Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Library Visit: The London Library

Founded in 1841 by one Thomas Carlisle, who was tired of having to go to the reference library at the British Museum every time he wanted to read about something, and not being able to take those books home with him for more convenient perusal, the London Library is the world's largest independent library. What makes them independent is that they are entirely financed via member subscription fees; that is, annual use of the library is dependent upon paying a fee.

While it may seem extravagent to pay to use a library when London boasts a number of free public libraries, after our tour of the library the reasons for membership really presented themselves. First of all, because members directly pay for the library and library staff, there is no unanswerable question at the enquiries desk. Whereas in a public or even academic library setting a reference question may lead to an ultimate answer of, "I'm sorry, we don't have that item/information/other thing you want," no such thing ever happens at the London Library. As one of our tour guides put it, five star service is the bare minimum of what is required of staff when working with members.

Also of extreme benefit to the library members are the large number of reading spaces available within the library itself. While 97% of the library collections can be checked out of the library building, it was apparent that many members enjoy doing their work and research within the library itself. There are a number and variety of reading rooms, running the gamut from entirely interior, buried-in-the-stacks reading places to bathed-in-natural-light newer rooms. Many members who are writers actually use the library as their place of work; since they use the materials housed in the library for their work, and they pay for the privilege of being in the library, they use the library space on a day-to-day and convenient basis.

The collections of the London Library are all print resources; mostly books, but the library also has over 800 current periodicals and back holdings of many others. The 1,000,000+ item collection grows by between 8,000-10,000 items per year, adding to subject areas largely within the humanities but also spanning into other areas as best benefit the library's purpose and members. All of these resources are classified using a unique system created by former library Sir Charles Hagberg Wright. Using a rational system of broad subject areas like Art, History, Literature, and Science & Miscellaneous, books within these areas are further divided into more specific subject headings (Painting, European War I, Classics, Death, &c.). The result is that the items are organised on the shelves in very specific ways, allowing better retrieval rates--and better browsing!--of the collections.

About 3% of the items held by the London Library are considered rare or fragile and so are not available for circulation. They are still available for member use, however, within the library itself. These and other materials deemed in need are given top-notch preservation care, as the overall goal of the library is to retain items for use by members whenever they might desire them. As such, the library never weeds from its collection; that book on that subject from 1800 will be right next to the more modern book on that same subject on the library shelves, available for use by intellectually curious members. Quite a good MO for a library, if you ask me!
*top photo courtesy of the London Library

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