Monday, July 12, 2010

London Library

Tucked into the corner of St. James' Park is the London Library. Behind a relatively nondescript door is one of the world's oldest independent private lending libraries. Founded in 1841 by historian Thomas Carlyle and his friends, the library was intended as a lending library. Carlyle believed that patrons should be able to take books home with them as opposed to his experiences at the British Library where patrons were required to use books at the library. Determined to follow Carlyle's founding philosophy ninety-seven percent of the London Library's one million item collection circulates--only the 16th century materials are restricted to the reading room. And by circulation, one means not only that members can browse the stacks and check out the books but for those who live far from London (elsewhere in UK or in Europe), the library will ship chosen books by post.

The London Library is accessible to all members of the public but to use the library and its' services one must become a subscriber--at a cost of L375 per annum or the purchase of a lifetime membership. The library is justifiably proud of its' members past and present, especially their close relationship with literary world in London and the UK. Many of the members, the librarians stated, are writers, some of whom use the library as their office.

The staff at the library indicated that their membership varies: they have many who join as individuals as well as representative members--corporations, associations and other libraries that join to take advantage of the library's collection and services. The library's past membership is full of luminaries of British literature: Charles Dickens, H.G. Wells, and Agatha Christie were all members. Tom Stoppard, author of my favorite play, Arcadia is the current president and Mrs. T.S. Eliot is one of the most significant patrons.

The London Library collection includes books in over fifty languages. They do not weed books so a patron will potentially find eighteenth century material shelved next to a recent best-seller. The cataloguing system derives from an unique subject-based system. It includes subject categories one might expect: history, art, biography and law as well as those which might be less clear to the non-subscriber: anecdotes, topography, and science and miscellaneous. This last category not only includes the hard sciences but also anything else that did not fit into the scheme created by librarian Charles Hagberg Wright. This system allows for easy browsing--and is, in some ways, similar to the bookstore model being adopted by many public libraries in the U.S--and is very popular with library patrons. It has, however, decreased the need for the advent of a barcode or RFID system for the books, and the London Library relies on size-based shelving with books given shelfmarks based on size.

As seen above, the library is near to capacity--they just completed a massive renovation to add more shelf space. They instituted a conservation policy and better shelf management to ensure that all books are properly housed--and not placed on the floor, on the tops of other books, or in the aisles. On the other hand, because the library is housed in recognized historic buildings, they are required to keep historic architectural elements. One of the elements is the Victorian slatted metal floor in the oldest part of the building. These floors, through which books often fall to be lost for a time (though usually not in perpetuity), provide great ambiance. The see-through floor did have one side-affect: for the first time, the glory of the books was lost in my near state of panic as I walked on a floor through which I could see, which seemed to shake and shimmy at each step. Those who browse the stacks and work the desks cannot be of faint heart at the London Library.

On a final note, down in the basement in the newspaper and periodical room was the coolest piece of archival furniture I've seen in a long time: these newspaper rests--for the large bound volumes of 19th and 20th century newspapers would have been amazing back when I was trying to take notes while reading copies of the Philadelphia Inquirer and wrenching out my neck, back and eyes.

I have to say, that thus far the trip to the London library is my favorite--the staff were knowledgeable and enthusiastic, the tour itself was well run, informative and entertaining, and I could easily get lost (in a good way) in the Library's collection for days. To top it all off the Library's physical space, while quite maze-like had real charm and appeal--a character all it's own that makes the long-lived nature of this space understandable.

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