Visit to the London Library

On March 9th, I joined other members of CILIP’s Academic and Research Libraries Group for a tour of the London Library. Our guide for the day was Helen O’Neil, the Archive, Heritage & Development Librarian. As we were led up and down the many staircases in the Library, Helen pointed out portraits of notable past members . The roll call of presidents stretches from the Earl of Clarendon in the early days of the library via Alfred Lord Tennyson and TS Eliot through to Sir Tom Stoppard today.  To say that the library is a landmark in literary life is probably no exaggeration. It can boast four Poets Laureate and nine Nobel prize-winners amongst its members across the years, and I spotted at least one author I recognised during our tour, though discretion forbids me from naming him.


As the previous paragraph suggests, the library has a long history. It was founded in 1841 by Thomas Carlyle. At this point, the Public Libraries Act of 1850 was almost a decade away. Carlyle was frustrated that London did not have a lending library such as the one that already existed in Manchester, and so he set out to found one.

The library started in two rooms on Pall Mall and soon after moved to its current home in St James’s Square. Originally based in a townhouse, the growing collection soon demanded more space. The library expanded in the 1890s, the 1920s and the 1930s – just in time to be bombed during the Second World War. Although the bombing destroyed 16,500 books, including German theology, the collection continued to grow and the library expanded again in 2004. At present, the collection is stored on 17 miles of shelving, including the cast-iron Victorian back stacks. These were designed to be so strong that additional storeys could be added to the original building without fear of the structure collapsing.


All their building work is carried out with the aim of maximising storage because (and this drew a gasp from most of the group) the Library never weeds its collection. As someone who spent their first day working in a library retrieving, withdrawing and boxing up old stock, this emphasised some of the differences between the London Library’s collection policy and City’s. This can lead to them having multiple editions of the same work, for example of many Dickens novels. However, they are retained as many members want to study the development of the editions as much as the text itself.

The collection was established to cover the arts and humanities and the history of science. It has a particularly strong literature collection, with volumes in around 50 languages, reflecting the fact that the library was founded before the English language dominated literature and academia.

The library uses a unique classification system which was created by Charles Hagberg Wright, the librarian between 1893 and 1940. Books are grouped by subject matter, and then arranged alphabetically by author. One of the principles of the system is to encourage browsing, serendipitous discovery, and hopefully inspiration. A high proportion of the members are authors, many of whom credit their browsing for inspiring new works. Helen also told us that Iris Murdoch recorded putting the stacks to another use – finding a private place to kiss John Bayley.

The mission was always for the institution to be a lending library – the reading rooms were only created a few years after the establishment of the library, and to this day 97% of the collection is available to borrow, with only  a few very old and precious volumes kept solely within the library.

The library acquires 8,000 to 10,000 books each year. There are a number of donations and bequests from members but not every item is added to the collection. The Library has to weigh up whether a book will still be of interest 50 or 100 years from now, whether it enhances the collection or fills a gap in the collection.

It is still predominantly a print-based collection, although they do have a small e-resources collection, including JSTOR, the Times archive and he National Biographical Dictionary. Many of the e-resources are chosen specifically to illuminate the print collection.

As mentioned above, the ever growing collection has lead to the building being expanded on a number of occasions. The building work is still going on with plans to create a new reading room, build more storeys of book storage and to improve the environmental controls.

Working within a listed building means their expansion plans are constrained and costly. As a private institution, any expansion has to be paid for by the members or by fundraising. The members are very much at the heart of the library service. We had to be particularly mindful not to disturb them as we toured the building.


As I work in User Services team, I was interested in their approach to assisting members. And they definitely have members, not users, customers or patrons. There is the expectation that staff will go above and beyond to help members – helping them to carry out in-depth enquiries by phone, e-mail, post and fax, retrieving books from the stacks, posting items to members who can’t come to the library. All of this contributes to the members having a sense of ownership and care towards the library.

Helen said that they recruit and train with a great emphasis on providing a responsive service which reflects that this is a subscription service. Given that the library gets 80% of its running costs from its 6,800 members, with the remainder from fundraising efforts, they have to ensure that they retain members year to year.

I was particularly tickled to see a flyer which advertised the library’s “etiquette and rules”. I wondered whether we could have etiquette lessons for our students rather than imposing a code of conduct.

If your interest has been piqued, the library arranges public tours every two weeks. You can find details of the tours, membership and more on their website.

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