Dickens, Tennyson and Eliot loved it; so does Tom Stoppard. Josh Spero on why the London Library is, quite literally, the smartest club in St James’s
It is not often that libraries hit the headlines, but the London Library is no ordinary, dusty book repository: it’s more like London’s most exclusive literary club. Boodle’s for bibliophiles, you might say.
The controversy for which it made the news was ‘a storm in a very small literary teacup,’ according to the Library’s Christopher Phipps. Thanks to an investment shortfall, annual membership had to rise last year from £210 to £375, and with many media people as members, a rise became an outrage, and there were ‘a few furious resignations’. However, this will have made membership all the more exclusive and thus desirable for some, in the tradition of the best clubs.
Indeed, apart from the giveaway issues desk in the large atrium, you might think you had walked into a members’ club. Dark panelling is everywhere, although there are fewer portly figures recumbent in the leather chairs. Perhaps the main difference in here is that the books are actually used.
Founded in 1841 by historian and essayist Thomas Carlyle, author of the groundbreaking The French Revolution: A History, the London Library was a reaction to the paucity of libraries in the capital. Public libraries had yet to be invented, so Carlyle clubbed together with 500 other literary and social figures to create a subscription library, where the members’ fees bought new books and – most importantly – all books could be borrowed. Among the original 500 members was Carlyle’s friend John Stuart Mill, the great 19th-century liberal philosopher, who chose the initial books on political economy. It would be like having Karl Lagerfeld picking out your T-shirts.
Since Carlyle and Mill, some of Britain’s most illustrious literary figures have been members of the London Library. From Thackeray, Dickens and George Eliot to T.S. Eliot, Isaiah Berlin and current president Sir Tom Stoppard, the great and the good of British letters have continued to use the beautiful Piccadilly townhouse that hosts the Library. Scribbling or tapping away in the Reading Room, lounging in its leather armchairs, or searching through its miles of shelves and million books are certain to be some future leading lights of British literature.
The new Members’ Room is possible thanks to the Library’s expansion into an adjacent office block. Unsurprisingly, given its founding principle of continually acquiring more books, the Library’s history is one of constant expansion. While it started off on Pall Mall, it soon moved to its current location in the north-east corner of St James’s Square, parallel to Piccadilly and the ever-suave Jermyn Street.
The rapid growth of the Library’s holdings has pushed this townhouse outwards in every direction. Construction in the 1890s gave it more stacks, as did repeated projects in the past century, and the current development programme should give it one-third more space again, providing for many more years’ acquisitions. This means that the Library stretches back to Duke Street St James’s and across to Mason’s Yard, giving it a significant presence in one of London’s smartest areas.
Unlike many libraries you might have experienced, where miniature dictators sit above stacks of books and direct your every move – no talking, no phones, no fun! – the London Library has been created around the reader, as Carlyle intended. He wanted a library from which one could check out every book, with a minimum of fuss and restrictions. Members can have up to ten books (fifteen for non-Londoners) out at any time, with no due dates, late fines or stern admonitions. The only rule, says Christopher Phipps, is that of politeness – books must be returned when another member needs it.
Even the physical construction of the Library has been designed very much around the reader. Instead of the stacks being deep underground, and inhabited by people with thick glasses and bad sweaters who fetch books to the surface then scurry away again, readers are free to browse the shelves (extending upwards and backwards for seemingly miles) themselves. In an early – perhaps unintended – example of environmental thinking, the stacks have grille floors, which allow air and light to circulate, preventing any possible stuffiness.
This accessibility is reflected in the esoteric system of classification. Instead of using Dewey Decimal – all numbers and rigid categories – the Library created its own, which is user-friendly and unintentionally amusing. In the Science and Miscellaneous section, you can find Dentistry between the Devil and Death, Hysteria next to Imperialism and Fish next to Fireworks. This intermingling of topics is aimed at promoting browsing and the discovery of books you never knew you were looking for.
There are also some strikingly homely aspects to the Library. If the rows and rows of stacks, stuffed from floor to ceiling with black, grey and green volumes, prove somewhat unwelcoming for some, this is not an impression that carries throughout the building. Around the large central staircase which leads up first to the Reading Room then to the stacks, are pictures of famous members, resembling nothing so much as a set of family portraits. Dame Rebecca West stares down like a kindly aunt, while T.S. Eliot looks like a frightening ancestor. Tennyson is there, too.
The modern world is thoroughly accommodated at the Library. Mobile phones are welcome, as long as their use is discreet, while Wi-Fi allows the journalists among the membership to file copy as fast as they can research it. The new Members’ Room provides social space away from the books.
Despite its response to these aspects of the 21st-century, there are still some aspects of the Library that are resolutely old-fashioned, relying on common sense. ‘We have a very low-tech system,’ says Christopher Phipps about the Library’s stacks. ‘You turn the lights on or off if you need them. You open the window if you need it – there’s no air conditioning, since it’s bad for the books.’
What may seem like a drily academic space actually contains some subversive, if fitting, areas: the new bathrooms, to be precise. Martin Creed, famously the winner of the Turner Prize for a room whose light flashed on and off, was commissioned by architects Haworth Tompkins to design some decoration.
Creed felt that the rest of the Library walls were decorated with their books, so he chose to reflect their variety with his designs. In the two bathrooms Creed planned, no two items are the same – every piece of porcelain, every door handle is unique, just as with the books.
What separates this library from its stern cousins is the community spirit which permeates the place. ‘There’s a collegiate atmosphere,’ says Christopher Phipps. This is certainly why many famous users over the years have given it glowing reviews. Author Christopher Simon Sykes remarked that one benefit of the Library is the company of other writers, which alleviates an author’s customary solitude. Sir David Hare, the playwright, said the Library has been ‘indispensable’ to his work.
Most members are in their mid-thirties upwards, which is unsurprising: younger people tend not to have the time or the money to spend in the Library. However, to encourage younger book-lovers to join, the membership fee is halved for sixteen to 24-year-olds.
Christopher Phipps is clear that while there are no restrictions on membership, ‘It’s not for everyone – it never has been. It’s for those with a full interest in literature.’ Readers of Dan Brown need not apply.