the books and the library staff.”

The collections continued to grow, and in 1921 the Library made one of its most important acquisitions; a fourteenth-century manuscript recounting the life of the Black Prince presented to Edward, Prince of Wales and place on permanent load by him in the University library.

Senate House Library today

Today the Senate House Library Special Collections boasts ownership of titles ranging from the first four Shakespeare folios and early editions of the works of Sir Francis Bacon, to the works in all editions and languages of Sir Terry Pratchett.

The variety of titles were moved to Senate House in 1937 and 1938, working as a split site over those years. The Library included rooms for maps and palaeography, three floors of stacks, a music room, a Periodicals Room, a travelling libraries department – in total capacity for 600,000 volumes and 300 readers. Given the library held 337,000 volumes this allowed plenty of room for growth.

At the start of World War II saw the University staff move out of Senate House and the Ministry of Information move in. While the library initially continues to function it closed to most visitors in May 1940. Staff from the Ministry were still able to use the library for reference, and equipment from the music library assisted the BBC in raising morale.

The library was hit in five air raise, most notable on 8 and 16 November 1940, damaging windows, shelving, furnishings and walls. While few books were lost the roof was no longer weatherproof so, in 1941, 3,098 feet of books were evacuated to the Bodleian Library in Oxford, with a further 400 books going to Cambridge.

The library re-opened to users in August 1945, with opening hours increasing to meet demand. Post-War repairs to the building included the separation of the palaeography and map rooms and, in 1947, the London County Council gave permission for the previously empty Senate House tower to be converted to book stacks to create space for 300,000 books. The expansion encouraged donations and deposited collections until further space was needed once more. The University of London opened a co-operative depository store in Egham in 1961, and soon depended on sending quantities of lesser-used books to it annually in order to make way for new acquisitions.

In 2004 the Library changed its name from the University of London Library to Senate House Library, University of London, and today remains the central library for the University of London and the School of Advanced Study.