The London Library is a very scary place indeed. I have just finished a walk along several corridors of books where the floor was made of metal with holes in it (big holes at that) and where the view downwards went on for two floors. This type of flooring is called grille flooring and could easily be used at Alton Towers to scare even the most confident of teenagers. I could not concentrate wholeheartedly on the books I was being shown for fear of falling through. I was however much comforted by the librarian telling me that he did not think anyone had come to grief at any time whilst perusing the one million books which are held here. I still felt as though it was some kind of initiation which I had to pass through to reach the reading room on the first floor. The room is a hotchpotch of modern desks for laptops combined with old wooden bookshelves and some comfortable looking leather armchairs which would not look out of place in a gentleman’s club. The room is not over large but has the benefit of high windows to Mason’s Yard at the rear allowing it to be flooded with natural daylight. The library has been here since 1841 and is the world’s largest independent lending library.
It is housed at 14 St James Square placed very handily indeed for both The Ritz and Fortnum & Mason’s where one hopes to lunch today, and only a short distance away from the biggest cigar shop I have ever seen. This is an area of London which I have not had the opportunity of exploring very much before so I am happy to be here to introduce you to yet another gem of information management, which is after all what a library is – and a place for people-watching!
There is a lovely sign at the front desk telling you that you are welcome to take some free earplugs. They are having renovations carried out and it is clearly something which has caused some grief to some of the members. You too could be a member here: it costs about £400 a year and there is no waiting list unlike many golf clubs, but you would be joining the hallowed list of former members such as Churchill, Elgar, Kipling and Huxley (but curiously not D H Lawrence). The previous patron was The Queen Mother and the current president is Tom Stoppard. According to the very helpful librarian who led me on my expedition to the far reaches of the library this morning, this is a “humanities” library where books are stored according to size as well as title. (Octavio is the default wouldn’t you know)
It certainly has an ancient and hallowed feel about it – but in any library there is always one keyboard thumper and this morning it is the guy with the bald pate and glasses who is emailing his life story to some far-flung friend in the key of G.