An Ode to the London Library

Contrary to expectations (or, perhaps, your worst nightmares), this post will not be composed in verse.  I just wish to record for posterity quite how infatuated I am with the London Library.

The London Library is the world’s largest lending library, but you’d never guess from the exterior.  It hides a remote corner of St. James’ Park behind the flag draped off the Cypriot High Commission.  The Library was founded in 1841 by members of the British Library who were unhappy with some of its policies.  For the modest annual price of about the GDP per capita of Ethiopia, you can have virtually unlimited access to everything in its vaults, from the newly re-bound copies of thousands upon thousands of weekly journals to fourteenth-century Spanish manuscripts.  Among its erstwhile members are virtually every famous writer and thinker of the last century (listed, with characteristic modesty, on the Library’s website, scrolling along the top).

As an indication of how seriously the Library takes its bibliotic duties – apart from the fact that you can take any of the books out and that bringing a book back late incurs nothing more serious than a brief note from the head librarian asking if you could bring it back whenever you feel like it – they still use stamps in the books to mark when they were withdrawn or returned.  At Oxford, and virtually any public library in the United States, the shift to technology happened long ago.  When you take a book out, it’s swiped through with a summary ‘bip!’ and then you’re done.  The London Library, though, maintains the now quaint use of date rubber stamps in the front of its books – admittedly in conjunction with a computer system.  This allows you to look back through the front cover of a book and see how often it has been withdrawn.  Once, I took out a Georgian copy of The Knight in the Tiger Skin and was delighted to discover that it had last been borrowed in 1976.  In fact, it was such a long time ago that they hadn’t even made an entry for it in their system and I had to spend three minutes transliterating the Georgian for them.

The other thing which sets the London Library out from many others (particularly the British Library, with its vast tile entrance hall and thoroughly clear maps) is that it is laid out on the principles of one of those tiny independent second-hand bookshops.  The reception is fairly small and carpeted, and the lack of an obsessively correct filing system along the lines of a Dewey means that you’re never quite convinced you’re going to find the book you’re looking for where it’s supposed to be until you actually see it.  This is all part of its charm.

Because the Library is housed in a thin building on the corner of St. James’ square, along with several annexes, the books have to be stored upwards in vast bookshelves rather than along corridors.  Thus the Language and Fiction Stacks are all housed in what feels like three rooms linked by stairs, but the bookshelves across the various levels are all connected.  Moreover, what one could flimsily call the floor is actually a series of metal plates with holes in them, so that when you stand next to Human Sacrifice in the Miscellaneous stacks, you can see four floors down to the Topography of Zimbabwe.

On every visit I regret having not hired a lorry to bring my borrowed books back home with me, almost as much as I regret having a list of books I’m looking for, as I generally think I could do better justice to it if I simply strolled around and picked up works at random.  But when you leave even Waterstones feeling that you’ve missed something, there is no right way to go about a collection of 1.5 million books.


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