Cover to cover: the story of our libraries

For many students, the Library was a favourite place and holds their fondest memories. 

”The David Wilson Library is the place I miss the most,” says former student Hariem Abdullah.

The David Wilson library is the place I miss the most.

Hariem, former student

This library is home to printed books and journals that take up 38km of shelving. If that was one long shelf it would stretch all the way from Leicester to Nottingham. It holds extensive archives and collections and has more than 800,000 e-books and over 80,000 e-journals, available anytime from any device.

Small beginnings

When Leicester opened in 1921, the library took a prominent place above the main entrance of the Fielding Johnson Building – but was much less sophisticated. Its books, almost all of which were donated, sat on makeshift shelves put together from cubby holes from the building’s days as a wartime hospital. Some of the donated books remain part of the Library’s collections today.

One of the University's first ever students, Rhoda Bennett, returned in 1932 to become our first professional Librarian. 

Rhoda stayed for 30 years, steering the Library through some of its hardest times, including the Second World War and the huge post-war expansion of the University that followed. In 2020, for International Women's Day, a study space in the Library was named after her. Over the years, as more students came here, the library took over more rooms.

After the Second World War, student numbers rose sharply and a bigger library was created in the building. Philip Larkin, poet and novelist, was an assistant librarian there in 1946-50. 

Bookstacks in the new Library extension to the Fielding Johnson Building, 1953

The University continued to grow and, in the 1970s, old buildings at the back of the Fielding Johnson were cleared to make way for an award-winning, glass-fronted new library. Philip Larkin came back to open it. 

The previous library lives on as the Harry Peach law library, named after one of our founders. 

Philip Larkin unveiling plaque marking the opening of the University Library, 1975

Presentation of gift to Philip Larkin at the opening of the new library, 1975

Third Floor of David Wilson Library, 2017

Major refurbishment

In 2008, a major refurbishment doubled the size of the main library and created new study environments filled with natural light, from individual quiet spaces to rooms for group discussion. Postgraduates gained their own space. Even the loos were “spectacular”, reported The Independent – students set up an appreciation society about them on Facebook. 

The David Wilson Library, named after a local businessman and donor, was opened by the Queen and Prince Philip.

Julia Goralska recalls her favourite area on the third floor: “It was the place where I really enjoyed studying. Sometimes I even went there to study independently instead of attending lectures. It is the most modern and nicest studying space at our University.” 

Library services have adapted to changes over the years, such as the addition of the medical school in the 1970s.

University Librarian Brian Burch, who was awarded an OBE for services to librarianship, toured medical schools and negotiated a generous settlement from the health authority for medical information services – a great deal higher than that achieved by the other two medical schools in the region. 

Things did not always run smoothly, though. Librarian and alumna Mary Bettles recalls a flood in the clinical sciences library, calling Burch for help and “all of us ended up sweeping water down the stairs”. 

A campus bookshop opened in 1958, mainly thanks to the efforts of professors Jack Simmons and Leslie Sykes, and eventually specialised in arts and social sciences. Another bookshop opened, which specialised in medicine, science, engineering and education – and gramophone records. 

The two bookshops were merged within the David Wilson library. This bookshop closed in 2016 and the space became the digital reading room.

The University’s library expertise has reached across the UK and beyond. Leicester staff have become university librarians at Aberystwyth, Swansea, the University of East Anglia, Brotherton Library at Leeds, King's College London, Warwick and Sydney.

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