Since I moved to London, I have been hearing quiet tales of the London Library. Nestled in the heart of a leafy square just a few streets from the bustle of Piccadilly Circus, the library hosts a million books, the overwhelming majority in the stacks and shelves that bear the weight of the hefty collection.
It’s been a dream of mine to join for quite some time, but my persuasive introversion concerned me. What if I couldn’t work out how to check out books? What if I looked like a total dope wandering the aisles? What if, wait for it, I broke something, or got lost, and everyone looked me like I’m some sort of tragedy? Anxiety is hard, and that means doing new things is hard too.
The other thing that set me to pause was the cost. The London Library is a private charity, so it’s sustained by the fees of its members. There’s a definite air of elitism about a library that’s not open access, but there’s a spreading dearth of even public libraries now. In my view, spending my money to maintain a brilliant resource that offers me a silent and inspiring working space is a fair deal. Not everyone can wander into the Library, but its collection is safe and protected for generations to come. I can’t know what the future holds, but at least I do know I’m trying my best to protect an immense resource.
Last year I started writing my first novel and have been working on personal essays along the way with great input from my MA group at Birkbeck, University of London. Birkbeck of course has a library, and I’ve been in plenty of libraries around London. But the London Library kept calling, and eventually I booked a tour to see if it was really as delicious as it looked.
Reader, it was. I made my way across Leicester Square and down Haymarket to the library on a sunny Wednesday afternoon to spend my lunch hour on a free tour before making any decisions. I stopped at reception to sign in for the delight ahead, and waited just a few minutes before a member of staff came to find me and lead me through the labyrinth. We started by walking through the main hall and entered the back stacks, floor after floor of narrow walkways and towering shelves, chock a block with books of every description, all carefully labelled and sectioned according to the library’s own filing system. I had asked to see books about bees on my trip, and was led directly to a lovely collection going back centuries. The flooring in the back stacks is grated, so with a quick look down you can see the floors beneath you- a somewhat exhilarating experience that might freak some people out. Me, all I could think of was how many books were beneath me, and how many more above.
After the back stacks we moved into the centre part of the library at St James Building, to see the Reading Room (where even laptops are disallowed), with its ceiling height cases full of pages, and then to the Writers Room, with its hardy desks, golden lamps and giant window. I recall some elevator and stair magic and then saw the Members room on the top floor, with its places for phone calls and café for snacks, then down into the Central Stacks, six floors of endless routes through topics including Biography and Religion. At the bottom, we emerged near the Art Room, flooded with light and full of books and manuscripts that have absolutely no meaning to me as an art philistine, but there was no denying the peace and inspiration of the space. I finished my tour in the issue hall, my decision already made.
Though I’ve joined the library only in the last month, and I’m still getting used to the place (and yes, getting lost) as well as occasionally turning a corner and finding something new that I didn’t know was there at all. The London Library is like the Narnia of books, where even dark corners hide big secrets.
Rioters, what are your favourite libraries, and where are they?