Our London Library tour was given by Amanda. She started in the issue hall of the library and led us through the various nooks and crannies of the unique space, all while giving us a taste of the library’s remarkable history. In 1841, Thomas Carlyle, fed up with not being able to borrow books from the British Library, started the London Library as a research-based lending library with collections available to members by subscription. Having raised money over the prior year, by May 1841 the library opened at 49 Pall Mall and quickly filled two rooms with books for its 500 new members. Originally a shared area, the library soon filled the entire space and needed to move to the current location (where the original librarian used to live, incidentally). In 1896, the steel-framed purpose built stacks (called “back stacks”) were constructed to hold all of the books. Amanda noted that some people have speculated that if they were all to be removed from the girders, the building would rise by 3 inches!
In 1898, more renovations broadened the space for the collections. The floors in this space are built from open grating, meaning you can see down to the floors below you. This was slightly unnerving to walk on, given that we were a few levels up from ground floor. The 1920s saw more renovating and building in the structure… with thick glass floors this time, thankfully. By 2004 a project to improve navigation and disability access was underway, and more refurbishments were completed in 2013 in some of the reading rooms.
Amanda estimated that over the past year, about 76,000 issues were circulated. As a science, humanities, and “miscellaneous” sort of library, the London Library works off of its own classification scheme, where every book is classed individually and organized on the shelves alphabetically by its subject. If the librarians were to change the shelf markers, they would need to shift and move a lot of books! All of the books are hardback and are shelved sans dust jackets (as Amanda explained, due to wanting to avoid issues with mold or general “stickiness”). As we walked through the library, Amanda pointed out where there were special spaces for extra-large items and for folios, as well as for fragile or rare materials that are kept away in cabinets, as some books date back to the 1700s. We saw one such cabinet containing books that were all very little, including a copy of one of Dante’s works… in 2pt font! Items come into the collections by purchase, subscription, or donations. About 8,000 titles are bought per year and the Library holds subscriptions to about 700 current periodicals. Eventually even these periodicals are bound neatly together to loan.
Multiple floors of back stacks and 5 reading rooms constitute the heart of the London Library. There are spaces to work and be social with other members (with lots of light, computer charger plug-ins, and wifi) and also spaces that are more “analogue” in some ways (no laptops allowed in one room, with print reference materials lining the shelves). Amanda explained how the materials at the London Library are mostly in French, German, Italian, Spanish, and Russian, but that they do have books in about 50 different languages. She told us an interesting distinction — a book by Alexandre Dumas, if printed in French, will be shelved in Literature; if printed in English, it will be shelved in Fiction.
A finalist for the Sterling Prize, the London Library is very proud of their various resources and variety of Reading Rooms. Patrons are easily able to access online library databases and the library’s discovery software, Primo (although they call it “Catalyst”). I enjoyed listening to Amanda share her experiences with moving over to Primo as this is the same software used in my library! She said that the staff had prepared thoroughly in order to help their patrons transition to the new system, including holding in-person sessions everyday, using phone and email support systems, printing leaflets, and organizing and listening to focus group feedback. She also explained that while they do not yet have a virtual “chat” service, they do offer a posting loans service for members across the UK and even Europe.
Costs to become a member at the London Library are about £485 a year (1/2 price for a young person ages 16-24). To purchase a life membership for someone of my age, the cost comes to just under £20,000. If you don’t quite have those funds, you can apply for a supportive membership from the library’s Trust to make a contribution on your behalf.