The decline of Britain’s libraries is among the more depressing tales of our digital age. Underfunded and underused – according to the Department of Media, Culture and Sport we use libraries 30 per cent less than we did a decade ago – libraries are closing at an alarming rate. One report says 343 have been shuttered since 2010.
All being well, The London Library will long outlive the unsightly cull. Unlike those threatened libraries, it is not reliant on public funds, but on memberships and donations. Tucked away in a corner of London’s St James’s Square, it stands as a bastion of a valuable tradition.
The library was founded in 1841 by Thomas Carlisle, an irascible Scotsman who supposedly hated reading books in the company of others. He believed that London needed a lending library, and that ‘everyone able to read a good book becomes a wiser man’. Today, his library holds over 1 million books in more than 50 languages, spread, in what can only be described as spectacular ordered chaos, along 17 miles of open shelves that line the walls of the library’s labyrinthine layout like a colourful domino run.
The central reading room
Some of the library's many rarities
Another shot of the reading room
A statue of the library's patron, Thomas Carlyle
The library's Times Room
Former and current members include Agatha Christie, Ian Flemming, Virginia Woolf and Stephen Fry. TS Eliot became its president in 1952 and described it as ‘a service to civilisation’. There’s truth in the pomposity.
What’s extraordinary about the library’s collection is that members can borrow most of its books printed after 1700, from first edition copies of Dickens and Darwin, to any of the curios gathered in a miscellaneous section that lumps wine, wool, witchcraft and women together.
‘This library is a gym of the mind,’ says Philip Spedding, the library’s Development Director. ‘We don’t throw books away. Once a book is deemed important enough to enter the library, it should stay. Who are we to get rid of it?’
One Victorian area of the library has 35ft-high walls. If the books were removed from them, it’s thought the building would rise by as much as 6cm. With 8,000 new books – all hardback – coming into the library every year, it’s fast running out of space.
It’s a magical place. What a wonderful thing to thumb a book once borrowed by Bram Stocker. Not that you could ever be sure of that – the old paper lending forms were disposed of generations ago. Perhaps there’s something to be said for digitisation, after all.
Memberships of The London Library are available now. Annual membership costs £500. londonlibrary.co.uk