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Magazines > Information Today > April 2007
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Information Today

Vol. 24 No. 4 — April 2007

The London Library: Portrait of a Lady
By Gary Flood

“I can get more from a book in 20 minutes at home than 2 hours in a public reading room,” said Thomas Carlyle, that formidable Scottish Victorian man of letters. In fact, he was so convinced of his opinion that he founded his very own library to achieve his goal.

That library—called, then and now, The London Library—is a rare and different thing in the modern age of information management. Essentially, the institution stands very much apart from many of the mainstream pressures and concerns of similar-sized sites. As a self-funding charity, it is completely free of what its head librarian Inez Lynn calls “trends” in library science, such as replacing the entire stock every 5 years or responding to the latest governmental “diktat” about the role of the library. Instead, she said, the focus is on knowledge, not information.

This building, an oasis of quiet in hectic central London, has a modestly sized interior and is a warren of books: about 15 miles of open access shelves, with 1 million books to be browsed. The library, in keeping with its founding father’s philosophy, keeps 98 percent of its stock on view.

Don’t come here with a list of textbooks to check out; there aren’t any. There is good representation of fine and applied art, architecture, bibliography, philosophy, religion, topography, and travel. But as policy, the library will only have books on the history, not the practice, of the pure and natural sciences, technology, medicine, and law.

A better use of time might be to take many ancient (16th century and up) documents and books directly from the shelves or any of the many 19th- and 20th-century periodicals, including a set of The Times newspaper in its original form from 1814 to 2000.

By the Book

Another quirk: The readers set all rules and regulations. One result of this philosophy is that there has never been a date stamp for a return on any book borrowed by a reader. The book is on loan for as long as the reader likes, or at least until another reader requests it. That’s right: No overdue fines, ever.

As another contrast to even many of today’s world-class institutions, users can look in vain for any Dewey system here. The library uses its own idiosyncratic cataloging technique, based firmly on the principle of serendipity. “We try to have all the major works in the field on show but also in the same place things that might also be of interest,” according to Lynn.

Sound random? That wouldn’t be a problem for the many writers and creative types who stubbornly support the library, even though in contrast to all other U.K. institutions, it charges a fee for use (about £210, or $409, annually). Users like the fact that there just might be something on the shelf other than what they thought they wanted.

In Search of a Camel

Lynn, who became librarian in 2002, outlined what can happen. “We are primarily about the arts and humanities,” she said. “So we don’t really have a science section. What we do have though is a science and miscellany place, where among other things we have lots of books on camels: camels in California, camels as means of transport, lots of different camel-related material. Writers who want to research camels love this—that section is one of our most visited, in fact.”

Writers indeed. The quintessential London Library customer is very likely to be quite literary. More than 25 million people around the world read books written by current library members every year. Its roll call of past readers (members) includes four national Poets Laureate, eight Nobel Prize winners, and the same number of winners of the Booker Prize (such as A. S. Byatt, who set part of her novel Possession in the library), Britain’s premier best novel competition.

It may not be true that The London Library is unique: Lynn pointed to the famous Boston Athenaeum as having a similar approach of “growing a unique collection with some care and thought.” Indeed, there is a long connection between this building in St. James and the U.S., with an International Friends of The London Library organization operating in New York. One-third of all readers live outside the U.K., though Lynn suggested that some parts of the U.S. postal system have prevented more North American members from signing up for its postal service of book lending.

The Joys of Online Browsing

You’re forgiven for wondering if all these character traits are really the charm of a museum piece. Lynn is not frightened of the charge: “We recogni[z]e the need and place of technology. I have no doubt that if he were alive today, Carlyle would want to browse the catalogue from home, as anyone can do now with the Web site, and to access some of the material online too. But our mission is to preserve the collection and keep that open for our readers, not to be at the leading edge of IT.”

As a case in point, the library is pioneering book conservation as one area of technology. “Our collection isn’t meant to be preserved in aspic or kept in the most pristine conditions all the time,” she said. “Our books are there to be read. So how do we keep these volumes in a usable state for potentially forever?” This is one of the tasks of a new Conservation Studio that is opening as part of the library’s current expansion plans (see the sidebar to the left).

The institution isn’t a place where only dyed-in-the-wool conservatives will work. For its 52 staff members, it is a matter of pride that some have stayed in service for 40 years. But recently, Lynn was conducting interviews for a new graduate trainee scheme, with 40 applicants battling for just two posts.

Lynn herself came into librarianship after studying classics and after postgraduate work in Medieval Latin. “I decided there was a place in scholarship that wasn’t about teaching,” she said. “I felt there was a place for helping find the information scholars want—be that providing the very best information retrieval systems or being the best sort of librarian.”

Summing up her role and responsibility, Lynn said: “The core of what I do here is to ensure the collection—the library’s treasure—continues to grow, that its strengths get developed, and that its gaps are filled. We are convinced that in the humanities, at least the book will continue to be central to knowledge: What was written in the 17th century is as germane today as then in that sense. And, of course, to serve our members.”

Where Next?

The London Library grows at an average rate of 8,000 volumes a year, requiring a half mile of additional open access shelf space every 3 years. The library now needs to reunite collections that have become scattered because of a lack of space, plus continue to develop electronic resources to complement and enhance printed materials. The library has just purchased the adjacent building and plans to combine the two spaces to provide enough public access room for its collection. The first phase has been completed, but the full integration cannot be finished until the institution raises about £15 million ($29 million) to fund the project. Since the library is a self-supporting charity, it must raise the funds through public donation. If you are interested in supporting the work, check out the library’s Web site, where you will find its appeals microsite.

A Brief History

In the 1840s, the only real library in London as we know it was The British Museum’s famous open Reading Room. Writer Thomas Carlyle decided that he hated this place, mainly because he couldn’t take books home that he liked. Legend has it that he also hated the chief librarian at that time too. So in response, he founded The London Library in 1841, based on the principle of browsing. He decided that books were meant to be borrowed, taken home, and read. The library is now the world’s largest independent subscription library, housing more than 1 million volumes on 15 miles of open access shelves in its central London location. And it still maintains Carlyle’s mission: to promote education, learning, and knowledge.

Who’s Used the Library?

In addition to its founder—the famed 19th-century historian and social critic Thomas Carlyle—The London Library credits a number of famous writers from both sides of the Atlantic who have been involved with the library. On the British side, this includes George Eliot, William Makepeace Thackeray, Charles Dickens, George Bernard Shaw, Virginia Woolf, and E. M. Forster; on the U.S. side, Henry James was a member, and Boston citizen T. S. Eliot was a major supporter. Other notable readers include statesman Winston Churchill, philosopher Isaiah Berlin, mystery writer Agatha Christie, and playwright Tom Stoppard. Today, the library reports that its most common member self-description is still “writer,” though that can mean anything from journalist to novelist to historian or biographer.

Gary Flood is a freelance business and technology writer based in the U.K. His email address is
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