The London Library – Carlyle’s Legacy

At the London Library, the largest independent lending library in the world, the fastest growing resource is the art collection, presently comprising some 40,000 books. Each year, on average, five hundred new titles are added by purchase, bequest or donation, and they require about twenty metres or sixty feet of extra shelving. Indeed, several decades ago, a mezzanine floor was inserted in the art collection’s original lofty, light flooded space to accommodate its growth.

The expansion could be attributed to the proliferation of museums and associated outreach programmes, art education courses and art themed tours, of which books are an integral part. Hence, the development of art publishers both independent and museum affiliated to feed the public’s interest.

The Library’s art collection is for the most part in English although other major European languages are represented. One finds works on the applied arts, art history, theory and criticism, catalogues of major artists’ work and catalogues of British and significant overseas collections and exhibitions.

The books are classified according to subject. The shelf mark is the prefix ‘A’ – for Art – and this is followed by one of 45 subdivisions, such as Brasses, Cave Painting, Clocks, Fans, Furniture, Majolica, Painting, Portraits, Pottery, Snuffboxes. The works are arranged alphabetically within each subdivision and, within each subdivision, in four separate size sequences: octavo, quarto, small folio and folio. The Library is especially proud of the material in its Pottery and Vases sections and the research resource provision of the Needlework, Embroidery, Tapestry and Lace sections combined. The online catalogue offers keyword search options to help pinpoint works, and the long runs of periodicals on accessible open shelves, all of which may be borrowed, are invaluable. There is also access offered to the vast electronic periodicals’ archive JSTOR, which offers a full-text archive of over one thousand periodicals in the humanities, social sciences and sciences.

Readers savour the opportunity for happenstance, both an amusing and frustrating distraction – one browses, pulls out a book and slackens against a wall as one page turns to another. Moreover, these moments of serendipity could prove fruitful. Playwright Tom Stoppard, the Library’s current President, tells how one day in 1930, Isaiah Berlin was in the stacks and came upon the memoirs of Alexander Herzen, a Russian political writer and publisher. As he turned the pages, he was inspired to discover other Russian thinkers and eventually Berlin wrote and published a collection of essays about them entitled Russian Thinkers.

Indeed, what might be deemed ‘artistic’ is not always to be found in the Art Room. Works that are primarily biographical, including artists’ autobiographies, published diaries and correspondence, are shelved elsewhere in the Biography section. Photography, Textiles, Dress and Hair are sub divisions of Science and Miscellaneous. Books about wallpaper are found in the Bibliography section under Paper, etc., English Literature, History of.

So that the Library can continue to expand, and maintain open access, it is raising funds for a multi-phase development project (since undertaken), designed and supervised by the architects Haworth Tompkins. Over nineteen million pounds has been secured to date. The first phase involved the purchase, integration and renovation of a 1980s office block next door, now aptly named T.S. Eliot House, in memory of the poet, a past president and generous benefactor. The second phase has involved the Art Room, reinstating the double height space, thus exposing the original tall windows, installing illuminated shelves made of fritted – translucent – glass, a gallery with stainless steel floor grills and allowing for four work stations by the windows. Rooftop extensions and a new top-level reading room and members’ room are also included in future phases of the Library’s ambitious scheme.

Thankfully, plans include simplifying the rather convoluted routes for circulation, getting from A to B, that evolved in order to incorporate extensions and ‘links’ with nearby buildings acquired for expansion over the years. Sometimes one feels as if one is scurrying about in a maze without fear of the Minotaur.

The benefits of the London Library are not the preserve of an elitist establishment. Anyone may join provided they pay a modest annual fee; short term research tickets are also available. At present there are 7,000 members who appreciate that although The British Library may be beautiful, free and stock every book in print, one may never take the books home, as one may at The London Library, selecting from a stock of over one million works; no books are ever discarded. The Library offers a stock retrieval service, especially useful for those short of time, and will post books to members living in Britain and Europe. It can and does borrow books from other lending – and non-lending – libraries for readers to use at home.

Eleanor Townsend, a Medievalist at the Victoria and Albert Museum, tends to use the Library’s art collection for books providing a historical context, books which she may not find in the National Art Library at the V&A. She appreciates the way the books are shelf marked according to subject at the London Library. ‘Recently, I wrote a book on art and death and there were several volumes relating to funerary practice and belief systems surrounding death which I discovered in the useful S. (Science and Miscellaneous) Death section.’  As a mother of two small children Townsend has less time than she used to away from home, so it was helpful that she could take the books home to read.

Having the right to borrow and open access to books are what prompted the London Library’s foundation by the historian Thomas Carlyle. When he was embarking on a work about Cromwell, he lamented the fact that he could not take the standard works housed in the British Museum (from which The British Library descends) that he required home to his study in Chelsea. He found the stuffy air and sniffle sounds of the British Library distracting; moreover journeying to and fro was arduous in winter.

‘A book is a kind of thing that requires a man to be self collected. He must be alone with it. A good book is the purest essence of a human soul. How could a man take it into a crowd, with bustle of all sorts going on around him?…Even for getting the mere facts which a book contains, a man can do more with it in his own apartment, in the solitude of one night, than in a week in such a place as the British Museum,’ Carlyle is reported as saying in a speech to like-minded individuals. (Refer to Frederic Harrison’s Carlyle and the London Library.) In the spirit of the community he decried the dearth of circulating libraries: ‘why is there not a Majesty’s library in every county town? There is a Majesty’s gaol and gallows in every one.’

With a fervour imbued with common sense, together with several distinguished men such as William Gladstone, Carlyle set about establishing a lending library maintained by private subscription for scholarly use. It was not intended to concentrate on the popular or ‘ephemeral’ as the Librarian Charles Hagberg Wright explained in 1922, and indeed works of scholarship and literary merit remain its raison d’etre.

The Library opened in 1841 with 14,000 volumes shelved in two rooms in the Traveller’s Club, Pall Mall, and a membership of 500 – including just fifteen women. Expansion prompted the transfer to Beauchamp House, in the corner of St. James’s Square, which was completely reconstructed in between 1896 and 98. Since its origins membership has included people with an eclectic range of interests. Some past members, whose pictures hang on the walls of the carpeted stairwells, are John Stuart Mill, Rudyard Kipling and Rebecca West. William Thackeray was the first auditor.

In spite of its illustrious past and the present membership of many well-known writers and commentators, the Library has a very relaxed, welcome feel. There are people of all ages working industriously on their laptops, trying to resist smiling and talking with another, so as not to lose their train of thought. But then the London Library is like a private members’ club but one which is open to all. The only unwavering requirement is that applicants must appreciate the touch of the printed word, and be willing to safeguard its existence in the face of the onslaught of digital technology by investing in a ticket. You could call it a ticket to life.


For more information about the London Library, please refer to

First published in The Art Book, Volume 17, Issue 3, pages 35 – 37,  August 2010. Since this time the Library has undergone extensive refurbishment and a few of the facts may have changed.