“All that mankind has done, thought, gained or been: it is lying as in magic preservation in the pages of books.”
Thomas Carlyle’s words read like a prophecy about his own library, The London Library.
I walk through the unassuming door of 14 St James’s Square, where the library has lived and breathed since the 19th century, to meet with Dunia Garcia-Ontiveros, [who at that time was] Head of Bibliographic Services.
“It is unique. It has been central to the nation’s intellectual life since its foundation. It is a little eccentric. We hardly ever dispose of anything that isn’t a duplicate. We lend our books, even post them to people who can’t get here in person. Many of our greatest literary figures are associated with these desks and shelves. We are open to all and we keep growing.”
Dunia loves the library where she works. She takes me to a bust of Carlyle. He looks severe. She explains how he used his persuasive oratory to get the likes of Thackeray and Gladstone to support his bibliographic venture, and suddenly I can hear behind those Victorian whiskers the accent of Lowland Scotland, the lilt I hear around me at BDS in Dumfries every day, embodied in the poetry of Robert Burns. The great man comes alive in a much more friendly and sympathetic light.
This realisation sets the tone for what could otherwise be an intimidating list of literary grandees associated with The London Library. Presidents include Alfred Lord Tennyson, former Prime Minister, Arthur Balfour, T.S. Eliot, Lord Kenneth Clarke of “Civilisation” fame, and Sir Tom Stoppard. Among eminent members, one can count Charles Dickens, Charles Darwin, Joseph Conrad, Edward Elgar, Edith Sitwell, Virginia Woolf, E.M. Forster, John Betjeman, Laurence Olivier… But in these warm and friendly surroundings, where study is respected but not aloof, such names seem part of the oak panelling, polished but approachable, almost intimately close.
“The book was thick and black and covered with dust. Its boards were bowed and creaking; it had been maltreated in its own time. Its spine was missing, or rather protruded from amongst the leaves like a bulky marker. It was bandaged about and about with dirty white tape, tied in a neat bow. “
Thus begins A.S. Byatt’s novel Possession, winner of the 1990 Booker Prize. The scene is set in an archetypal library. It could be the Citadel Library in Game of Thrones, the towering stacks of books that carry the story of the universe and its destiny on its shelves; it could be Borges’ The Library of Babel. It is The London Library, about which T.S. Eliot said, “whatever social changes come about, the disappearance of The London Library would be a disaster to civilisation”.
Civilisation must be discursive in nature. You think you are heading somewhere when you enter, a slice of history perhaps, a piece of literary research, a biography, but this library has a mind of its own, a mind that embraces you, takes you to new worlds and elevates you. It is special, as so many of its patrons testify.
“One of the pleasures and privileges of belonging to The London Library is wandering through its labyrinthine book-stacks with no particular aim in mind,” wrote biographer and historian Peter Parker.
Dunia Garcia-Ontiveros is quick to point out that RDA and a high-tech catalogue is high on the agenda of The London Library but, in almost the same breath she explains that the shelving system created by Sir Charles Theodore Hagberg Wright (1862 – 1940, librarian 1893 – 1940), polyglot and friend of Leo Tolstoy, has become the stuff of legend.
The Library collects the humanities. Hagberg Wright shelved books according to subject: Architecture, Art, Bibliography… The “non-conformist” remainder, a significant number of volumes on very diverse topics, he placed in alphabetical order under “Science and Miscellaneous”.
“Because the Library’s classification – especially in Science and Miscellaneous – is so idiosyncratic, it doesn’t conform to the systems that populate my own mind, writes Professor Roger Kneebone, professor of surgical education at Imperial College London. “So going in search of a book becomes a journey of discovery in itself.”
As I follow Dunia around the stacks, I stare down through the grid-iron walkways onto room upon room and row upon row of books collected in the 19th century. We then move onto the green glass paving corridors hemmed in by early twentieth century volumes on pig farming and chicken rearing and I assume I must be under “F” for farming or is it “L” for livestock? Now onto the concrete floors of the 1930s expansion and then a short slope down as Dunia explains that, as the library progressively occupied new buildings, the floors did not always line up vertically. I am, now, apparently, in the 1990s, and finally I reached the noughties and T.S.Eliot House, the library’s most recent expansion which permitted a complete restructuring.
“The restructuring even allowed us to rethink the toilets,” explains Dunia as she points to the Gents. I enter the world of Turner Prize-winning artist Martin Creed who designed the tiling of the lavs based upon the bindings of tomes in the Library collection. It’s very tasteful and novel, although I resist the temptation to ponder some of the humour that might be levelled at these loos.
We quickly move onto The Times Room, a huge repository of almost every issue of the newspaper since 1813. I am told that members can access the full archive from 1785 through the Library’s online subscription but the shelves alone house an ongoing report on Empire, its demise, and the gradual movement into the modern era. The volumes are surrounded by specially built lecterns where patrons, not unlike monks in medieval monasteries, can lift the weighty volumes and fold back the pages of history.
As the Library has grown, so has its staff. Today, the one million holdings made up of books and periodicals on 19 miles of shelving, the rooms, corridors and fabric of the buildings, and the catalogue, have 70 staff to keep them running smoothly. And it isn’t stopping there. The library continues to introduce initiatives and programmes to engage new patrons and visitors.
I meet with Matthew Brooke, Director of Collections and Library Services. He is keen to find ways of introducing the library to the public and gaining new members.
“We receive no public funding so are entirely reliant on membership fees and our own fundraising efforts,” says Matthew. “We are the largest independent lending library in the world, and we currently have 6,500 members and we would like to increase that to 8,000.”
He points to the library’s new initiative, its “Emerging Writers’ Programme”. Forty places are available for new talent to gain expert advice in the art of writing. The scheme had over 600 applicants. Those selected not only get a helping hand in building their literary careers but also a year’s free membership to the library – the perfect place to research your latest work and, hopefully, follow in the footsteps of Victoria Hislop, Philippa Gregory, Ian Fleming, Bill Bryson, Jessie Burton, Stephen Fry and Sebastian Faulks.
As I push the finger plate on the door through which I entered, I pause for a moment to contemplate some of the hands that have touched its shining brass, hands that moments before were holding a pen or pushing keys to create some of the greatest works in the English language. The London Library is a magnificent voyage of discovery, a voyage started by a man with a Dumfriesshire accent and a passion for knowledge.
Find out more about The London Library at londonlibrary.co.uk
Note: This article was written in early 2019. Dunia Garcia-Ontiveros has since moved on to work as Head of Library and Museum Collections at Society of Antiquaries of London.