Behind the Stacks at the London Library

Christopher Phipps introduces one of the capital’s great private institutions, and invites History Today readers to visit on June 28th.

'The true university of these days is a collection of books.’ So wrote Thomas Carlyle in Heroes and Hero-Worship, and there can be few more remarkable book collections than that held at the London Library, the institution founded at Carlyle’s instigation in 1841. Now the largest independent lending library in the world, the London Library is a resilient product of early-Victorian philanthropy that reassuringly maintains its belief in the continued value of the printed word. For over a century and a half it has been serving generations of writers, researchers and readers throughout the country by offer­ing them something of the riches of a national reference library for use in their own homes and workplaces.

It is a rare and long-held tenet of the Library that as books are never entirely super­seded, and therefore never redundant, its collec­tions should not be weeded of material merely because it is old, idiosyncratic or unfashionable.

The Library now contains approximately one million volumes, cover­ing all aspects of the human­ities, housed on some fifteen miles of shelves in its labyrinthine premises in St James’s Square, Mayfair. It is a collection that over the years has been shaped by the particular research needs of its subscribing members: the desiderata lists for the original core collection were person­ally compiled not only by Carlyle, but also Gladstone, Grote, Mill, Mazzini, and other leading scholars of the day. These founders have been followed in member­ship by a roll-call of the most important writers, thinkers and opinion-formers of each generation, including among their number Dickens, Kipling, George Eliot, Aldous Huxley, Virginia Woolf, T.S. Eliot and Winston Churchill. The Library’s current presid­ent is Sir Tom Stoppard.

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