A Destination for the Incurably Curious – Reading spaces in the Wellcome Library

Finding a relaxing place to stow away from the frenetic pace of London life and read a book is no longer as hard as it once was. With chairs and sofas stuffed into every chain book store, coffee shops springing up in the basement of shops and calming music piped through every crevice available, the ‘reading space’ has become at once more accessible yet impersonal.

Enter the Wellcome Collection, a heady mixture of medical artifacts, human vivisections and books, it seems the unlikely choice for a place to ‘curl up with a good book’. Yet both the Blackwell’s book shop here and the Reading Room offer different and more particular bibliocentric environments.

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What strikes you first about the Reading Room is how relaxed and inviting it is, soft lighting fills the room, highlighting the names of prominent scientists which circle the ceiling. Bean bags line the stairs and there is a chaise longue, that even Freud would be proud of. It is strange that despite all the slightly macabre surgical equipment, straight jackets and vivisections, the space itself is curiously calm and provokes a sense of intrigue rather than horror.

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Blackwell’s too is welcoming and has cleverly branded itself to fit in with the Wellcome trust’s aesthetics. It also is flooded with natural light but feels cooler and there is an emphasis on the books rather than the space it inhabits. Naturally, there is a focus on medical themed books and products, for example red blood cell soft toys, and lab beakers as salt and pepper shakers, but the clinical aspect has been erased and replaced with a cosy, homely atmosphere probably due to its proximity to the café.

Books at Blackwell’s
The bookshop and the adjacent café

The Reading Room offers a curious brand of individual book curation, which focuses on key topics under which to unite books. These are staggeringly different to what I found in Blackwell’s, instead of books divided under signs such as crime, classics, history etc, the books in the Reading Room were instead unified under headings such as apothecary, magic or the more general ‘face’ (which included books on physiognomy, psychoanalysis and art). The Reading Room offers individual, expressive, even eccentric, curation, and this disruption to the conventions of bookshop and library layouts was instantly compelling; the eclectic categorisation drawing the reader in.

The majority of people I observed in the space were very tactile in their approach and engaged fully with the whole space, examining different books until they came to one which took their fancy.

“[The space] forces the reader – the curious reader, the alert reader – to rescue the book from the category to which it has been condemned.” (Manguel, A. (1997) A History of Reading. London. Flamingo)

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Inside the Reading Room
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A glimpse at the range of books and artefacts housed here

Conversely, Blackwell’s feels more reassuring because it has kept the familiar, conservative book categorising system. The reader instinctively knows where to look for certain books, this nonthreatening approach however promotes a hegemonic approach to reading, subconsciously prompting the reader to choose the front list of a publisher’s offerings.

Yet, these two approaches to book selling and reading work harmoniously together, offering up mainstream and indie choices to the perceptive reader. If you’re looking for a niche space to settle down for some quality book time, look no further than the Wellcome Library.

Interesting further reading:

For more information on the Wellcome Trust click here, or follow them on Twitter @wellcometrust.


A Compendium of Literary Bloomsbury

The best bookstores, businesses and blue plaques in and around WC1. Click on the map to explore in more detail.

bloomsbury map

Dorothy Parker on the Bloomsbury Group:

“[They] lived in squares, painted in circles and loved in triangles.”


London Review Bookshop  – Nestled in a cosy courtyard just across from the British museum, and within spitting distance of the Cordon Bleu culinary school, this bookshop is the gastro-bibliophile’s dream. Perfectly combining cakes, tea and books, it offers a whole array of distinct and intelligent literature ready and waiting to be consumed.

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Waterstones Gower Street – Often found crammed full with students and academics, the Waterstones opposite UCL offers an unbridled choice of new, secondhand and rare books. Covering subjects from travel and art to poetry and science to children’s and classics, there’s so much to look at that you’ll find yourself needing a coffee from the Costa’s nestled in the basement just to keep your stamina up! Also look out for the witty signage around the building.

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Persephone Books – A bookstore and publishers, specialising in forgotten gems of the past written by (mostly) female writers, has the most beautiful grey books, whose endpapers and bookmarks are plastered with a textile design from the era.
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Wellcome Library (and the Blackwell’s within it!) – With human vivisections, straight jackets and phrenology busts lining the space, the Wellcome library  doesn’t instantly strike you as being a calming space to read and ponder. However, as soon as you sink into one of the bean bags lining the stairs you realise what a relaxing book haven this is. Pick up a book (or two, or three…) at the adjoining Blackwell’s and while your afternoon away in one of the more distinctive reading nooks in the city.

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Virginia Woolf – the author who is synonymous with Bloomsbury has been afforded her own slice of Bloomsbury real estate. Sat across from Gandhi, the bronze bust of Woolf sits pride of place in Tavistock Square.

Screen Shot 2015-10-12 at 15.27.45The Lamb – the only pub in London to still have a ‘snob screen’, this former haunt of Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath, means it has earned its reputation as the literary aficionado’s boozer of choice. However, they have yet to capitalise on the whole array of literary alcohol puns out there, I personally would love to order ‘A Rum of One’s Own’…..

(Happily I own the fantastic cocktail guide Tequila Mockingbird, so will have to settle for making this delight at home!)