Tuesday, 16 September 2014

The London Library

This year, I've been visiting many libraries in London, partly to be able to add those visits to my Chartership portfolio, but mostly because some Cilip branches organise regular visits of very different libraries, allowing me to quench my library-curiosity very easily!
But among all of those that I have visited, the one that made the deepest impression on me has been the London Library. If you've got the occasion, try and go to one of the free tours they organise every Monday, it's really a sight to see!
But let's begin with the beginning...


The London Library was founded by Thomas Carlyle in 1841. He didn’t like the British Library, thinking it was too noisy and unliking having to ask librarians to access books. He decided to create a library that would feel more like a home library, or maybe like a club.

The issue desk in 1935. Photo Credit: Sylvia Lewes


The London Library’s collections count over a million books. None of them are weeded except for duplicates of non popular books. Around 70% of the collections have been entered in the OPAC but the rest still waits to be retrospectively catalogued and (hand-written or typewritten) paper cards still need to be used to search it.
The first librarian devised a classification system specific to the library. It is alphabetically classified by subject titles, which shall be easier for non-librarians to use and encourages serendipity by putting next to each other very different kinds of subjects.

The collections focus on humanities, especially literature, history and art. Collections in French, German, Italian, Spanish and Russian are particularly important.

The book collection includes books dating from the 16th to the 21st century. Approximately 8,000 new titles are added to the collections every year, requiring the Library to find a further half-a-mile of shelving every three years. This, combined to the lack of weeding, explains why the Library has had to expand a lot since its first days, to the point of occupying a whole block of buildings in central London. With the recent addition of the T.S. Eliot house, they estimate to have enough space for the next 25 years. After that, they might have to build extensions above their present buildings.

In its “Times room”, the London Library has collected all editions of The Times since its opening. Its current collection of periodicals exceeds 750 titles and back runs for over 2500 further titles many of which began in the 18th century. The Library also subscribes to over 200 online versions of its journals, augmented with access to JSTOR.

Acquisitions (for periodicals as well as for books) are made upon demand of the Library’s members and to complete gaps in the collections. The Library also receives numerous donations from living or deceased members.

Bookshelves in the oldest building.
Photo Credit: Christopher Simon Sykes


97% of the collections are in open access, which means that the innumerable floors and rooms of archives are freely accessible to members. All shelves are low enough to be accessed without help by most. An interesting particularity comes with the aeration system devised during the construction of the oldest Victorian building: to let the air flow freely, the archives floors are made of wrought iron with big gaps (you can see them on the picture above) which allows to see through the many floors of the building.

Desks and chairs are intersped around the library, but there are also specific study rooms, including a silent one where laptops are not allowed and strict silence must be respected at all times. Free Wi-Fi is provided throughout the library.
Many members use the library as their office, coming in everyday at fixed times and using always the same desk. Apparently, writers particularly enjoy to thus feel less alone in their solitary work.

One of the reading rooms. Photo Credit : Philip Vile
Members living within 20 miles can have on loan up to 10 volumes. If you live further away, you can have 15 volumes. It is possible to borrow a maximum of 40 volumes upon extra payment.
The normal load period is two months. Renewals are possible if the volumes are not requested by another member.

Bags measuring more than an A4 sheet of paper and the depth of a hardback book must be left in lockers provided in the Issue Hall. Clear plastic bags to carry your items are freely available at Reception.


Being completely independent, the London Library relies solely on membership, donations, fundraising and the prudent management of its capital resources. It receives no government or statutory funding.

The library has had a large number of famous members who have played a central role in the intellectual life of the nation (Agatha Christie, Charles Darwin, Charles Dickens, Virginia Woolf, Arthur Conan Doyle, T.S. Eliot, Winston Churchill, …). For a long time, membership was only accessible to men but it now boasts that membership is open to everyone.

Individual annual membership is £475 pa. It is payable monthly and a 50% rate is accessible to 16 to 24 year-old. Prospective members unable to meet the full annual fee may be eligible for Carlyle Membership, where assistance can cover 30 to 60% of the annual fee.

A reader, in 1935. Photo Credit: Sylvia Lewes

My Opinion

The London Library presents itself like a wonderful study library, focused on its members' comfort (with its silent room, open access, extended loans). Its list of members and presidents is very impressive and the buildings do give off an historical and literary feel.

But as much as I would like to use it as a reader, some of its professional aspects do seem quite unappealing: I’m thinking in particular to the daunting prospect of the extensive retrospective cataloguing that has to be achieved, and to the policy of not weeding anything. If it pursues along this way, the London Library is bound to be confronted to structural issues due to sheer lack of space to welcome its ever growing collections.

All of the pictures in this blogpost come from the London Library website and are protected by copyright. You can find here the historical pictures and here the recent pictures.

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