Saturday, 29 October 2011

Visit to the London Library - A Hidden Gem In Central London

A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of being given a guided tour around the London Library. It was organised by the CLSIG group, which is part of CILIP (Commercial Legal and Scientific Information Group).

I have to admit, I had never even heard of the London Library, so when I heard about the planned visit, I had a little look on their website and was delighted with what I saw! The chance to have a look round such a beautiful building and collection of books was too good to miss.

 It was founded by Thomas Carlyle in 1841, as an alternative to the British Library. He wanted to create a kind of home away from home, as he found the British Library unpleasant! To this day the London Library retains that lovely homely, stately home-feel, with reading rooms filled with leather, wing-backed armchairs, floor to ceiling shelves filled with beautiful old books - a veritable haven from the hustle and bustle of central London. The first thing to start of by describing is definitely the building. Tucked away in a corner of St James's Square, from the outside it looks like a very small - but beautiful - townhouse - until you're inside, you have no idea how far back the building extends and how much storage space there is! Members of note from the past include Virginia Woolf, Charles Dickens and George Eliot to name but a few.

As soon as you step inside you are hit by that unique smell of old books - there is nothing quite like it, and for a book lover such as myself, THIS is one of the reasons why I hate devices such as the Kindle - try recreating the same ambience with a bit of plastic and some microchips!!! Anyway, enough of my anti-Kindle rants. The collection at the London Library consists of more than one million books, as well as subscriptions to over 750 periodicals. There are some beautiful volumes to be seen everywhere, as well as rare books and books going back as far as the 16th century. Not only that, but there are some special collections housed there as well, such as the Montefiore collection of Jewish interest material. Journals and publications from a whole range of societies, from horse lovers to politics, are also kept there and date back 165 years.

We visited the newspaper storage room and I was amazed to see the HUGE bound volumes of The Times, going back more than 100 years. The lady giving the tour explained that when the library began, The Times was considered the only newspaper worth reading, so they will always maintain this collection.

Much of the decor of the building retains its original Victorian fixtures and fittings - it is only where they have extended that is more modern in places. We were taken up a beautiful dark wood staircase with red carpeting, and the walls lined with portraits of previous members and chairmen or benefactors. We arrived on one floor and it was quite amazing, because the floor was pretty much a metal grating, so if you looked down through the slats, you could see all the floors and shelves of books below you! Not great for high heels, but an excellent example of a Victorian attempt at air conditioning apparently! The idea being the air would circulate through the slats and so the books wouldn't get spoiled. The cataloguing system used is unique and while I can't recall the details, the tour guide did show us how it means that the books end up being in what appears to be a very random order! But I was assured there is a method to the madness, and I am sure you can pick it up quite quickly.

One of the other things that absolutely amazed me is the member services. You can take home up to 10 books at any time - obviously a huge advantage to the British Library! There are no fines or due dates - unless a title is requested by another member, you can keep them as long as you want. They also offer a postal service to members who can't make it into London, and the online services are superb: members can access JSTOR, which contains at least 1000 academic journals. Books can also be reserved online, and the catalogue can be browsed by non-members as well. Also offered by the librarians is a research service. I find it amazing that all this exists and I wasn't aware of it!

It genuinely was a privilege to be able to explore some of this truly amazing building and collection. It is a private members library, therefore there are membership fees - sadly I can't quite justify them as I don't live in London, so I don't feel I would be able to take as much as advantage as I would like of the actual building and ambience, as opposed to just the collection. The reading rooms looked incredibly inviting - lots of little nooks and crannies where you can curl up with a book - our tour guide did say that some people do fall asleep for hours at a time, they are so relaxed! There are some rooms with wi-fi and laptop access, but some reading rooms are totally silent and no laptops are allowed, so that the whir of the motors doesn't disturb people.

I really enjoyed this visit - I love learning about other types of library; I think it's important in all our roles to open our minds and think outwith our own little sector. It is fascinating what other types of role exist in the information world. All in all an evening well spent!

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