Thursday, 22 September 2011

The London Library

The London Library is a library that seems to have accidentally arrived in our London from some alternate world. With the nineteenth century idealism of its founding fathers, the tendency of famous Victorians to appear in its story and the iconic steel grid flooring the whole place struck me as slightly steampunk. A combination of the best of the Victorian age with elements of the latest design and digital technology. I visited this strange and wonderful place early on in the summer. They have regular tours which I recommend to anyone with an interest in such things (i.e. libraries, books, architecture, design, history and so on).

The London Library was founded by Thomas Carlyle in 1841. (See. Count the famous Victorians in this blog entry.) Unhappy with the British Library he wanted to set up a members' library which better fitted his vision of what a library should be like. Its collection would aim to cover the humanities in a depth and range comparable to a national library. Members would be able to borrow books to read in the comfort of their own homes and the reading rooms would offer a more comfortable atmosphere than those of the British Library.

Carlyle's project soon attracted the involvement of people like Thackery and Gladstone. Charles Dickens and George Elliot were among the first to join the exciting new library. The London Library's ability to attract such key figures clearly wasn't just based on momentary fashion, the appeal of a trendy new place to read and study. The Library has continued to attract big names throughout its history. The current president is Tom Stoppard. We saw a Library Christmas card designed by Quentin Blake. This gave our tour a slight celebrity tour feel which I hadn't been expecting. Not in a bad way and obviously it does suggest that the place has something to offer.

As a private members' library the London Library has always been free to do its own thing in a way that other libraries aren't. This has left it with a slightly eccentric classification system which they are very proud of. Essentially books are organised by subject. Then the subjects are in alphabetical order. Then...well I'm sure you would get used to it if you worked there or you were a regular visitor. The staff seemed very proud of it so it must work reasonably well. From a tour group's perspective it throws up some interesting juxtapositions. The strangest subjects end up next door to each other.

However the London Library gets much weirder then that. They never throw anything away! Well not really ‘never’. If something's horribly damaged or they have duplicates then they make an exception but there is no actual weeding. Once a book is part of the collection it stays there. This is an interesting contrast to every library that I've ever been involved with. Presumably it goes back to that early ambitious desire to compete with the British Library. It certainly adds to the London Library's value for researchers, particularly historians. Think of the research value of their books on education or parenting for example. The chance to see shifting social trends on one bookshelf. Our tour guide also mentioned a writer who used a decades old tourist guide to check if a fictional journey would have been possible for her characters. This collection policy also adds to the appeal of the place for those of us who just love old books.

The London Library is a fantasy labyrinth of a library. Thanks to the steel grid flooring you can look down and see the floors below. You can look down and see the bookshelves going on into infinity.

My impression that the place was slightly otherworldly was only reinforced by the design of the new art section which riffs on the original design. The new steel gird flooring is narrower to allow for high heels and to stop readers dropping things on their fellows below. Clear evidence that designers do learn from the mistakes of the past. It also has glass panels which slowly change colour thanks to cleverly placed lighting.

It's clearly and justifiably proud of its past but the London Library is forward looking in many ways. The new area and the plans for further expansion testify to that. That said some of the old-fashioned habits help to maintain its unique atmosphere. They have a better archive of the Times than the Times does but they don't stock any other newspapers. In Victorian London the Times was the only newspaper, certainly the only newspaper that a gentleman would be interested in.

As you might expect from a private members' library in this more demanding century they also offer an impressive range of online resources. Their e-collections include JSTOR and other major journal databases. Alternatively the database of 19th century newspapers could be used to see if those Victorian gentlemen were missing anything.

This is a dream library. A vast maze of shelves full of weird and wonderful titles, including many that must be largely lost in the outside world. It's a maze where you can see the floors above and below. This liberates you from the shallow temptations of merely wondering what's round the next corner. You are free to wonder what those books are just down there or just up there. I could happily spend days exploring this place. The tour is a good way to get a glimpse of the mysteries on offer.

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