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Literary London

The London Library

Anna Goodall

Anna Goodall gets overexcited in the stacks

Founded in 1841 by the Victorian essayist and historian Thomas Carlyle, the London Library has always been associated with the biggest names in England’s literary and intellectual life. Gladstone, Thackeray (who kept the accounts for two years), and Charles Dickens were amongst its earliest members; the current president is Sir Tom Stoppard; and other former members include Virginia Woolf, Henry James, Rebecca West, George Bernard Shaw and Agatha Christie, to name but a few. 

Christopher Phipps, the development librarian, a neat well-spoken man with a humorous gleam in his eye, kindly gives me a tour of the library’s labyrinthine corridors and endless floors of books. He remarks how every decision is still taken with ‘Carlyle sitting on our shoulders’, and we joke that this sounds a heavy burden. Carlyle is well known to have been an exacting man, but it was his frustration with the lack of an academic lending library in London that led to the library’s foundation.

Carlyle disliked the British Library, both for its non-lending policy and its arcane cataloguing system. He also took against its clientele, whom he described as: ‘snorers, snufflers, wheezers, spitters [and] fidgety half-hour readers.’* He wanted a library to serve its members by being open to all, lending out books and creating an atmosphere conducive to study. In May 1841, his dream was realised when the London Library opened in rented rooms at 49 Pall Mall, complete with five hundred members and three thousand books.

In 1845 the library moved to its current premises at what is now 14 St James’s Square, and in the 1890s the original building, a seventeenth-century townhouse, was demolished; the new library, designed by James Osborne Smith, was one of England’s earliest steel-framed structures. This architectural fact is well hidden behind wood panelling and false columns in the entrance area, but: ‘[E]veryone who steps off the half-landing of the main staircase into Science and Miscellaneous for the first time is astonished […] Here is a forest of densely packed, light iron columns, running up through four storeys to support a roof, and on the way supporting three grilled cast-iron floors’.* 

The Library has managed to expand around the original site and now stretches from the square to Duke Street a block away. Phipps also shows me a new substantial building, Duchess House, right next door, which is almost ready and contains new staff offices and a restoration department, as well as space for yet
more books.

One feels sure that Carlyle would be delighted with the current library’s mix of respect for its forefathers (a photo gallery of previous members and presidents lines the main stairwell) and the progress it has made whilst still maintaining his ideals. Currently in possession of over one million books, the library gains around eight thousand carefully chosen titles every year (but never removes any); members can take home ninety-eight per cent of the collection (including rare books) and request books by email or post; there is a logical cataloguing system that can be easily understood by the non-Asperger’s-inclined; and, most joyously of all, books are only required to be returned if requested by another member.

With this emphasis on the practical co-existing peacefully with a history of fine scholarship and idiosyncratic research, one anecdote seemed to me to capture the library’s spirit rather well. Writer Arthur Koestler was commissioned to write about a chess championship in Iceland. He headed to the LL and recalls, ‘I hesitated for a moment whether to go to the ‘C’ for Chess section, or the ‘I’ for Iceland section, but chose the former because it was nearer.’ He found a healthy selection of tomes and notes that, ‘the first that caught my eye was a bulky volume with the title: Chess in Iceland …’*

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


* Extracts from Library Book by Tom McIntyre, available at the London Library or by post.