The Lit and Phil

What is it?

Strictly speaking, it’s the Literary & Philosophical Society of Newcastle upon Tyne. Don’t let that put you off. Everyone calls this independent library, founded in 1793 (although this building opened in 1825), the Lit & Phil.

It has around 170,000 books and an extensive music collection. There’s also a children’s section. Anyone can pop in but members (currently about 2,000 of them) can borrow books and use the downstairs reference room, also called the quiet room. Newspapers and a wide selection of periodicals are available. Current president is Alexander ‘Pointless’ Armstrong.

Why is it smashing?

The look of the place, for starters. It must have changed over 200 years (you can search for a book digitally) but most first-time visitors, having climbed the stairs past the venerable statues and oil paintings, will feel they’ve zipped back in time. It is a bit of a time capsule.

Recent acquisitions (1,000 new books are added annually) occupy ground floor shelves but it’s fun to ascend the spiral staircase to see the older books, closely packed. Some of the really old ones are in the reference room.

The Lit & Phil is a place of words and ideas, a repository of wisdom and some intellectual quackery. Local history and geography are well covered but there are also books on spiritualism, witchcraft and the occult. Novels, once thought frivolous, weren’t admitted until 1891.

Some people come to study, some to browse and some to chat at the round table. Quaintly, you can order tea or coffee at a hatch. The Lit & Phil has a busy programme of talks, concerts and events, hosting many of them in its ground floor rooms. While it might seem intimidating at first sight, the staff are friendly and helpful.

In the shifting torrent of city life, the Lit & Phil is something of a rock.


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Address: 23 Westgate Road, Newcastle upon Tyne NE1 1SE

Images: The Lit and Phil

Written by David Whetstone