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Middle Temple Library

Library of the Week: 24th October: Such a brilliant and interesting post this week as we visit Middle Temple Library! Find out more about the Four Inns of Court and the Inn libraries, the history of Middle Temple Library, the collections available, the wonderful exhibitions and much more. Thank you to Harpreet K. Dhillon, Deputy Librarian at Middle Temple Library for this brilliant post.

Main Floor of the Library

Before talking about Middle Temple Library, you’ll want to know a little about the Four Inns of Court. The Four Inns of Court are fairly old institutions, tucked away around the Fleet Street area and burrowed deep in the heart of ‘Legal London’. They are a key aspect of legal life and have been for some hundreds of years. It is at the Inns of Court an aspiring barrister is officially called to the bar before they can practice.

However, life at the Inn does not end with a call to the bar. The Inns are a place where new and old members can network, learn from each other, and contribute to the growth of the profession. The Inns have a long tradition of cultivating a collegiate culture that feeds into continued professional development. Education towards qualifying and continued learning is also a part of that culture.

Reading Nook

The Inn libraries have an obvious role to play. Like any library, this is where the resources are, this is the place to access them, this is the space to sit and research and study in quiet. This is the place to stand at the photocopier waiting for a ream of paper to come out whilst quietly planning dinner in one’s head.

The Inn libraries make a daily contribution to the working and studying lives of their members. Each of the Inn libraries deliver training courses in areas such as legal research and the navigation of particular resources and collections. Training can contributes both towards qualifying sessions required for passing the bar, and also towards practitioners keeping abreast of new developments in access to legal resources.

Each Inn has its own library, of course. Above Fleet Street, you can find tucked away two Inns with their libraries; Lincoln’s Inn and Gray’s Inn. Between Fleet Street and Victoria Embankment, you can find the other two libraries inside Inner and Middle Temple.

Middle Temple Library opened in 1958 after the previous iteration of the library was damaged beyond repair in the Second World War. Its architect, Sir Edward Maufe, wanted to build a robust structure, one that could presumably withstand the kind of assault suffered by the previous library. One hopes the occasion won’t rise where we find out if he was successful in building something that can withstand warfare. What we do know is that in 2007 the building turned out to be strong enough to build an entire new floor on top, and that is good enough.

There is some evidence that there has been some form of library at the Inn as far back as Tudor times, the collections having moved around the Inn from one space to another. The gothic revival structure destroyed in the Second World War opened in 1861. Supposedly, the Library was close enough to the Thames to be able to throw breadcrumbs out of a window to ducks swimming in the river. The present library is not so close to the river, but still within a minute’s walking distance if one is feeling daring enough to see what is floating in the river these days.

View from the Gallery

The new Library is a bright and vibrant space that spans three floors, containing practitioner texts, law reports, legislation, periodicals and journals, and of course space to study and research. The Inn libraries have collections that overlap in areas, but each Inn library also specialises in particular areas of the law. At Middle Temple Library our collections cover not only British law, but also European and American law. We also maintain a small Ecclesiastical Law collection. Like the other Inn libraries, we also have a rare books and manuscripts collection.

Middle Temple Library’s collection of rare books and manuscripts is comprised of 9,000 items. Spanning from the thirteenth to nineteenth century, these items provide insight into the education and personal interests of Inn members. These collections cover more than just the law, which is unsurprising as during the early life of the Inns these institutions were modelled more on the likes of Oxford and Cambridge, concentrating on the teaching of gentlemanly pursuits.

Portrait of Robert Ashley

Robert Ashley was probably one of these refined gentleman, seemingly more interested in the collecting of books and the translation of foreign works than practicing the law. He was a Middle Templar who in 1641 bequeathed to the Inn almost 4,000 books from his collection to re-establish a library at the Inn. With this generous collection, one that contained items previously owned by the likes of John Donne, John Dee, and Ben Jonson, he also left the Inn £500 to install a librarian.

Thanks to rare and special donations such as Ashley’s, Middle Temple Library, and no doubt the other Inn libraries too, are able to curate interesting exhibitions that allow us to share items that are not always available for viewing. The exhibitions try to make use of legal themes, but mainly the aim is to present something that can be both edifying and enjoyable. Past Middle Temple exhibitions have covered topics such as Legal Dress, Dickens and Legal London, Women in Law, Crime and Policing, and more.

Exhibitions and events form a key part of our services and are an opportunity to offer more than just materials and answers to queries. Beyond research, we try to organise events such as author talks to discuss books that cover topics relevant to current issues and intersect with the law, or to enhance our exhibitions. For our current Botany exhibition which is a collaboration with The Linnean Society, we will be offering a flower workshop as well as a talk by forensic botanist Mark Spencer. This exhibition makes use not only of rare items from our collection, but also of Middle Temple Garden.

It is not only the exhibitions that offer up exciting ways of giving our members more than just information for educational and professional purposes. The Library is always looking for ways to enhance the member experience, whether it’s through mindful reconfiguration of the Library collections and spaces (a well-being room, comfortable reading areas), or through small initiatives we think our members might enjoy (creating tiny books modelled on popular practitioner texts as Christmas decorations).

It is wonderful to be able to share something of the library through this post and through our contribution to Library Hub. Sharing our data has allowed us to show the breadth of our legal collections as well as making our rarer items more discoverable, perhaps increasing the probability of them contributing to future research and scholarship.

If anyone has questions that arise from this blog post please do get in touch with us at

Harpreet K. Dhillon, Deputy Librarian, Middle Temple Library

All images copyright of Middle Temple Library reproduced with kind permission of the copyright holder.

You can explore the library’s collections on Discover and find further contact details on their Discover information page.

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