Last Saturday, I was fortunate enough to be able to take part in a tour of the London Library as part of that library’s 175th birthday celebrations. The tour took in the library’s vast collection of books, journals and other resources, as well as its various reading rooms and artwork, capturing the interesting and varied history of the place. Given that the London Library is a private institution with fairly steep membership fees, it is likely that this will be my only opportunity to see what goes on within its walls, so I’m grateful that it was made open to the public.
Most interesting to me was the library’s idiosyncratic classification scheme, which grouped books thematically by broad subject area, leading to some interesting juxtapositions (‘Heraldry’ followed by ‘Heredity’ and then ‘Horse’, for example). Given that the library consists of several fairly narrow buildings in central London, space for the ever-expanding collection is also an ongoing concern. The library has expanded outwards into all the buildings it possibly can, and has, according to our guide, ‘now run out of buildings to buy’. They are planning to add several floors to one section of the library, and it is hoped that this will solve their most pressing problems in terms of space. The current library makes very efficient use of space, with extensive bookstacks, many on woven steel floors with gaps for ventilation. Apart from space, maintaining the optimum environment for protecting all the books – some of which are quite old, and all of which are available for members to loan – is of major importance, and great care is taken to ensure ventilation, appropriate lighting, and that books are generally well stored.
We were able to see the various reading rooms – which, even on a warm Saturday afternoon, were full of members working away – one of which had works by prominent members and other interesting books from the collection on display. There were books that had been hit by shrapnel during the Blitz (an entire section of the library was destroyed in a bombing raid, and library staff frequently slept on site during World War II in order to be able to put out fires and protect the collection), and registration forms signed by such members as Virginia Woolf, George Eliot, Charles Darwin, and T. S. Eliot.
The tour lasted for about an hour, and I left with an understanding and appreciation of the London Library’s history, and the feeling that we’d probably barely scratched the surface in terms of the wonders that it contained. It’s a very different library to any I’ve worked in, but it was interesting to see that its staff deal with very similar problems: maintaining an ageing yet expanding collection, finding space, challenges of the change from print to electronic resources, and maintaining consistency in a classification scheme designed a hundred years before many of the subjects needs to classify even existed. I’m grateful to the London Library staff for opening their doors to me.