Many blog entries have started here. Or, been written here. Or been interrupted by having to go here. The London Library squats like a glorious book factory at the top left hand corner of St James’s Square, and is a place that, since discovery, I feel unable to do without. Year after year, when the annual subscription payment request comes flopping through the front door at Bluebird Towers, I tell myself I really can’t afford it. Every year I buy it.
There is a lovely article here from The Daily Paris Review, which mentions one of The London Library’s physical charms fairly early on. That is the disjunction in the building – in that the outside and the inside don’t seem to match – which is mindful of West End theatres or cinemas; the sense that the dimensions on the outside of the building are not possibly adhered to in the magical wonderland within. http://www.theparisreview.org/blog/2012/02/28/the-london-library/. The London Library is such a building – it’s as tall and thin as a city spinster on the outside, but on the inside it is lush and thrilling, a deep-tunnelling rabbit warren of stacks and rooms that are, in truth, not best faced when one has a hangover. Whilst a sense of sublime silence and studiousness pervades the building, the London Library is not pinched or austere in any way. It is graceful and expansive, bereft of the municipal shabbiness of the shared printer, old Microsoft computers and general plastic humdrum-ness of the provincial library. Its founder, Thomas Carlyle, discovered that The British Library was a genuinely impossible place to work (in many respects, this has now changed) so he founded his own subscription-based library where members could enjoy literature without staying in the building as The British Library, despite its awesome contents, does not lend. The London Library was subsequently founded, with Thackeray as its first auditor, in the 1840s.
In the Science & Miscellaneous stacks, known to members as the “Back stacks”, the floor is composed of vertigo inducing wide metal slabs with a series of rectangular, open slats in them. You can immediately see three floors down underneath your feet and two floors above over your head. You cannot wear high heels as you’d get jammed in the floor, or a skirt, in case other bibliophilic Peeping Toms stare up at you through the floor from the Topography section. The floors clang and prang occasionally and seem to wobble about a bit. Still, they’ve been there since 1893 and survived a couple of wartime bombs so they must be safe.
The floors in the backstacks with their metal slatted floors. Look down and there’s a further three floors beneath you. Not for the stiletto wearer, the faint-hearted or the vertigo sufferer.
1930s-style hands are painted on to walls, authoritatively pointing you in the direction of new categories, amidst dusty, bookish hush. At the moment, dangerously, some of these appear to be dying out amidst the library’s decoration and improvement plans. Last time I visited a wall had been stripped back a layer, to reveal a sign from 1940, instructing members, in a clipped and concise manner, what to do in the event of a bomb attack.
The London Library is the most frustrating, jaw-grinding, eye-popping, irritating system of book shelving known to Western man. It doesn’t have the Dewey Decimal system favoured by the majority of libraries. It is based on subject, and has been since the middle of the nineteenth century. The links are arbitrary to say the least as “Science & Misc” is usually classified by “S. [subject name].” In alphabetical order, then, you’ll get “S. CATTLE,” “S. CAVALRY”, “S. “CAVES”, “S. CELIBACY”, “S., CENSUS”, “S. CEREMONIES”, “S. CHAIRMANS HANDBOOKS”, “S. CHARACTER”, “S. CHARITIES”, “S. CHEESE”. Does your local library have a Cheese section? Then, somewhere in the alphabetical system it breaks off and continues two floors up, half a building back, up a flight of stairs and then turn left. Even after emerging on the fourth floor in a sweaty mess, you still haven’t got what you were looking for. That’s because some of the book references which end in “4&to” are in an entirely different section – probably a half a mile walk away down dusty, cream-painted warrens and grey-floored ante-rooms, where the books too big to fit in the original shelves are stored, still in their subject classifications, which means you have to start from the beginning of the alphabet again. It also has an enviable Fiction section for European languages. I have never seen bigger German, French, Spanish, Italian and Portugese sections in any academic library. These include an enormous amount of first editions.
I can’t tell you what a stink I kicked up in English Fiction. Half of the Fiction is in Fiction. Fiction is in a room in the Central Stacks which double backs on itself and is almost always edged by an angry looking man at a window who has taken the only writing table. Fiction also links into “English Lit,” BUT English Lit is either critical theory or books about books, rather than the books themselves. There is also “English Lit, Hist of” which is an entirely different section, and one I have never really understood the separateness of. For the first three years of my membership I couldn’t find Fiction S-Z. I thought there wasn’t any, although I did think this was unlikely. After all, it wasn’t possible that The London Library would leave out the really big hitters, the really big fruity writers, like Tolstoy or Steinbeck or Wells. But it was three rooms across and four flights of stairs down to the wonderful, impeccable librarians at the Issue Desk and I couldn’t be bothered to go there. I’d just swear at the shelving, take out another Beryl Bainbridge and head for the bus.
One day I did go down and ask them where the rest of the section was. I always think they must think I’m thick. There I go : week after week, month after month, approaching the Issue Desk’s bespectacled inhabitant in my most convincing “I’ve-got-an-MA-you-know” manner, utterly convinced that an entire section of the library is missing, and say something like:
“I can’t find the History of London.”
“It’s in Topography, basement floor, you know – just beyond Science and Miscellaneous.” Spectacles shine in mid-morning St James’s light.
“Yes,” I frown, hoping to exude academic langour with a touch – just a touch – of the superciliousness of Joan in Mad Men when she’s trying to get things done in the office. “I’ve been there. I’ve been to Venice, Egypt and Abyssinia. And Japan. But I’ve not been to London.”
“Would you like me to show you?”
That’s what they’re like at The London Library. They’re marvellous. You get more decorous, enchanting service there than you do at The Ritz. If only The London Library did room service. They pop out in a haze of post-graduate optimism and sensible shoes and they’re off, with irascible, unkempt me in their bookish wake. Unfailingly polite, and charming, they speedily whisk you off up the red carpeted stairs, through the Reading Room that looks over St James’s Square and where a whole raft of sleeping elderly folk are lying, mouths agog, in armchairs, and up to Fiction. Then they show you a small staircase. You could swear that the fairies put this staircase in when you weren’t looking. Either way, it wasn’t there before, was it? A dark, beige, lino-clad stairway hiding behind a wall behind a bookcase, leading to a further mezzanine floor that you never knew existed. Aha. Here they all are. Richardson, Woolf, even their old auditor, Thackeray. And, so many others. Others I’d never heard of. Part of the London Library’s central ethos is that they do not discard, or shove into stack storage, any of their books. Just because a book isn’t taken out for 50 years does not mean its literary value becomes somehow reduced, so why should reading fashion dictate what the library make available to you? I have held first edition Victorian thrillers that were last taken out when John F Kennedy was alive, books where typo-s have been angrily corrected in the margin by an 1920s ink pen, books that were presented to the library from the publisher before the First World War, books made with fragile 1870s paper, text as small as you could possibly read, paper so thin that you can see through it when you hold it up to the light. You find things here that you never knew existed and which enrich your reading life.
For someone as lazy as me, the lending policy is a dream. You don’t bring a book back, unless another member requests it. I have had books out for a year. All you have to do is renew them online once every two months. When a member requests one of your books you receive a brilliantly polite email from the library requesting that, if it is not too much trouble, could you please drop it in when you are next in town? London members can take 10 books out at any one time. On request (but no extra charge) you can arrange to take out more. “Country” members – that’s those who live 20 miles or more from the metropolis – can take out 15 books. They run a Europe-wide postal service as well. There are 15 miles of books (approximately a million volumes) on open shelves for immediate access, which makes it the world’s largest independent library.
Of course, this excellence of service doesn’t come free. The London Library receives no public funding, and therefore is dependent upon charitable donations and private membership fees. Standard membership is £395 per year. It was significantly lower, but the library has suffered from HMRC’s decision to withdraw Gift Aid contributions, and had little choice but to draw revenue from its membership pool. I applied for Carlyle Membership for which you need no academic justification for application. I won it and receive 30% off my membership annually. Members under the age of 25 also receive generous discounts. Still though, I can hear the tight-lipped intake of breath, the inquisitive look that says, “Bluebird, you pay all that?” Many people turn away at this first hurdle, but I put the question to them, that I put to you. How much do you pay for your Sky subscription and television licence combined? I’ll bet it’s more than £33 per month.
For booklovers, readers, or those keen to grow to become either, a membership of The London Library is a delightful thing. Membership is open to all . If you think this lovely place might be for you, as a happy, comfortable haven in the beating heart of central London, please join. Anyone who loves books will love this irreplaceable place. Here is a video from various well known members saying how blinking brilliant the London Lib is (see second video down this page) http://www.londonlibrary.co.uk/index.php?/videos.html
Further info for passionate bibliophiles:
See you in the back stacks.
Please return to The London Bluebird if you enjoyed this. This blog is updated every Thursday.