London’s obscure library where famous writers go for books


Iam deep in the stacks of the London Library, trying not to get dizzy as I watch a multi-story drop from the iron grating floor, when an older man approaches me, looking lost. He tries to find the music section, located… somewhere in the dark rows of books. As a visitor to the historic members-only institution, it takes me a moment to realize that not only do I have no idea where the section is, but it seems unlikely that I’ll be able to get out of it. building origami. -as inside unaided. (Spoiler: I don’t know.)

But therein lies the beauty of the London Library. From an idiosyncratic filing system to a building that encourages exploration, this is an institution where serendipity and tactile history collide. That’s why this is the latest selection in Beast Travel’s monthly series of the world’s most beautiful libraries.

The London Library is one of the most modest institutions in the English capital, so much so that more than one local friend has asked me if I meant “The British Library” when I told them where I was visiting. An easy mistake, given that the larger of the two institutions is where the Magna Carta and a number of Beatles manuscripts live. But it’s also an ironic confusion, since it was the policies of the British Library that led the essayist Thomas Carlyle to found the London Library by subscription in 1841. As library director Philip Marshall explains, its purpose was to democratize knowledge by not tying it to one location by charging members £3 a year for the privilege. (Memberships are now £262.50 per year for members under 29 and £525 for full standard memberships.)

The main entrance to the London Library.

Simon Brown

“Before public libraries, you could get books in London from the British Museum or the British Museum library,” he says. “But you couldn’t borrow it or take it home, you had to go read in the library. And so a lot of writers and thinkers of the time felt that they couldn’t be in the right environment to really get what they needed.

Tucked into a corner of Place Saint-Jacques, the exterior doesn’t scream library so much as it whispers an anonymous guesthouse, a remnant of the building’s former life as a private residence. But like Dr Whofamous TARDIS spaceship, the library is apparently bigger on the inside. A million books on 17 miles of shelves are spread across a cluster of four different buildings, creating a labyrinthine maze that director Philip Marshall draws Harry Potter comparisons from almost all visitors, myself included.

The London Library Reading Room.

Simon Brown

The library has been open steadily for 181 years, only closing during the unprecedented times of World War II, when the center stacks, 16,000 books and a statue of Carlyle were destroyed, and the COVID pandemic – when our sanity was if not destroyed then at least seriously damaged. However, signs of distress are not visible at this stage. The bombed-out stacks have been renovated into an art book section lit by a skylight. And while not all of the library’s 7,500 members have returned to in-person browsing, there are enough people working in the reading room that Marshall’s voice drops to a whisper as we enter.

With its dark red rug and dark wood walls lined with bookshelves, the space looks like an elevated learning room. Founded in 1896 by Virginia Woolf’s father, the 40-person room has become a centerpiece of the library, appearing in the opening scenes of A.S. Byatt’s 1990 Booker Prize-winning novel. Possession, and later appearing in the 2002 film adaptation. Not that anyone blinks at the success. The library has 11 Nobel laureates in its ranks and estimates that its members publish at least 700 books and 400 screenplays a year. As we pass, Marshall nods to John O’Farrell, the author of the Mrs. Doubtfire play, camped at a nearby office.

London Library backstacks.

Simon Brown

But all of the current marquee names only scratch the surface, as evidenced by the photos that span the six stories of the Red Staircase. While the gallery was set up last year, Marshall notes that there are already plans to swap portraits so that eventually every notable former member will be represented. Thanks to the first disheveled records (the deed to the library was recovered from a biscuit tin discovered in a kitchen cupboard), it’s a list that keeps growing as they go. discover new documents. But the names they can account for are impressive. Charles Darwin, an early member, wrote About the origin of species with help from the library. Alfred, Lord Tennyson and TS Eliot (who has a room named after him) were all early adopters. Mark Twain briefly joined while living in London. After his death, a quick check of records proved that, yes, Philip Roth was a member. Stanley Kubrick, Alec Guinness, Agatha Christie, Charles Dickens, we walk through a row of killers of creative minds. Sometimes the way these big names have used the library is revealed in unique ways. While Bram Stoker was known to be a member, it wasn’t until 2008 when his notes were published that they realized that 25 books still sitting on the shelves had folded pages and scribbled notes in them. – a slight degradation committed while he was writing Dracula in 1897.

Library staff members are meticulous archivists, a spirit that is embedded in everything they do. For example, the Times Room, which holds 200 years of London’s historical periodical – that’s how I found out that I was born on a particularly auspicious day for potatoes, Polish leadership and food poisoning. However, rather than using Dewey Decimal, a cataloging method used by the majority of libraries, the Library of London uses an internal, literacy-driven filing system that turns other searches into a treasure hunt based on the knowledge. Which means hugely varied subjects sit next to each other, like dogs, servants, and dreams all appear on a single row of shelves.

The Art Room of the London Library.

Simon Brown

“You could look for a book on dancing,” Marshall says. “But there is the added bonus of having your eye drawn to the next topic, which in this case would be death. And you might find it interesting. There was a journalist who was to write about a championship chess tournament world, which was in Reykjavik. And he didn’t really know where to start, because he didn’t know anything about Iceland. But he didn’t know anything about chess. So he was like, ‘Well, I ‘will go to the library in London.’ And then he came in, and he was confronted with ‘Well, do I go to geography and research Iceland? Or do I go to chess, science, miscellaneous? So he decided to go to chess in science and various walks in the row, and the first book that caught his eye was Chess in Iceland.

It’s a touch of serendipity that Marshall says will continue to define the library. Google searches are easy, but in a culture that craves connection with each other and with our history, it doesn’t get any more authentic than finding answers at the library that has nurtured so many influential thinkers.

The Art Room of the London Library.

Simon Brown

“Part of it is the effect of a pandemic,” Marshall said. “I expect people to come back to books, which I think is an interesting thing. But they also want something authentic, like the traditional library book, rather than just being able to use the internet to find things. It’s something about this place that attracts people and a lot of young people, which is really exciting for us. We have a growing number of young members. I think there is something. We’re excited to get out of our sweatpants and hit some real pounds.


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