After hearing on Twitter that it was possible to visit the London Library, I signed up for a tour on Monday 18th July. The Library is situated at the corner of St James’s Square near Piccadilly Circus. I was planning on taking a picture, but when I went in there was somebody standing at the entrance - who probably wouldn't have appreciated me photographing them - and when I came out, it was pouring with rain and frankly, I wasn’t willing to stand about taking pictures. So instead here is the Library’s eminent founder, Thomas Carlyle:
Carlyle, a writer and historian, founded the London Library in 1841 after apparently getting fed up with the British Library. He wanted to recreate the atmosphere of a gentleman’s living room, in a library with open shelves and books that could be borrowed for a long time. To this day, all of the shelves (apart from rare books) can be openly browsed by users, and books borrowed for as long as needed unless requested by another user. The Library has particular strengths in arts, humanities and languages, with comprehensive collections in languages such as French and Russian. The roll-call of previous members reads like a Who’s Who of British literary society, including such names as Charles Dickens, Virginia Woolf and T.S. Eliot, also a past President.
I learned several interesting things about the Library, such as the fact that they use their own classification system which was designed to be understood by a lay person. Also, the Library has a policy of never weeding, unless a book becomes damaged beyond repair or there are duplicates. This means it is a valuable resource for someone researching, say, travel to Asia in the early nineteenth century, as there is likely to be a travel guide from the time somewhere in the Library.
In the Science & Miscellaneous shelving area we were permitted to examine the varied tomes on show (and I was happy to smell that familiar musty book smell again). Most of the books spanned the Victorian era to the modern day: some of the older books had the best titles, such as the breathtakingly politically incorrect Basic Teaching for Slow Learners and the intriguing The Truth About Opium. The bookcases in this area also act as roof supports in an example of ingenious Victorian engineering, while the floor was somewhat terrifying, consisting of a metal grille with extremely wide spaces – I was grateful I was wearing flat shoes, and sincerely hoped I wouldn’t drop anything.
We also had a look around the silent reading room, which looks largely the same as it did in the nineteenth century. I liked the look of the comfortable armchairs by the fireplace! This is the only reading room in which laptops are not permitted – free wifi is available throughout the building, and computer terminals are also available to use.
The Art & Architecture collection was particularly interesting, situated on specially-built shelves to accommodate larger books with colour-changing glass. The Times Room, as the name suggests, contains a comprehensive collection of past volumes of The Times. One of the volumes – from December 1919 – was already out on the desk, and it was interesting to read old adverts from this time.
The London Library seems to be unique among libraries in being open to anyone who is able and willing to pay the membership fee - other libraries I've visited, worked in or otherwise come across are either completely public and free at the point of use, or open only to specific user groups. The staff have tried to create a welcoming environment for all users and I thought it was a lovely place. I definitely like the idea that you can keep books for as long as you like unless someone else requests them. Sadly joining isn't an option for me at the moment but maybe in the future! I definitely recommend signing up for a tour, if you haven't already.