Saturday, August 15, 2015

The London Library

The London Library, Westminster, London

In 1841, Thomas Carlyle established the lending library that would become the London Library, a private subscription institution focusing on humanities. 

Located in St. James's Square, the London Library is the world's largest independent lending library with five reading rooms and a collection growing by about 8,000 titles a year. Weighed down with around 14 million volumes, the steel building would rise about three inches when emptied of books, 95% of which are housed in open stacks. 

Bespoke cataloging at the London Library, in conjunction with its open stacks, have created a unique experience for researchers and library members. Like many of the United Kingdom's libraries, the London Library has tailored its own system of arrangement. In this case, books are classified individually by subject, then alphabetized, with special attention given to size. This saves space in the ever expanding library collections, but it also creates an uncommon environment for those browsing the stacks. This system has made for more than a few serendipitous finds not possible by any other arrangement. 

Chaucer section, Canterbury Tales copies, London Library
Another notable aspect of the London Library is the weeding policy, and it's quite simple: there is no weeding. Once books arrive, they are never withdrawn, creating a collection which illustrates the evolution and history of thought in the subject areas represented. This includes keeping multiple copies of the same work, as well as volumes of histories, literary theory, and translations which contain defunct theories or opinions shaded by the era which created them. To a researcher, this is a gold mine. Historical criticism and analysis both rely on volumes like this, and institutions with space concerns (all of them) are more likely to weed these works out of necessity. 

Lastly, a topic that must be addressed, is the fact that the London Library is a membership institution, meaning library users must pay a subscription fee in order to use library services and borrow books. The concept is a bit foreign, as many institutions center themselves around the principle of free access to information, but the London Library was established as a subscription library and remains one to this day. The founder of the London Library, Thomas Carlyle, saw the need for a private lending library as he had been frustrated to his breaking point by the British Library, then housed in the British Museum. Carlyle, a Victorian writer and intellectual, was fed up with the perennially bustling British Library, complaining about their classification system, lack of reading space for patrons, and read-only, non-lending policy. His solution was the establishment of a private library, which would provide lending services to those who paid a subscription fee. The London Library remains a membership library, and its unique collection and long history of distinguished users make it a gem of an institution.

Visit the London Library online for information on collections and memberships.

No comments:

Post a Comment