Central Library


Just across the road from centre:mk lies one of Milton Keynes most monumental pieces of modern architecture. The grand brick building hides many stories, not only in the books it holds, but also in its art, sculpture, and the ancient monument in its grounds.


The Central Library is one of Milton Keynes’ outstanding buildings and was listed Grade II in 2015, by Historic England along with seven others libraries, including the British Library. Clad in russet brown brick, the library’s classically inspired modernism has a commanding presence on the street, worthy of its status as a central civic building. The original plans were intended to allow for extension over time into a much larger building, containing a museum, gallery and offices. Until 1992, where you now find the Event Space, there was even a church hall on the ground floor which closed when the nearby Christ the Cornerstone opened.

The library first opened to the public in 1981 and today it contains more than 188,000 books over its two floors. Stepping inside, you can see how the considered design of the spaces support all the functions that a library has, with bright natural light, spacious public areas, and dramatic transitions between the floors.

Milton Keynes’ oldest resident can also be found inside – a 15-foot-long Ichthyosaur which had lived just 4 miles away around 160 million years ago. Its almost complete skeleton was found during the excavation of Caldecotte Lake in 1982 by a workman. Now needing conservation, plans are being drawn up to move ‘Ichthy’ to Milton Keynes Museum to be one of the stars of its purpose-built Ancient Gallery.

In-between the modernity and landscaping of the city, you may be surprised to discover how the ancient landscape echoes through it. Walking around to the rear of the library to the border of the car park, you will see a Scheduled Ancient Monument: Secklow Mound. The ancient mound has been identified as a moot, an open-air meeting place used by the Hundreds, the courts and local governments, who were responsible for governing the countryside in Anglo-Saxon and medieval England. Archaeological excavation found Roman and medieval pottery in the ditch which surrounds it, suggesting that it was built between the 4th and 13th centuries AD.

“We’ll refer to our Anglo-Saxon heritage, because this is not an American new town…it’s an English new town, in an English place, on a common, where three Saxon Hundreds used to meet at the little mound behind the library. So we refer to Avebury and Silbury as being part of historical and cultural references. We’ve got all these overlays of mystical alignments and (what) was done in Queen’s Court – the stainless-steel circle with the cryptic clues, which somebody someday will decode about the ley lines and stellar alignments…which also then embellish the understanding of this grid.”

David Lock, CMK Town Planner, 1979 – 82

The Milton Keynes Development Corporation (MKDC) of the 1970s was keen on exploring the landscape of the new city through a lens of British history and myth. The lie of the land guided the layout of the city, with the natural rise and fall of the land creating rhythm along the stretches of boulevards. Secklow Mound continues to be near to the centre of local power as today it sits next to the Milton Keynes City Council offices, an interesting continuity as a place of local government across the centuries.


MKDC funded an ambitious programme of public art and this tradition is ingrained in the library, where a number of commissioned pieces can be found.

‘Mirror Sculpture’ hangs in the children’s library which catches and reflects the light at different times of the day. The artist, John Csáky, worked at MKDC between 1971 – 81 and also designed The National Bowl and Loughton Lakes. His early designs for the area of the Teardrop Lakes in South Loughton Valley Park were surreal ideas which stretched the idea of what this green space could be, with ideas of a subterranean lake, a maze and a DIY park which allowed people to build their own rockets!

However, the Central Library is most synonymous with a series of extensive works by [Fionnuala] Boyd and [Leslie] Evans.  Their most renowned work, the painting on the balcony, ‘Fiction, Non-Fiction and Reference’, was created while they were Artists in Residence to MKDC. The title refers both to the book sections of a public library, and to the content of the work, which mixes fictional and real events and draws its reference from hundreds of documentary photographs. The work took six months to plan and a year to paint. It features people both fictional and real, including two notable contemporary figures darkly observing the idyllic scene – Margaret Thatcher, the driving force behind the city’s public and private enterprise, and her opposite, Arthur Scargill, President of the National Union of Mineworkers. The painting captures the architectural styles, iconic fashion and the city’s feeling of hope and newness in the 1980s. It also plays on art historical reference – the scene of people lazing by a lake echoing the composition of Seurat’s famous painting ‘The Bathers at Asnières”.

As you enter the library, you can catch a girl cupping her hand whispering a secret to her friend whilst they rest on a railing. ‘The Whisper’, 1984, by André Wallace is a just over life-size bronze sculpture ideally suited to a place where people meet and socialise. Unlike many public sculptures they seem to be the observers rather than the observed as one whispers gossip or comments to the other.

Give us feedback and ideas to improve the trail for everyone.

Give feedback