A Visit to The London Library

Some time ago, LoL wrote about The London Library. She had come across their website somehow and was quite impressed and intrigued. As it happens, the London Library offers introductory tours every last Saturday of the month to interested people and prospective members. As it happened, LoL was in London on the last Saturday of June and was allowed to join the tour.

The library is situated in the heart of London, at St. James’s Square, between Picadilly and Pall Mall. Standing before the entrance, the house looks quite small, but inside there’s a labyrinth of floors and rooms filled with bookshelves (just have a look at the Map of the London Library to get an impression of its size!). The library has a collection of about 1 million volumes, more than 95 % of which on open shelves, to be browsed at leisure by its readers and available for loan. Members of the library are allowed to borrow between 10 and 15 volumes at the time (depending on where you live, i.e. in or outside London) or up to 40 volumes (for supplementary fees). There are no fixed loan periods, really. Readers are allowed to keep the books for at least one month, and longer if it is not requested by someone else. Members who live too far away to just pop in, can simply phone up the library or send an e-mail and the requested books will be posted on the same day. This uncomplicated and fast service is also used by other libraries, many of which are institutional members. As the London Library is an independent library, and therefore not part of the interlibrary loan system in Britain, the other libraries – and their readers – can profit from the much faster service.

The London Library was founded in 1841 by Thomas Carlyle and such famous persons as Charles Dickens, George Eliot, Henry James, Virginia Woolf, T.S. Eliot and Agatha Christie were among its members (see here for a brief history of the library on their website). Interesting is also their shelving system, which is basically alphabetical. There is a number of broader subjects, or main headings, such as “H” for History or “L” for Literature. Within these, everything is arranged alphabetically, according to author’s name, title etc. Within the larger parts of the collection, the main headings are subdivided into further subjects. Of particular interest is level 4 in the building, where “S” is found. “S” stands for “Science & Misc.” and here, all kinds of subjects are found, all, of course, in alphabetical order, such as Atlantis, Assassins, Ballooning, Bells, Camel, Cheese, Domestic Servants, Exhumation, Fear, Flower Arrangement, Friendship, Hair, Hysteria, Human Sacrifice, Insanity, Laughter, Logic, Love, Pawnshops, Pleasure, Refrigerating, Shipwrecks, Stamps, Sugar, Taxidermy, Typewriters, Vinegar, Weathercocks, Whaling, Witchcraft. One can easily see the historic contexts, out of which many of these subjects grew. And one can also imagine how fun it is to just browse the shelves and discover all kinds of curious books. (As a substitute, just having a look at the complete list of shelf marks is quite fun as well).

When LoL first read about the London Library, she was wondering what kind of people were using the library. After all, the membership fee of £375 per annum isn’t nothing. This isn’t to say that it’s not worth the money, not at all. But there’s a difference between what something’s worth and whether one can afford it or not. Well, there is, of course, a great number of members, LoL hasn’t thought of, although it is actually quite obvious, especially when one looks at the website: Professional writers. There are (and have been) a lot of authors, writers, journalists etc. who use the library on a daily basis. Not just the collection and services, but the actual premises, to write their books, articles, essays etc. (just think about all the books that were, are and will be written there!). A quiet and peacful office/work space in the heart of London for £375 a year, with access to thousands and thousands of books, reference works etc. is certainly worth every penny. And after all, a library is the best place to work in anyway🙂 . If LoL lived in London, she’d certainly be tempted to join…

2 responses to “A Visit to The London Library

  1. I found your site on technorati and read a few of your other posts. Keep up the good work. I just added your RSS feed to my Google News Reader. Looking forward to reading more from you down the road!

  2. Hi! I was surfing and found your blog post… nice! I love your blog. 🙂 Cheers! Sandra. R.

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