The London Library is the largest independent lending library in the world. It opened in 1841, and was established by Thomas Carlyle, who felt the library was needed because it was, according to him, very difficult to work in the British Museum library (which was the precursor to the British Library). The London Library issues items and opens its reading room space to paying members, who have included the likes of Virginia Woolf, Charles Dickens, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. The library is still very well-used, with 76,000 issues last year alone. Today’s members and supports include recognizable figures of English cultural life, such as Stephen Fry.
The library has an incredibly eclectic collection of books, and no item is ever weeded out or disposed of. Items are therefore purchased almost exclusively in hardcover, but slipcovers are removed, for preservation and space-saving reasons. The library has been catalogued going back to 1950 (for items prior to 1950, there are bound catalogue volumes). But the library’s new online catalogue is thoroughly modern, and includes the option of “browsing” the shelves online, even remotely. The library utilizes its own unique, homegrown system of classification and organization. Books are shelved by size, resulting in a juxtaposition of subjects (for example, “Dentistry” appears next to “Death”). Members reportedly find the unique organization and juxtaposition allows for added opportunities for discovery and inspiration. However, the way topics are organized on the shelves means that any added subjects or added titles can require a lot of physical moving of the books by library staff.
The Library was really unlike anything I had seen before, as I have had very little experience with private members libraries. I found the award-winning building itself to be so interesting, and found it to be a historic, eclectic, and ultimately welcoming space. In 2004, there were major renovations to improve accessibility, and 2013 upgrades improved lighting and added Wifi and outlets to all but one of the reading rooms (which remains intentionally computer-free). The entrance to the library, and many of the reading rooms, were designed to look like a house. The domestic design contributes to the library feeling like quite an intimate space. It also reflects the fact that for many members, especially for those who are writers, the library no doubt serves as a home office away from home. The overall design of the building reflects the Library’s history and its evolution over time. Additions to the library building throughout the 1900s have literally been building on the same basic foundation and structure. The library keeps expanding outward, and today it is a lot larger than its facade, facing St. James Square, would suggest.
One of the things that I have most enjoyed about this trip so far has been seeing libraries like this one that are successful and well-used by their members, for their unique spaces, offerings and services. I was inspired by the fact that this Library has no doubt played a role in the creation of some of the great works of British literature, and has been a fixture in English cultural life for almost 200 years. I am also heartened by the support it has received by its members, who consider the library to be of such value to them that they continue to be paid members year after year.