Wednesday, July 20, 2011

London Library

During our visit to the London Library we heard from and were guided by several members of staff: Jane Oldfield, Deputy Librarian; Helen O’Neill, Head of Reader Services; and Stella Worthington, Head of Preservation and Stack Management.  Helen gave us a whirlwind tour of the history of the library.  The library was founded in 1841 by Thomas Carlyle.  Carlyle was unsatisfied with the research libraries of his day which followed the pattern of the British Museum, reading rooms for research but without lending abilities.  He founded the London Library to be a lending library available to any potential users.  It is funded only through donations and member subscriptions.  In the early days rapid growth occurred, within a few years the membership grew to over 500. 

It is the largest independent lending library in the world, with 7,000 members.  The library is intertwined with the intellectual life of the nation and it always has been.  Some prominent members include: Darwin, Dickens, Churchill, Henry James, Siegfried Sassoon, Virginia Woolf, and T. S. Eliot.  The collection is currently very strong in the arts, humanities, and sciences.  Over 50 different languages are represented, and the earliest books date back to the 16th C.  The library has a first edition of the King James Bible, and has a first edition of Darwin’s Origin’s of Species. 

The London Library has open browsing for all but its rarest items, and the collection covers 15 miles of shelving.  The collection contains 1 million books and 97% of them are available for loan.  The rare books collection consists of 30,000 books.  They have 2,500 periodical titles, 750 of which are current subscriptions.  They add about 8,000 new books a year to the collection.  They only buy hardback books, and have everything rebound.  If the only option is paperback then they will have them reinforced and rebound off-site.  Items are not weeded from the collection, but they are selective with which items they add.  The library offers access to many electronic resources, but none of its collections have been digitized.
Over the years numerous expansion projects have been undertaken to create additional storage space for the collection.  Expansions occurred in 1898, the 1920’s, major repair works after the Blitz, and the recently built Eliot House.  The Library doesn’t use Dewey or Library of Congress, everything is arranged by subject, then author or title (if the work is anonymous or has multiple authors). 

The library averages over 100 patron visits per day.  There are 4 reading rooms throughout the buildings.  The library employs 40 full time staff members, half of them are qualified librarians.  About 60% of the catalog is available online, and a retrospective conversion process is underway to bring the oldest items on to the online catalog.  The preservation and conservation departments are constantly busy with small projects.  Several items a day need minor repairs.  Several thousand books are bound or rebound each year.  The oldest item in special collections dates from the early 1500’s.  The rare items are all cataloged on a separate database, and member access is limited to those with a real need.

I really enjoyed the visit to and tour of the London Library.  The library is far larger than it appears from the outside, and its collections are impressive.  As a lending library it has a warm atmosphere and the staff was welcoming.  The stacks are a maze of buildings, steps and shelves and I could understand why some folks get lost.  I loved that almost the entire collection is in open stacks; patrons can browse the shelves (for days on end) and discover interesting titles for themselves.  Authors, researchers, and avid readers can all utilize the collections and mingle in the reading rooms and on the stairways.  The whole place had an atmosphere of academic enquiry while also retaining a sense of leisurely enjoyment. 

Library website:

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