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Senate House Library: access all areas

Bloomsbury landmark has an impressive academic history, but as Samantha Booth discovers, it is keen to open its doors ever wider

22 February, 2019 — By by Samantha Booth

TOWERING over Bloomsbury, Senate House is steeped in history as a centre of academia. From the fourth floor upwards, more than two million books and 1,800 archival collections are carefully stored and read by academics in the Senate House Library, part of the University of London.

Students from 17 universities can use its impressive facilities, and while members of the public can access the facilities, the historic institution wants to open its doors even wider.

“Libraries have been a really empowering public movement for centuries, so it’s the first public library to be set up with that express goal of opening up education to all,” said the library’s director of three years, Dr Nick Barratt.

Maria Castrillo and Dr Nick Barratt

He added: “So much of higher education outreach and impact is a very one-directional approach, such as ‘this is what we can do for you’.

“Actually, what we are trying to do with our exhibitions, collecting policies and research we support, is making it a dialogue rather than a monologue. We want people to come in and enjoy the space and materials.”

Some of the most treasured books are held by the library, in Malet Street. Among them is an original Das Kapital as signed by its author Karl Marx in the 1800s and a first edition Vindication of the Rights of Woman by revolutionary 18th century feminist Mary Wollstonecraft.

In 2016, the library took a step change in opening up its valued collection of William Shakespeare works to wider audiences with not just the texts, but with performance, talks by experts and digital offerings.

Maria Castrillo, head of special collections and engagement, added: “This library has always been known for the work relating to Shakespeare but it was preserved for academics, but that exhibition changed how the material was going to be perceived in the future and how members of the public from all walks of life could actually see the exhibition and engage with that material.”

Their latest exhibition Staging Magic – The Story Behind the Illusion – is a six-month programme of free events exploring the history of tricks and spells.

It is made up of five themes with stories from the Harry Price Library, which alone has more than 13,000 items from the 15th century to the present day on topics from magic, witchcraft to the paranormal and physical research.

Price, a collector on magic, donated his treasures to the library in 1936 just as Senate House’s construction, as designed by British architect Charles Holden, had been completed.

The building itself is wrapped up in historical tales, with rumours that Adolf Hitler had earmarked the Art Deco building for his base if he invaded Britain so it remained untouched by bombs.

“Actually there was a direct hit on the building and it looks like he had no plans to use this as a base,” said Dr Barratt. “It’s all bound up in the mythology of Senate House.”

• To find out more about Senate House Library, its membership fees and exhibitions, visit

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