At the heart of the building, a tall glass tower – the King’s Library – houses the collections of King George III (reigned 1760–1820).
It was one of the largest libraries in Europe by the King’s death, with nearly 64,000 printed books and 14,000 pamphlets, together with manuscripts, maps and topographical views dating from the mid-15th to early-19th centuries.
Subject areas of the Library include history, geography, agriculture and military strategy, topography and literature in many European languages.
Alongside copies of the Gutenberg Bible and William Caxton’s first edition of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, you can find a copy of Micrographia (1665) by Robert Hooke, one of the earliest scientific books in English. This work contains detailed illustrations of various specimens – often rather bizarre – which Hooke viewed under his microscope. These include the surface of frozen urine, the eye of a grey drone-fly, a piece of moss and the body of a louse, ant and flea.
How did the King’s Library begin?
George III, who became King of Great Britain in 1760, believed he should have a library worthy of an 18th-century monarch.
He started his collection in 1765 by buying a large library from Joseph Smith, the British Consul in Venice, and spent the rest of his life adding to it. The king’s librarian, Frederick Barnard, travelled all over Europe to buy books and even sought advice from writer and lexicographer Dr Samuel Johnson on what to collect.
Look out for George III’s bust on the First Floor by the King’s Library.
Where was the King’s Library previously located?
Although the collection was first kept in the Old Palace at Kew, it was soon moved to purpose-built rooms at the Queen's House (formerly Buckingham House), on the site of what is now Buckingham Palace. It was open to scholars, and even former adversaries such as the American revolutionary John Adams were admitted.
Following George III’s death, his son George IV donated the collection to the British Museum Library in 1823, insisting that the books should be displayed ‘entire, and separate from the rest of the Library… in a repository to be appropriated exclusively for that purpose’.
When the material arrived, the British Museum Library’s printed book collections immediately doubled in size. So between 1823 and 1827, a separate gallery – the King’s Library – was built to store George III’s books. Housed in what is now the Enlightenment Gallery of the modern-day British Museum, it is the oldest room on the site.
During World War II, 124 volumes were completely destroyed, a further 304 were damaged beyond repair, and many others required substantial restoration. As a result the collection was moved to the Bodleian Library at Oxford for the remainder of the war.
In the following decades, attempts were made to replace the lost works, but even today there are a few gaps.
Following the establishment of the British Library, the collection moved to its current home in 1998.