One of the more surprising things about the libraries in the UK is that quite often they don’t even look like libraries. When we got to the square where the London Library is located, the only real way to tell the difference between it and the other buildings and houses was the small sign above the door. It’s just so, I don’t know, not exactly incongruous, but always a little unexpected.
When we first walked in, it looked sort of like a house with lots of bookshelves and some desks, to me anyway. We got a quick introduction and then were taken up to a small conference room, where Helen O’Neill, the Head of Reader Services, presented a slideshow on the history of the library.
The slideshow contained many archival images, and quite a lot of information. The library was founded in 1841 by Thomas Carlysle, with the intent of having an arts and humanities focus. It started with 500 members in Pall Mall, but grew rapidly. It has always been a subscription library, and is totally independent, not connected to anything national. If it wasn’t a subscription library, it would have no money whatsoever. It is the largest independent lending library in the world. Membership is open to all, and some people qualify to apply for help on subscription fees (I believe students were mentioned…!).
Currently the London Library has about 7,000 members, and 150 of those are corporate bodies. The Queen is the royal patron. There have been many famous members, including Charles Dickens, Rudyard Kipling, and Virginia Woolf.
The original library building was a rented house; the floors began to sag under the weight of all the books and the shelves were overfull, so in 1896-98 Sir Charles Harburg Wright (the librarian from 1892-1940) built a new library. Since then, there have been several expansions including in the 1930s and 1990s. In WWII the building was hit by bombs, but remained standing.
The library has an amazing one million books, dating from the 16th century to today. And get this—97% of them are available for loan. They are not housed separately, but side by side, on 15 miles of shelving, and fifty languages are represented. They are classified by the library’s personal system, which confused me a little bit but goes something like this: all books on a certain subject (the example was camels) are shelved together, no matter the language or the type of material. This would lead to lots of distractions for me, researching one thing and stumbling on another.
Some other fascinating tidbits: the library has a first edition of the King James Bible (no one ever has a catholic bible, much to my chagrin); it holds 30,000 rare books, 2500 periodicals, and acquires 8,000 new books per year; every book in the library is a bound hardcover, and none are ever thrown away unless they are unsalvageable.
The library has forty-four full time staff, half of which are librarians, and the rest is the support team, along with three paid assistants, which I believe are students who are working a year before beginning their master’s degrees in library subjects. Books are chosen by the librarian and the acquisitions head, and there is one person whose only job is to search for out-of-print materials to add to the collection. Sign me up for that one, please.
After our slideshow and quick peruse (for me) through the issue of the library’s magazine I was given, we were split into two groups and taken on a tour of the facilities. Jane Oldfield, the Deputy Librarian, was the guide for my group. Of course, one of the first things we went to see were the stacks, the main part of which are on several floors of grating. This is to let in as much light as possible, because otherwise it would be gloomy and unwelcoming. We were standing on solid ground, thank goodness, looking up through the floors, and I saw a person sitting in a chair reading, which made me a little giddy to think about. Lighting is also addressed by light wells connecting different parts of the library, which I much prefer to grates.
There was a lot of stair climbing on this visit, with stops to look at things like a small art installation at the very bottom of the building (I don’t remember exactly what the pictures were of, they were drawings of some kind, but this was the point where we had our bathroom break). We viewed one of the light wells, and several different collection rooms, and so many parts of the library are so different. We were told that the library has such an unusual setup partly because it was originally thought that no one would want to sit in a library, but would rather take books home to read (obviously they were a little off with that idea), not to mention all the expansions that have taken place over the years.
At one point the group was taken onto another floor of the grating, and I of course was unwilling to venture out onto it, though I looked through the door. Dr. Welsh said she would wait with me and we went downstairs to meet everyone else. At least Jane actually asked if anyone was afraid of heights, because some of our guides didn’t, not because they didn’t care but because it didn’t occur to them. Some people said even without a phobia they were a little shaky with that grating.
There is also a section of the library we were shown that very clearly displays the effectiveness of the disaster plan in place—around Christmas a pipe broke and the bottom floor started to fill up with water, but the staff went into action and there was hardly any damage to the books. There are marks and other signs of what happened but everything survived remarkably well.
We ended up outside at one point, after which we went in again through a back entrance, where the lockers are, and then we were shown the board catalog, which contains everything up until 1950 and consists of lots and lots of handwritten books. Anything post-1950 is in the online catalog. There are also a lot of online subscriptions but the collections themselves are not digitized.
Before we went back up to the conference room, we were taken through the art room, which is popular as an event room because of its color-change lights. This time I couldn’t escape the see-through stairs and floor, which were not as bad as the other grating but still not fun.
Back in the conference room, we settled in for a presentation by Stella Worthington, the head of Preservation and Stack Management. She had several rare books for us to look at as she talked about the London Library’s approach to preservation.
Stella told us that the focus of her department is on members use, environmental conditions, and stability, but they recognize that they will never full control in such an old historic building. She is the first true conservationist that the library has had—until a few years ago there were only some people with a little bit of training, and they did some bad things to books that make people cringe nowadays. The rare books she showed us included one written by Henry VIII, which is so insanely awesome for surviving so long and in such amazing shape. They even make their own archival boxes by refashioning standard ones to fit the unusual shapes of books, as some of them are warped or have changed shape otherwise over the centuries.
The preservation department binds or rebinds four and a half thousand books a year, they record all treatments done, and they don’t do anything that isn’t reversible, unlike what used to be done by the ill-trained. All books are checked when they are returned, in order to catch anything that may become a problem.
What killed me here, as in so many of the places we visited, was how Stella was so casual in her handling of everything. She didn’t wear gloves, and was holding the books like any other, standing one on end on the table and just sort of fiddling with it.
After Stella was finished we were through with the visit. It was really fascinating to see how this library evolved over the years, how it got its own unusual shape and personality, and how it is still an integral part of the London landscape. There are so few libraries like it, and I don’t know that there is anything that can quite compare to it in the states.