Tuesday, July 13, 2010

London Library Tour

Image: Miniature books in a glass-fronted bookcase at the London Library

On today's tour, we visited the London Library. This library was unlike any other I've ever visited, either here in London or in the U.S.

Much of its uniqueness stems from the fact that it is not a public or university library, but an independent and member-funded institution. Our tour was broken into three segments: the tour of the building was led by deputy librarian Jane Oldfield, while librarian Helen O'Neill discussed the history of the Library and the Library as an institution, and Stella Worthington gave a summary of the work done by the relatively new Conservation department.

The library was founded in 1841 by Thomas Carlyle, who was unhappy with the fact that materials at the British Library were strictly for reference use. Over the years, many distinguished authors have been members of the library, and many contributed part or all of their personal libraries to the London Library after their deaths. Currently, the library has approximately 7,500 members, including organizations--such as the Houses of Commons and Lords--researchers, and writers. The forcus of the Library's collection is primarily on humanities, with a little on the history of science and natural sciences.

As we learned during Oldfield's portion of the tour, the Library is winding up the most recent of the redevelopment projects it has undertaken over the years since its existence. This current redevelopment project focused on consolidating the four buildings the Library has grown to fill and adding in features to enhance user friendliness, such as a brighter mezzanine in the Art Library and lockers in the Library entrance.

Part of the reason the library has grown to fill all these buildings is that they never discard items. In addition, they circulate 97% of the collection, which covers books from 1700 onwards. As can be imagined, this means the library has a very real need for conservation, which resulted in the creation of a conservation lab and hiring of a conservator by Worthington, the Preservation and Stack Management Librarian.

Image: 19th century steel floored stacks.

The London Library has many idiosyncrasies, including its cataloging system, which was devised in the 19th century by Library Director Sir Charles Hagberg Wright. However, the librarians were all very confident in the decisions they made in the management of the library and its collections, a confidence which I believe stems from their independence from the demands of other departments and insecurity of funding that so often comes when libraries are part of city or university systems. As an employee of a city library very much dependent upon the fortunes of the city it is attached to, I envy the London Library the freedom they have to embrace their uniqueness and make it their greatest strength.

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