Reading Rooms architecture and design

Discover how the Reading Rooms were designed to reflect the people who use them.

To access the Reading Rooms you’ll need a Reader Pass. Learn how to get one.

Those Reading Rooms devoted to the humanities (e.g. the Humanities, Manuscripts, Rare Books and Music and Maps Reading Rooms) were designed for long periods of study, with typical Readers ordering books from the catalogue and then spending several hours with their heads tucked into them. You'll often see the same faces, ensconced at their favourite desk, week after week.

These Reading Rooms sit on the west of the building where daylight is the primary source of ambient light. It enters in from the clerestory windows, bouncing off the high ceilings and into the centre of the space, without allowing direct sunlight to hit the books. Direct light would be detrimental to the older, often more fragile material consulted in some of these rooms.

Visit the Rare Books and Music or Manuscripts Reading Rooms on a bright day and you’ll see exactly how the reflected light works.

Meanwhile, in the Reading Rooms to the east – largely devoted to science and business subjects – Readers were perceived to make shorter visits to consult specific papers or patents. You’ll therefore find less seating than in the rooms on the west side, with the majority of the space being allocated to journals, abstracts and patents, laid out on open-access shelving which Readers can help themselves to.

Nowadays, these divisions are more arbitrary, as more content is available online and many more Readers bring their own laptops and other devices in with them.

The furniture in the Reading Rooms is also tailored to suit its audiences. Some of our largest items are maps, and leaning over these on desks for extended periods of time can be physically stressful. The tables in the Maps Reading Room are therefore broader, while the seats are lighter to aid mobility of position. Compare the tables and chairs with those in other Reading Rooms and you’ll see what we mean.

Explore more of our architecture and design

Architecture and design of the British Library

Explore the architecture of this Grade 1 listed building.

Entrance Hall architecture and design

Look out for some of the techniques used in the Entrance Hall to make the building welcoming for visitors.

King’s Library architecture and design

Find out how the King’s Library presented the ultimate opportunity to architects to show off the treasures of the British Library.

Stone, bricks and fossils of the British Library

While our building is home to millions of books, in our stonework resides oysters, plants and snails – all millions of years old.