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  • Writer's picturePeter Berthoud

The London Library: If Carlsberg did Libraries

Updated: Sep 5, 2022

Today I had my induction at The London Library.

This induction wasn't compulsory but it proved to be a really useful introduction to this unique institution. I've used and enjoyed many libraries and archives throughout my life but today I was introduced, as a very proud and grateful new member, to the perfect library.

It lies behind this simple door in St James's Square.

The London Library entrance on St James's Square
The London Library entrance on St James's Square

The London Library is proud to be a Library. It is not a Learning Resource, Discovery, Information, Multimedia or any other variety of Data Centre. It is a Library, pure and simple, full of books, over a million of them, on fifteen miles of shelving. Not Kindle editions, not audio books, not CDs and DVDs but proper real books.

(As a member you do also get access to a massive range of online resources, as good as any university library, which you can use in the library or from home but these are not what surround you or what you see, smell or touch first.)

They don't do dust-jackets. They lend, maintain, rebind and look after their books. Dust-jackets, so beloved by collectors, are discarded, whilst content is key. When judging content, covers are thus largely rendered irrelevant.

They let you borrow their books. You don't have to sit in an archive wearing silly cotton gloves, unable to smoke and reduced to using a nasty pencil. You can take almost all of the books home and read them at your leisure. You can keep renewing them as long as you like or until another member requests the book you are reading, or at least that you were one day planning to read.

They don't do Dewey Decimal, they do "Shelfmarks" instead. Now what I mostly want to borrow are books on London's history. So to find them I have learned first to look at "Topography" the shelfmark being "T". "T" is organised by country in the basement (starting at Abyssinia and ending with Zululand, a nod to the antiquity of the indexing system). One might think then, that London would be alphabetically organised within the "England" section but no! Along with just Paris and Rome, London has its own section entirely, or rather three sections depending on the size of the books!

They don't lightly "de-acquisition", that is sell off books as soon as they stop being borrowed.`There are no naff book sales in the foyer; simply because a book is not currently fashionable or popular is no reason for them to discard it for 50p on a trolley. Books are kept, treasured, preserved.

They are an institution steeped in courtesy and helpfulness. Staff are passionate about books and about assisting members; you couldn't get better service from the concierge of a five-star hotel or a Bond Street gallery. The chap who showed me around today has been there for thirty years and was as enthusiastic as the brand new trainee who checked my books out.

Mobile phones are banned in most areas. Special rooms are set aside for potentially irritating or distracting keyboard tapping (they do have free Wi-Fi for tappers). Peace, calm and tranquillity are to be found on every floor within the labyrinth.

Of course there is a small catch. Unlike most other libraries you do need to pay to join. Full membership is now £36.25 per month (but that is not so bad when you consider that a mind-numbing full Sky TV package is around £50-£60 per month). There are also reduced rates available. You can see their full list of membership benefits and packages here.

If you join you are helping to pay for 8,000 new titles a year and also to improve access to the collections and of course, you will be a member of by far the most civilised and egalitarian club in the whole of St James's. They even post books worldwide so there is no need to live nearby!

I was quite overwhelmed the first time I visited as a member last week. I felt humbled by the store of knowledge I was about to be trusted to borrow from. The list of past and current members is also pretty humbling! I twice got lost in the basement and felt too foolish to ask anyone where the "London books" were. I felt as if I had been transported back to my first day at Primary School - "Is the world really this big and I so small?" Today's induction has put me on a path where I can begin to harness, in some small way, the truly incredible resources available.

I left carrying books I had previously only heard about. Wolfe Barry's personal account of the building of Tower Bridge, a mid-19th Century history of Soho, a little known female sculptor's autobiography and a beautifully illustrated book on "Lost London" published in the early 1920's. Happy as Larry, I am now settled down at home for an evening of reading.

I have aspired to be a member since 1980, my only regret upon joining is that I didn't do so much sooner. I would urge any book lover not to procrastinate as I have done.

The London Library 14 St James's Square London SW1Y 4LG


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