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.

Stone and fossils

Take a look at the images above. Can you find any of these fossils lurking around the building?

  • Out on the Piazza, you’ll spot dozens of snails and oysters trapped inside the Hauteville limestone.
  • In the Entrance Hall, look out for the white patches and little brown shapes in the white Portland stone, and the curious swirly patterns in the darker Purbeck stone. These fossils date from the Jurassic Period 150 million years ago.
  • You will also see Travertine limestone (the stone of choice for all of Rome's classical buildings) along some of the walls and pavings around the building, which hides within it stems of rushes and other grasses which have become encrusted with lime.
For architect Sir Colin St. John Wilson, these natural materials are an invitation for people to come inside: 'I noticed that when people first came into the building, they started to stroke the Travertine stone and squeeze the leather handrails, and these are all materials that are very sensitive to the touch.’

‘I've had many letters from people I don't know at all,' he admits, 'who have said that they just want to touch everything!'


As you approach the main gate of the Library on Euston Road, look up at the large smooth sandy-coloured blocks of brick on top of the entrance. Where do you think they get their colour from?

250 million years ago, these bricks were granules of sand in a vast desert that once stretched across Scotland. The sand was gradually blown into dunes by strong winds and piled up over time, forming the New Red Sandstone you see today.

Now look at the red bricks (known as ‘Victorian reds’) used all around the Library – on the walls, both outside and inside the building. These were all individually handmade.

As the Library was built to last a very long time – 250 years – brick was chosen as it is the one material that in the climate, improves in appearance rather than degenerates over time. The red colour also matches with the neighbouring St Pancras Station and Renaissance Hotel whose bricks were quarried from the same source in Leicestershire.

To give them this red colour, they were fired in a kiln at high temperatures with controlled oxygen concentrations. Can you spot the smiley face curve on the face of each brick? This is a result of gas escape during the heating process which created small cavities at the surface.

Can you guess how many red bricks it took to build the Library? Scroll through the image carousel above to find out.

For more information about the geology of the British Library, read our dedicated guide.

From stone and brick to carpet

As you rise up the building, you’ll notice the surfaces change.

The hard stone and brick we explored around the Piazza and Entrance Hall give way to softer carpet and wood on the higher levels where the Reading Rooms sit.

In this way, the building is ‘living’, giving cues to its visitors that they’re progressively moving towards an area of quiet and contemplative study.

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.

Reading Rooms architecture and design

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