A visit to the London Library

Ever since we added the collections of the London Library to Copac in early 2012, I’d been hoping for a chance to visit. The Copac team are based in Manchester, and I don’t often get spare time in London, so when I found myself with a couple of unexpected hours, I knew exactly where I wanted to go!

From St James’s Square, the London Library doesn’t look big enough to hold over a million books. The original building has been extended and refurbished over the years, to accommodate the library’s ever-growing collection.

And it really is growing! One of the London Library’s unique features is that (unlike most libraries) their collection is never weeded. What goes in the London Library, stays in the London Library. This leads to a fascinating collection, full of the works that other libraries may have discarded.

I was shown round the building by Head of Acquisitions Gill Turner, who explained how they get their stock. Some of it is donations, often from the private libraries of members. Members might build up a specialised collection in a certain area, which they then pass on to the library, allowing the London Library to acquire small special collections around subjects as diverse as sundials and Australia.

Science & Misc subject headings

Science & Misc subject headings

Much  of the acquisition is patron-driven. Gill showed me the Suggestions book, which sits in the foyer, and where users can record anything from book requests to reports of faulty lightbulbs. Before access to the library foyer was restricted, journalists from the evening  papers used to pop in on slow news days to scour the comments book for titbits for their gossip columns.

When it comes to actually acquiring the works that members request, the library is able to do so through booksellers channels rather than the usual library suppliers, thanks to the influence of former President T S Eliot. Gill explains that this can allow the library to acquire books more quickly than through traditional library channels as they also do not require any servicing of the books.

They’re able to move quickly to catalogue acquisitions, too. The library is part-way through a major retrospective cataloguing project, transferring the records to the online catalogue. Employing 7 FTE  cataloguers in the Bibliographic Services team also means that the library has the cataloguer-power to process new acquisitions very quickly, meaning that they’re often the first library on Copac to have records for recently-published items.

From the back rooms, Gill took me on a tour round the building, which is a wonderful amalgam of airy, hushed reading rooms and labyrinthine stacks – all full of books, books, books! The collections are split into Art, Literature, History, Religion, Biography, Fiction, Topography, Periodicals and Science & Miscellaneous along with smaller collections in Philosophy, Philology, Bibliography, Genealogy and of course the reference collection in the Reading Room. I could happily spend hours just browsing the shelfmarks in Science & Miscellaneous. The alphabetical ordering gives rise to wonderful concatenations and serendipitous discoveries, with ballooning, baths, beer, bees and bells all cosying up to each other.

As well as the books, the building itself is fascinating, with odd crannies, mysterious doors, and a slightly-vertigo inducing floor in the back stacks. Made up of metal grilles, it allows you to look down to the floor below, and causes problems for cataloguers working on the retro project, who have to ferry books across by the armload, as the floor won’t admit trolleys (this led to me, cheesily and I’m sure unoriginally, dubbing it a ‘cattle-oguer grid’).

Grille floors in the London Library

Grille floors in the London Library

As we go round, Gill tells me more about the workings of the library. We peek into the main reading room, set aside for entirely silent study (no laptops – the typing disturbs other members). This silence is highly valued – indeed, the library has recently seen a rise in student members who value the silent study space more than the book stock.  This is an intriguing change of membership for the library, whose users were traditionally more long-term members, often treating the library as a club, or local lending library.

The London Library does lend out its stock. London members are allowed to borrow up to ten books at a time (more for a fee), while ‘country members’ who live more than 20 miles from the library are allowed to borrow up to 15. The library doesn’t have a dedicated inter-library loans department, and all ILL requests are handled by the country members support team. This may be changing! Since the library’s holdings were added to Copac, requests for ILLs have increased dramatically.

Before I leave, Gill shows me the bound volumes of the original library catalogue. Still well-used, the volumes are full of annotations, and are a fascinating snapshot of the development of the collection. Although around 65%  of the catalogue is now online, some older  users still prefer to consult the printed catalogue. Book jackets from recent acquisitions are displayed on a wall nearby, to remind users that there are post-1950 acquisitions in the building.

‘And what about ebooks?’ I ask, and am slightly surprised by the answer that they have none. There’s just been no demand for them, explains Gill, though she expects that this might change in the future. They do have an e-library of online reference work and journals, but as yet no-one is clamouring for Kindles.

And, despite being personally addicted to ebooks, I can understand why. I’ve visited many fantastic research and specialist libraries, and the London Library stands up there with the best. The very air feels full of potential, and I’m almost glad to leave before I can lose myself in the stacks. I hope I’ll be back.

The London Library loaded

The Art Room, The London Library. Image copyright Paul Raftery.

We’re very pleased to announce that the holdings of The London Library have been added to Copac.

The London Library was founded in 1841 by Thomas Carlyle. His founding vision was for an institution which would allow subscribers to enjoy the riches of a national library in their own homes. Over the past 170 years, The London Library’s collection has grown to more than one million volumes, stored on 15 miles of open access shelves which may be freely browsed. 97% of the collections are available for loan.

With books dating from the 16th to the 21st century, including the very latest print and digital resources, the Library has always sought to acquire all of the standard and authoritative works of each generation. 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.

Highlights of the Collection:

  • Remarkably extensive collections in History and Biography, and a fascinating range of works on Topography, travel and exploration.
  • The Literature and Fiction sections include a huge range of novels, poetry, plays, essays, literary criticism and causeries.
  • The Art Room houses a substantial collection on the visual arts and architecture – a collection which is growing at a rate of 68 feet of extra book-shelf a year.
  • A wealth of scientific material for the specialist and the general reader, as well as fine coverage of the history of science, the social sciences and philosophy.
  • The Religion collection houses an exceptional range of theological texts and studies in comparative religion.
  • Books in over 50 languages, with particular riches in the French, German, Italian, Spanish and Russian collections.

With over 7000 current members, the Library has enjoyed the patronage of many eminent writers, academics, politicians and readers throughout its history and has long played a central role in the intellectual life of the nation. Past and present members include Charles Darwin, George Eliot, Virginia Woolf, T.S. Eliot, Bruce Chatwin, Sebastian Faulks, Jeremy Paxman, Antonia Fraser and current president Sir Tom Stoppard. Membership of The London Library is open to all.

To browse, or limit your search to, the holdings of The London Library, go to the main search tab on copac.ac.uk/search and choose ‘London Library’ from the drop-down list of libraries.