It’s common knowledge that the British Library is big. But how big is it?

How about really, really, really big? It’s actually considered the largest library in the modern world, and holds more than 200 million items. This includes more than 13 million pieces of printed material and plenty of digital items. In 2016 alone, it added 84 terabytes of data.

(For reference’s sake 1 terabyte equates to about 6.5 million document pages, 250,000 photos taken with a 12 MP camera, or 500 hours of HD video.)

The Library in Congress in the U.S. is actually physically larger, with 530 miles of shelves vs. 388 miles of shelves in London. But this one has it beat in terms of collection size, since the U.S. “only” has about 130 million items.

There’s plenty of special items pertaining to UK history and the world’s history to be found in just about every nook and cranny of the British Library, including the notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci – which are now digitized!

But the collection of famous letters is especially impressive. They include items written from the hand of monarchs and military leaders as well as common folk.

The items often share personal reflections and chronicle important events. These personal touches add illumination to facts many of us already know as well as new perspectives that may have been left out of our history lessons. Past leaders have shared their journals, book collections and manuscripts here for the good of the country.

Some of the more famous letters came from:

Charles Dickens

He’s known as one of Great Britain’s signature authors, capturing feelings of his time through vivid characters dealing with sometimes bleak circumstances. His personal letters give even more glimpses into the sometimes challenging emotions that being a part of society can evoke. The library has a selection of letters detailing his relationship with Catherine Hogarth. Today, they would be in the tabloids for their on-again, off-again relationships. In famous letters over time, he described his feelings of joy from their early courtship to finally separating nearly 20 years later – after 10 children.

Henry VIII

History books do talk about this monarch, including his dedication of the Church of England after the Pope wouldn’t let him annul his marriage. He had many wives and was sometimes courting a future queen while still married. His letters showed that he had a way with words and was serious about falling in love with anyone who caught his eye. Unfortunately, love wasn’t enough if a wife couldn’t produce a future heir.


Yes, the Library does have material from the Age of Charlemagne, and Alcuin was a trusted advisor. Though history books focus on the role of the warrior emperor and his religious efforts to achieve freedom, it took a lot of effort on his staff to make his wishes official. Famous letters from Alcuin around 750-800 ACE discuss topics like Viking battles, the hand that God is playing in military campaigns, and efforts to promote art and education.

 Jonathan Swift

Like Dickens, Swift’s personal life was complex and often unhappy. In one series of letters between him and Esther van Homrigh, she shares that she cares for him deeply while he doesn’t return the sentiment. He even tried to drive this point home in his epic poem, “Cadenus and Vanessa,” where Swift had the role of Cadenus and Esther the role of Vanessa. Though she picked up on the symbolism, she shared that she didn’t appreciate it.