Friday, November 02, 2012

A salute to the London Library

We are coming up to the annual general meeting of the London Library and I’ll be attending in my capacity as a Trustee.  Founded in 1841 by Thomas Carlyle, the Library remains one of the leading cultural institutions of London.  Its membership has always been an eclectic mix of authors, journalists, freelance scholars and the general public.  Scattered among this potpourri of writers and readers, you find many of the greatest literary figures of every era since the Library’s foundation.  Charles Dickens, George Eliot and Charles Darwin were all members in the mid-nineteenth century.  Back then, the President of the Library was Alfred Lord Tennyson.  Today, it is Sir Tom Stoppard.  The formidable list of alumnae means that if you pick a book off the shelves, you’ll sometimes find it inscribed by the author.  
Still, all this name-dropping isn’t really the point of the Library.  After all, membership is open to everyone: just fill in the form on the website.  There is none of this business of proposers, seconders and waiting lists.  Contrary the impression sometimes given in the media, the Library is not some sort of gentleman’s club.  If it were, it would be a singularly poor one.  You can’t meet friends there, have a meal or even get a drink (although there is a coffee machine).  
The real reason to join the Library is to gain access to over a million books, spread over eight labyrinthine floors tucked into one corner of St James’s Square, off Piccadilly.  Almost all of them are on open shelves that you can browse until your feet ache from the walking.  And when you have found the books you want, you can take them home.  And keep them for months, unless another member requests them.  There is a reference section, of course, but in relative terms it isn’t very big.  So you can borrow many books that other libraries insist stay in-house.
While you are working at home, the Library provides remote access to its on-line resources including JSTOR, the OED, the Dictionary of National Biography and many more.  Access to all this is almost worth the Library’s subscription of £37 a month on its own.  And if you need a book, the Library staff will post it to you.
Of course, the serious business of writing is sometimes best done surrounded by the books you need to refer to.  If you suddenly find you need to check the eighteenth volume of Migne’s Patrologia Graeca (which you could have borrowed, but it is quite heavy) or compare the new translation of Newton’s Principia against the Latin text, it’s best to actually be in the Library.  Luckily, it is an excellent place to work.  There are many desks scattered around the stacks.  Alternatively, you can sit, surrounded by others engaged in all manner of intellectual industry, in one of the generously-sized reader’s spaces.  I wrote my PhD thesis next to John Julius Norwich as he consulted a formidable pile of tomes for his History of the Papacy, piled precariously on his desk.  Wifi and power outlets provide the modern trappings for some wonderful interiors.  
In all, I can’t recommend membership of the London Library highly enough.  And, you’ll be participating in an institution with over a century and a half of literary history behind it.
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