Visit to the London Library - 15th December 2016

Our last visit of 2016 led us to the London Library. Tucked away just a few minutes’ walk from the hustle and bustle of Piccadilly on St. James’s Square, the London Library is what many avid readers and librarians would most likely call their “dream library”. Originally an old town house, extended over the decades to accommodate its rapidly growing collections, the library is full of picturesque reading rooms with old wooden furniture, comfortable armchairs and balustrades for, of course, more books. It is also probably one of the only libraries that still maintains its book lifts. The library opened in 1841 and was envisioned by its founder, Scottish author, historian, and biographer Thomas Carlyle, in contrast to the then often overcrowded and reference-only British Museum Library. Carlyle wanted to create a subscription and lending library where readers could join for a membership fee and read or study in a tranquil, comfortable atmosphere as well as borrow books to read at home. Now members are able to read a vast variety of over one million books, mainly on arts and humanities subjects, ranging from the sixteenth century to the present day, across 2000 subjects and in 55 different languages with about 8000 new acquisitions made annually. 

One of the book lifts in the London Library

Caring for such a large and historically significant collection while allowing most of it to be open access and borrowed is no small task. So it seems appropriate that we were first ushered to the conservation studio, where the team’s current project is to implement preventative conservation techniques by packing old and fragile books into specially made preservation boxes tailored to each book’s individual size to prevent exposure to light, dust, pollution or other wear and tear.

Afterwards we were led to the Victorian grille-floored book stacks which run over four floors and form part of the structure of one of the first steel-framed buildings in London. Dating from the 1890s, they were a then great innovation in the construction of libraries to aid with ventilation and temperature control.

The Victorian Stacks of the London Library

Here we were also introduced to the library’s unique classification system, invented by Charles Hagberg Wright, who was appointed as librarian of the London Library in 1893. He set out to aim for a good balance between readers finding what they were interested in while allowing for browsing and serendipitous finds. Some sections we found included: a section for every King Charles you could think of, epigrams, and cheese. The classification system was particularly interesting to me because the library in which I am completing my Graduate Traineeship, the Warburg Library, has a similarly idiosyncratic way of sorting its books. In the Warburg Library we talk about the concept of the “good neighbour”, in which books are grouped to aid researchers to serendipitously find the book they did not know they were looking for and which could provide them with a key new insight into their field.

While being led through the many rooms and floors of the library, including the famous Victorian Reading Room, we encountered further interesting features. One of them was the Small Books Cabinet, in which around 350 books measuring up to 5 inches tall are kept, so they do not disappear between their larger companions. Another was the enormous, multi-volume bound catalogue (now supplemented by a digital version) of the library and the so-called Times Room in which the back runs of hundreds of periodicals, including original copies of over 200 years of the Times newspaper are stored.

The Small Books Cabinet
While exploring the library’s many corners, our guides illustrated the London Library’s history for us. The London Library has had a lively history with many illustrious patrons and readers to people it, including T.S. Elliot, Charles Dickens, Virginia Woolf and other giants of the literary world, which gave the staff a rich canon of narratives to pass on to us. One we were told was how T.S. Elliot presented a hand-written manuscript of The Wasteland for auction to help fund the London Library to pay a tax bill from Westminster Council after it had been incorrectly classed as a “gentlemen’s club” rather than an educational institution. Another was about how library staff actually lived in the library during the Second World War to be prepared for immediate on-site rescue action should the library be bombed (as indeed it was in 1944 destroying over 16000 volumes). Its history with its many eccentricities is part of the essential character of the library and what makes it so appealing.

As a Library trainee from an academic research library, it was very worthwhile seeing how a historic, independent lending library differs in its nature, particularly in terms of its readership, membership policy, collection policy and funding structure. Thank you to Amanda Corp, Head of Enquiries, and Amanda Stebbings, Head of Member Services, for the tour and for answering our questions afterwards.

For more information on the London Library, you can visit their website here: