Wednesday, 17 April 2013

The London Library

Picture: Christopher Simon Sykes
A comment left on a recent blog post urged me to join the London Library, which was a splendid idea.  It's a private library in a rambling old building in Mayfair with a million books that are almost all on open access and available to borrow.  It subscribes to the major journals and provides access to  electronic resources including the indispensable JSTOR.  There are fewer than 8,000 members, but I seem to have met quite a few of them over the years, and they've all been ardent ambassadors.  In the past I've been put off by the cost - £460 a year seemed very steep.  Now that I've joined it feels like a bargain.  The London Library just seems to get right all the basic things that some public libraries have forgotten.
The London Library has a fabulous collection of books.  They don't 'deaccession'.  You can find all kinds of wonderful old books that are undeservedly forgotten.  I find it depressing the number of important art history books that I've bought recently that have been sold off from public libraries - books like Seymour Slive's catalogue of Frans Hals, and Frances Ames-Lewis's study of Raphael's drawings, books that are still essential.  Some public libraries seem almost bibliophobic, preferring DVDs and computer terminals over books, and never buying much more than a few recent bestsellers.
The London Library still buys a lot of books, both new publications and old books that they missed first time around.  Acquisitions seem astute and timely - I even found a book in stock that Amazon still lists as not yet published!  The Art History section is particularly impressive.  There are a few weaker areas, like foreign museum catalogues and guides, and a few of the more expensive works like the Rembrandt Corpus and Capellen's Raphael catalogue are missing, but overall it's one of the very best collections I've found. 
The library is on St James Square, near the National Gallery, with an unassuming frontage leading to a maze of rooms that have been added over the years.  There's an appropriately magnificent main reading room, but also lots of desks dotted around in the stacks.  Best of all, it's mostly open access - you can just browse and find all kinds of things you never knew you were looking for.  Electronic catalogues are the enemy of serendipity (and anything mis-catalogued is lost in closed stacks).  The library pre-dates the horrid Dewey Decimal system; the arcane classifications here are much better, and more conducive to lucky finds.  The 'Science and Misc.' section has some wonderfully obscure sub-categories - "Fishing, Flagellation, Flags, Flax, Floods, Flower Arrangement...", for example.
The London Library is quiet.  Such a simple thing, but so important.  Even at the British Library it can be hard to concentrate when people are engaged in an iPod arms race to block out the incessant din.  Some public libraries try to be as noisy as possible to prove how friendly and relevant they are.  The tragic thing is that their patrons actually really value quiet space - as explained in this superb recent article.
I'm struck by similarities between recent changes in museums and in libraries.  In the UK, both were subject to incessant meddling by New Labour.  And to a greater or lesser degree, libraries and museums were happy to accept new responsibilities to promote social inclusion and public health and equal rights and whatever other worthy and irrelevant priorities were in vogue that day.  Some libraries wholly lost sight of their role of providing people with books to read and a quiet space to read them.  Some museums wholly lost sight of their role to preserve and present their collections.  Luckily there are still museums that get it right, and I'm delighted to have found one library that is just perfect. 

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