Load-bearing Books: The London Library interview

'The Art Room of The London Library' by Paul Raftery

[The following originally featured in Structo seven, which you can find more about on our main site. It contains linked footnotes.]

This new feature is all about fascinating ‘book spaces’ – libraries and bookshops – viewed through the eyes of the people who work there. What’s so special about these stacks of books? What keeps them there? And is Amazon going to ruin everything?    

When pondering the shortlist for our first subject, there were some fairly obvious choices: the British Library for one, the legendary Foyles bookshop on Charing Cross Road, the Bodleian in Oxford… And yet, while they are all interesting – and hopefully we’ll get a chance to have a poke around them at some point in the not-too-distant future – there is one which has a bit more of an air of mystery about it. One which not too many people have even heard of – The London Library.    

Even if you regularly pass its St James’s Square home, it would be quite easy to miss The London Library altogether. It’s hidden behind an unassuming façade in the corner of the square, and it is only once you enter that the sheer scale of the place becomes clear. The Library was founded in 1841 by the great intellectuals of the time, and over the intervening decades it has evolved into the world’s largest independent lending library. It now contains over a million books on sixteen miles of shelving.1

Inez Lynn is the tenth Librarian of The London Library, the first female Librarian in its 170 year history. As such she is also chief executive of the large charitable organisation that keeps it all going.    

I sat down with Lynn and the library’s Communications and Public Affairs Manager Aimée Heuzenroeder to talk about the philosophy behind the collections, why the Library is such a draw for authors, and of course about ‘Death, Dentistry, Devils & Demonology’. 

How did you initially find out about the Library? 

Lynn: I was looking for an interesting first professional post,2 and saw this one advertised. And I have to confess, that like many people at that stage, I had not heard of The London Library. It was only when I came for an interview and saw the scale of the collections that I thought, yes, this is a place I would like to work. And the longer you engage with the collections here, the more fascinating they become, because they’re so widespread and yet so astonishing.

'Metal Flooring, Stacks' by Christopher Simon Sykes Do you have a feel for the entire catalogue?

Lynn: I have a sense of it, and also because – and I think this is one of the things that makes us different – you would be hard-put to find many libraries on this scale where the librarian is directly involved in the selection of books for the collection. So in that sense yes I do have a feel for the collection, where our strengths are, what we’re still collecting. And I’m constantly reading book reviews and publishers’ catalogues, selecting books to add to it. So yes I do have a good feel, but it takes a few years to build up that knowledge, and that’s one of the reasons why it gets under people’s skin. It’s not unusual for our staff to have been here for ten, fifteen, twenty, thirty, or even forty years; and then you really do get to know the collections.

I suppose the fact that you’re the tenth Librarian here and the Library has been going for 170 years rather illustrates that! [Laughter]

Lynn: Absolutely. Although Hagberg Wright, who I still think of as the great Librarian, from 1893– 1940 – he died in-post – might account for a lot of those years!

I first heard about The London Library through Ian McEwan. One of his characters in Enduring Love spends the morning doing some research in The London Library. Do you know how featured you are in fiction? 

Lynn: We know we’re featured heavily in fiction, but not the full extent of it. James Bond is sent here in one of the novels, Sherlock Holmes sends Dr Watson here, Aldous Huxley writes about the Library in his novels. There have been several crime novels set in the Library, with murder by crushing in rolling stacks, as was used in the plot of [BBC TV drama series] New Tricks recently. We turn up all over the place, and I collect them whenever I come across the reference. I have a little file on The London Library in literature. One of these days an article is going to come out.

Heuzenroeder: … and then people’s letters of course. If you read Virginia Woolf’s letters for example, she ‘did this, walked down the street and bought this, then went to The London Library’.

Just how do you choose what kind of books to buy in for the collections?

Lynn: It’s a case of building on the accidents of history. If you go right back to the beginning when the Library was founded, and the people who did found it: Thomas Carlyle, John Stuart Mill, Dickens, Thackeray, Gladstone…3 In many ways they were creating a collection to meet their own reading needs. So if you’ve got John Stuart Mill choosing your political economy and philosophy, you can imagine that you’re going to have real strength and depth there, and so successive Librarians have continued growing on that. There were two early Librarians who were passionate about Russia, and had excellent contacts – Hagberg Wright was a personal friend of Tostoy – so we have got a very strong Russian collection, and you carry on building on the strengths that you’ve got.

Heuzenroeder: We’re also very responsive to members’ needs; our members are always suggesting books to add to the collections, and by and large they don’t make silly suggestions. They might be working in a particular section of the collection they know very well and see that there’s something needed. We add 8,000 books to the collections each year,4 but they’re not necessarily newly published books, they’re a mix of new titles and ones which we can see that there’s a gap in the collections for. We’re constantly responding to what the members want and how they use the collections as well. It makes the growth both organic and coherent I think, because by and large members wouldn’t suggest a book they didn’t want or a book which would seem oddly out of context.

Lynn: We’re also always trying to find the books that are of lasting value, because one of our principles is that we don’t throw books out. We try to avoid acquiring things in the first place which are not going to last the test of time.

That must be a difficult job…

Lynn: It is a difficult job, because the latest bestseller is not necessarily what people are going to be interested in in ten or fifteen years’ time. We have an inner core where we’re looking at different aspects of life really: culture, life and thought. Everything from history and people and places and social culture, philosophy, social science, and then the arts and performing arts side of things. At the heart it’s European and Western – because that was the world view in the nineteenth century when we were founded – and then with moving out we have less depth, but will still collect in all those areas, moving out first of all into Western European, American, Commonwealth, then the rest of the world. Then there’s the periphery which has something about the whole of the world, and every aspect of knowledge, so if a book comes out on the history of Tupperware we have to have it! Somebody somewhere will want to know that. We’re not going to have lots of them, but it’s an idea.

So that would go into Science & Miscellaneous?

Lynn: Yes that would probably go into Science & Miscellaneous.5 [Laughter]

Which I loved the idea of. What was it now? ‘Death, Dentistry,
Devils & Demonology (See also: R. Hell)’?6
[Laughter]

Heuzenroeder: We like to remind our members of their mortality. [More laughter]

'The Reading Room' by The London LibrarySpeaking of the members, are there many different kinds of member? 

Heuzenroeder: There’s a wonderful community of day-to-day members, and then there are people who will come in and they’ll work in briefer bursts, or will come in simply to collect books rather than to work in the building. There are different communities of members but they all meld together very nicely.

Lynn: There’s a whole community, for example, who never come here at all, and do everything by post. They can’t get here, whether because they’re far away or because they’re disabled, and we do it all for them and send out parcels by post.  How long do those members who visit tend to stay here?

Have any never emerged from the stacks? [Laughter]

Heuzenroeder: I think some people would like to be lost. It’s very easy for people to become absorbed and lost, in the best sense, and it does feel like a real haven. You step off St James’s Square and you forget you’re in central London. I know that some people come here not to be found, which is lovely, but no, we haven’t found any skeletons in the stacks.

Why is the library such a draw for authors in particular?7

Lynn: The reason that the library was founded by Thomas Carlyle was on the basis of what Carlyle couldn’t find anywhere else. This was before the public library system, and the British Library wouldn’t let him take books home, so for him the important thing was that it would let him take books home and read them alone. He said that you can get more out of a book in the comfort of your own home when you’re alone with it in one hour than you could in many days reading it in a public space. So for him it was being able to take the materials home, and not having to work surrounded by other people. But for other writers I think it’s exactly the opposite. Writing is quite a solitary occupation, but being able to come somewhere where you know that the people around you are similarly committed to the endeavour and value of creativity, you feel that you’re not alone, and know that there is this community of the mind, even if you rarely talk to each other. So a lot of different reasons. The depth of the collection that you get here, in one place, on open shelves, is very important. The public libraries could probably get you, through inter-library loan – if you know exactly what you want and ask for it – exactly what you want. But very often you don’t know what you want until you see it, and it’s only when you’re wandering down the stacks looking for something specific that your eye catches on How to Keep Rabbits for Profit and Pleasure, written in the 1920s, and you think, ‘That’s just want I need for my novel’, that bit of detail.

Heuzenroeder: There’s also the quality of the assistance you get from the staff and the depth of their knowledge. You can ask them, ‘I’m interested in Korean pottery of this era’,8 and somebody will know exactly what we’ve got and where our strengths and weaknesses are in the collections. And there are more intangible qualities I think. Tom Stoppard, our President, has said that when he passes someone on the stairs of The London Library, that they are on the right side of life, that there’s a set of values that The London Library has and never needs to articulate. But again it’s a very disparate community of readers and members who are standing up for books and knowledge and text.  Lynn: And it’s not just the famous and well-known writers, it’s people at the very beginning of their careers, people who aspire to write a novel and maybe will never get it published.

They’ll be distracted by books on beekeeping and Tupperware… [Laughter]

Lynn: And it’s a huge range down to the core people who just love reading – serious reading – and the Library is a very important place to us. We received a very big legacy a couple of years ago from a woman called Mrs Carr, and she had become a life member at the age of 21, I think. She had been left some money and she decided she would spend it on life membership of The London Library because she said, ‘No matter what else happens in my life, I have no idea whether I’m going to be poor or rich, but I will still be able to read and belong to The London Library’. As it happened actually she did extremely well in life and left us a very large legacy, but it’s that sense that having access to books is important.

Heuzenroeder: Our literary heritage is such a wonderful thing, but it can also sometimes be quite a big thing to overcome because people think that you need to be a famous writer to become a member of The London Library, and actually if you look at our database, what we do when members join, is ask what their occupation is. So you can go back through the database and see people who are now Booker Prize winners or very famous historians, and their occupation will say ‘student’ or ‘bookshop worker’ or ‘researcher’ or whatever, because that’s what they were when they joined. They didn’t join as fully-fledged, lauded public intellectuals, they joined as people who are just like the people who are coming in now working on their first book, or dreaming about becoming this or that.

For more information about The London Library, including details of free tours of the building (definitely worth it) and membership details, head over to londonlibrary.co.uk. To buy a copy of the magazine in which this interview appears, head over to our shop.

Footnotes:

1 ^ Some of these are the ‘load bearing books’ of the headline – the 1890s saw the building of four floors of stacks, designed in a typically robust Victorian way and made from cast-iron, which support the weight of the building directly through the shelving itself. It’s quite a sight.

2 ^ Lynn studied Classics at Liverpool, deciding to train as a librarian after several years in postgraduate research.

3 ^ … Tennyson, George Eliot, Leslie Stephen, and, well, you get the picture.

4 ^ This relentless growth means that the Library is always planning (and fundraising for) the next few decades of expansion. The most recent upgrade added 30% to the book capacity, as well as spaces such as the new Art Room. The Library was kept fully operational throughout the renovation work.

5 ^ The Library was founded pre-Dewey Decimal Classification, and so has its own system. One of the categories is ‘Science & Miscellaneous’, which is a catch-all for everything that won’t fit in elsewhere. This results in some amusing sequences.

6 ^ While Heuzenroeder pointed out this one, some of Lynn’s favourite sequences are: ‘Wine, Witchcraft, Women, Wool &c, Wrestling, Yachting’ & ‘Cremation, Cricket, Crime, Crosses, Cruelty to Animals’.

7 ^ A very small selection of authors who were, or still are, members: Arthur Conan Doyle, E.M. Forster, Kingsley Amis, T.S. Eliot, Agatha Christie, A.C. Grayling, Stephen Fry, Monica Ali…

8 ^ The art book collection is one of the gems of the Library, as is the Arts Room itself.

One response to “Load-bearing Books: The London Library interview

  1. Beautiful post! Beautiful library. Thank you for sharing.

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