Tuesday, July 26, 2011

London Library


very hopeless book romantic dreams about a secret place where you disappear into and find yourself surrounded by thousands and thousands of books. Books from every corner of the world; books in every language; books you've never heard of and didn't know existed; books that might, if you simply cracked it open, change everything for you. Carlos Ruiz Zafon described a place like this in his novel Shadow of the Wind, known as the Cemetery of Forgotten Books. There is a place very like this and it is the London Library.

The library was founded in 1841 by Sir Charles Hayberd Wright. The emphasis of the library was as a lending library, but a lending library where one could borrow anything including the rare materials. The library was founded on the basis of subscription and continues this practice to this day. Members pay a fee to use the library. This way, the library is completely independent. It relies completely on the support of their 7,000 members and does not receive grants or funding.  Membership is rather expensive, but if used enough does pay for itself. Although there is a trust for students or researcher who cannot afford the monthly fee. They even have a royal patron. I believe you know her as the Queen.

The library contains 15 miles of shelving and predominantly features arts and humanities materials. There is materials representing 50 different languages, mostly European. The collections include history, literature, biography, topography, religion, and an incredibly broad category known as "Science and Miscellaneous." There are over 1 million books starting from the 16th century to the present. There is a rare materials collection which has 30,000 items. 97% of the collections are available for lending. The other 3% consist of the rarest and most valuable books such as a first edition Charles Darwin's Origin of the Species and an original King James Bible. They have 2,500 publications, 750 of which are current publications. The library acquired 8,000 new books a year and has subscriptions to electronic resources.

A short list of the literary  personalities which have held subscriptions to the library include George Eliot,  Charles Darwin, Charles Dickens, Henry James, Winston Churchill, Agatha Christie, and TS Eliot who was president of the library from 1952-1964. Virginia Woolf began her membership when she was 22 and retained her membership for the rest of her life. As a child, her father was the president of the library.

The building itself is an enigma unto itself. The building has been built onto and added in so many ways it seems impossible to navigate as a novice patron. Due to the extreme weight of the books, the building itself began to sag. To remedy the problem, steel shelving was put in to make the structure for the books secure. On the top floor, one can look down through the metal grates which are the floor, all the way down seven floors. Those afraid of heights might want to keep your eyes up. This unique method to shelving presents certain challenges. The open grates allow for water to trickle down through all layers of books with nothing to hold it back. The same is true of flames.

There is a small preservation department which oversees the preservation management of the materials. There are no dust jackets. Any books that comes in as a paperback is taken to a binding firm and hard bound. The preservation team binds or re-binds 4,500 books a year. The team is also responsible for cataloguing the provenance of an object. The library keeps all versions of a book. The current head librarian enforces this as she believes that it is just as important to see not just the text but the manner in which it is interpreted across time.

The current head librarian has a wonderful quote which relates my own feelings in regards to books: "A good book is the essence of the human soul... The good of a book is not in the facts that can be got out of it, but the kind of resonance it awakens in our minds."

*The amazing display cap above is by Jessica Hische, an amazing designer I came across in my perpetual search for awesome design and typography. The letter comes from her Daily Drop Cap project.

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