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The London Library: Where a book is never thrown out

At a time when libraries are in decline in Nigeria and the National Library in Abuja has remained uncompleted for years, one library in London…

At a time when libraries are in decline in Nigeria and the National Library in Abuja has remained uncompleted for years, one library in London is holding the candle, as it had been doing for the last 175 years.

Most visitors to London and most book lovers actually, are more familiar with the British Library. But for the true book lover, there is no place like The London Library, which exists on the North West Corner of St. James Square.
Founded 175 years ago, in a small apartment building, thanks to the writer Thomas Carlyle’s disaffection with service at the British Museum Library, where books were not loaned out and he simply couldn’t stand reading in the crowded halls or as he had been doing perching on ladders, The London Library has retained its contrarian tradition since.
Conducted round the library by the ever enthusiastic Philip Spedding, the library’s Director of Development, who recounted the history of the library as we went along, it is clear that even those who work in this institution today, have been touched by the eccentric spirit that inspired Carlyle and his friends to set up the library.
It was the same spirit with which the writer T. S. Elliot, who was president of the library for many years, brought to his role.
“We don’t throw out any books here,” Philip said, holding out a book that has been in the library since 1910 and has never been borrowed. “Someday perhaps someone will come for it.”
Unlike in other libraries, this book would have been thrown out decades before. But here, even books that are old and worn out are not discarded, as a matter of principle and anyone who is a registered member is free to borrow any book. Well, almost any book. There are over one million books in the library, 95 per cent of these are stored in open shelves and only five per cent are considered rare enough to be put in secure storage.
When the library was established in 1841 it occupied a small rented building on Pall Mall. But by 1845, its collection had outgrown that building and necessitated the move to a bigger building and hence to 15th century building in St. James’ Square. Between 1896-1898, the building was completely renovated to the designs of the architect James Osborne Smith. That building is now the front building of the library, which has gone on to acquire more property close by to house its ever expanding collection of books.
It is a curious building, practically built with books as the spines. The steel frames that form the shelves support the building and over the years, the weight of the books on the shelves has contributed to the balance of the building.
“Now we want to renovate but we realise, you can’t move the books off the shelves without affecting the structure,” Philip said.
The floors and the staircases are even more curious, made from steel grates that one would usually see over sewers.
“Apparently it was conceived as some kind of air conditioning mechanism,” Peter said, “It really doesn’t work,” he adds with a shrug and a smile.
Regardless, it remains an interesting feature. Through the grates, one could see all the way to the floors below or from down looking up, all the way up. But don’t fancy letting your pen or phone fall through the grates.
The library was conceived by writers and designed for writers. The bias is so obvious not only in the fact that there are spaces not only for reading, the preference being of course for members to borrow the books and go read them elsewhere, there is actually a ‘writers’ room.’
Even in the kind of books stocked this bias is glaring. The collection ranging from the 16th century to date favours strongly the field of literature, fiction, arts, architecture, history, biography, philosophy and religion. Pure and natural sciences are not within the library’s purview.
Periodicals are also a favourites and here Philip proudly shows bound copies (all books in the library are bound) of The Times newspaper of 1666, which curiously had the classified adverts on the front pages, while the news stories are buried deep inside the paper, as was the practice then.
Interestingly, every book that has entered the library has remained in it, except the ones that have been borrowed and not been returned (and some of them are taken out for years). But in 1944 the library that is used to hoarding books lost 16,000 volumes in one day when it was hit by a WWII bomb in a German Air raid.
The damaged section has since been rebuilt and every year, the library acquires some 8,000 books more.
But what has kept this library going is the labour of love that people have invested in building and sustain it, as was demonstrated by the librarians who took years and years cataloguing by hand every book in the library’s collection.
“They did this for years and years!” Peter said, shuddering at the prospect of such back breaking work. “Thankfully, now we just use a computer.”
From the way the books are arranged by the alphabetical order of their subjects, to the way the library is set up and run, The London Library is clearly a place built by passionate people for passionate people. For people who truly love books.

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