1 July 2022 Susannah

Book Addict Visits a Library – The London Library

The London Library

The London Library is a fabulous, independent lending library in a corner of St James’ Square in the heart of London. It was established in 1841 by an author, Thomas Carlyle, who was unhappy about the policies of the British Library, and also the lack of seating (he sometimes had to perch on ladders to read there). It is also a registered charity, and has received a royal charter from the Queen. It makes it own byelaws and regulations, and elects its own President. T.S. Eliot, who once served as President, stated that “whatever social changes come about, the disappearance of the London Library would be a disaster to civilisation”. He is right – it is a superb library and if I lived in London, I would certainly become a member (though at £525 per year, a subscription is not cheap). If I did so, I would join a very distinguished list of alumni – Thackeray, Dickens, Gladstone, Kenneth Clark, Georgette Heyer, Sir Harold Nicolson, and John Masefield are some of those associated with the library.

The collection is very strong in the field of literature, but there are lots of books on biography, travel, the fine arts and religion. Every year about 8,000 new books and periodicals are added to the collection. It is now the largest lending library in Europe and members can borrow on-site or through the post.

The building on St James’ Square was originally a house. In 1944 it was hit by a bomb, which destroyed 16,000 volumes, but storage space has always been a problem. In 2004 the library acquired another building on the square which gave it more room for storing books. It is now a Grade II heritage listed building.

One of my favourite novels, A.S. Byatt’s Possession begins with a scene set in the library, in Alan Bennett’s wonderful The Uncommon Reader it is the London Library which supplies books to the Queen, James Bond must be a member as he borrows a book there in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, and Harriet Vane in Dorothy L. Sayers’ marvellous Lord Peter Wimsey series is a frequent borrower.

I had to study Thomas Carlyle’s works at university and came to curse him for the utter boredom of his works, but I will forgive him because he started this fantastic library and so hugely benefited the reading population of London.

Is this a library that you’ve visited? Tell me by leaving a comment here.

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Featured image credit- The London Library, from https://www.facebook.com/thelondonlibrary/photos/a.10150564136311051/10158488902966051
Body image credit- The London Library: The Reading Room, The Bookstacks, The Issue Hall, images from https://www.londonlibrary.co.uk/about-us/inside-the-library

Comments (6)

  1. I was once allowed to read in the London Library. I can’t remember which one of my books I was researching, but there was just one of their holdings I needed to see–which I couldn’t find anywhere else. Even a day pass was something waaay over my very limited budget in those days. The librarian very kindly took pity on me. She sat me down at a tiny table in the hallway and brought me the volume I needed. A lovely lady and a lovely eperience.


    • Susannah Fullerton

      Thanks so much for sharing that memory. I didn’t know you could get a day pass. It all sounds rather intimidating, but I’d so love to get inside.

  2. Maria

    Thank you for acquainting me with this wonderful library and for providing a tempting list of books in which it appears. Were you able to visit the library on your recent travels?

    • Susannah Fullerton

      I have seen it on many visits to London, but I only had a few hours in London on this trip. It’s such a great institution.

  3. I haven’t visited the London Library but it was the setting for an episode of the quirky BBC police drama series, New Tricks, starring the late Dennis Waterman. The climactic scene involved the compactus in the basement!

    • Susannah Fullerton

      Oh, I didn’t know that, Ros. Thanks so much for letting me know.

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