Overdue for a Visit...

Ben Power takes a tour of the London Library, an invaluable resource for historians and History Today, and describes plans for a sensitive expansion beginning this year.

When Charles Dickens decided to write a novel set during the French Revolution, his first act was to send a message to Thomas Carlyle. Dickens asked his friend (an expert in the field) to furnish him with a selection of volumes on the period. Carlyle immediately hand-picked and despatched a cartload of books and Dickens began to read. Less than eighteen months later, the first chapter of A Tale of Two Cities was serialized in the periodical ‘All the Year Round’.

 

The collection from which these volumes were chosen belonged to an organization that Carlyle had founded eighteen years previously, in 1841, the London Library. Frustrated by the lack of accessibility to the collection held at the British Museum, Carlyle had determined to create an independent library, allowing members the opportunity to browse and borrow a diverse range of volumes. The early list of subscribers included George Eliot and William Makepeace Thackeray and since this illustrious beginning the likes of Virginia Woolf, T.S. Eliot and Winston Churchill have ensured that the membership list at any one time reads like a Who’s Who of contemporary thought and literature.

 

Today the London Library is the largest independent subscription library in the world. Since Carlyle began it, the collection has grown to over a million volumes. The main subject areas are history and the humanities and there are substantial parts of the collection in all major European languages.

 

Almost all of the books are browsable on the shelves and can be borrowed by members. As Carlyle said, twenty minutes with a book in the comfort of one’s own home is preferable to a day in a public reading room. The collection grows by over 8,000 volumes a year and adapts itself to the interests and needs of the membership thanks to a books committee made up of trustees, members and staff, a suggestions book and the careful monitoring of the usage levels of subject areas.

 

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