Stacks of Learning

The London Library, founded in 1841, never discards a book. Nearly 170 years later they have more than a million titles, spread over six floors. It's a glorious institution for the reader says Henrietta Bredin.

The Lady, 20 April 2010

Tucked away in the corner of St James's Square is one of my favourite places in our sprawling capital city - the London Library. It is the world's largest independent lending library and, Tardis-like, once you're in, extends over six floors (plus a basement stuffed with academic journals and periodicals, including back issues of The Lady dating from 1885) and houses over 15 miles of shelves groaning with books. It's an astonishing resource for research and a haven in which to curl up and read for pure pleasure.

In the main issue hall, extraordinarily knowledgeable members of staff check your books in and out and can help you with pretty much anything you need to know; tracking down missing volumes and putting you on the right track for whatever you're after. Beyond them, the treasures of the collection are to be found, in the grille-floored bookstacks (wearing high heels is not advisable - stilettos could slip lethally through the grilles and send you flying), under categories ranging from History and Biography to Topography and Exploration, Literature and Philosophy. I always shut my eyes and sniff rapturously when I get into the stacks, breathing in the unique aroma of old books and dusty metal. The lights, which members are encouraged only to switch on as necessary, are operated by cords at the end of each row of shelves and ping and click when you pull on them.

The Library aims to cover every aspect of the humanities and its laudable belief is that books are never truly redundant so should never be discarded for reasons of being 'old, idiosyncratic or unfashionable'. As over 95% of the collection (more than a million books) is available for members to pluck from the shelves and take home to read, this means that you can find yourself with an exquisitely calf-bound 18th-century volume on your bedside table alongside the latest P.D. James - as long as you've moved swiftly enough to get to the head of the queue of people wanting to read it.

Inez Lynn is head librarian of this glorious institution, a job with enormous rewards but a fair number of drawbacks, particularly in recent times, when there has been an unavoidable but substantial rise in membership fees and a major restoration and building project, causing considerable disruption. 'Members have been incredibly tolerant,' she says, 'and I think that was partly because the main construction site was right in the middle of the library and there were numerous places where you could look through gaps left deliberately and see what was happening. Also, we encouraged a sort of Dunkirk spirit among the staff so there was a very powerful feeling of everyone being in the same boat.' It is remarkable that she managed to inspire such a spirit within her staff members as the brunt of the disruption fell on them, working with the noise and mess day in, day out and, for 8 months, when there was no lift, lugging piles of books up and down innumerable stairs.

I wondered if working at the London Library was seen as a plum job. 'It certainly is,' explains Inez, 'for people who like librarianship of a slightly traditional sort. People who come to work here tend to stay for a long time, and thats what gives them the level of expertise that members appreciate so much. They get to know the collection in depth and that takes a long time to absorb; it doesn't come quickly. We participate in a national graduate trainee scheme, which helps us to maintain the balance between freshness and experience. Each year we take on 3 or 4 graduates for extensive training, so each year we've got a group of highly intelligent, keen newcomers coming in to add spice to the mix.'

That attention to the balance of old and new, experience and innovation, has been applied with equal care to the delicate question of computerisation and technological advances in the context of an institution founded in 1841. 'We are, and always will be, a digital follower rather than a digital leader,' says Inez, 'but that is a deliberate decision so that we are able to make information technology a tool rather than an excuse for dehumanizing. For example, we have a computer-generated letter that we send out when books are overdue or wanted by another reader, and we've made that look like a proper, human-generated letter so as to maintain the relationship of warmth and courtesy the Library has with its members.'

This relationship between the Library and its members is marvellously personal and individually tailored. Inez remembers getting 'an anguished letter from a member who had spent the best part of ten years writing an historical novel and suddenly, all the books she had been using were recalled by another member. She went into a complete panic, thinking that someone else had had the same idea and, after all that time, was going to publish before her. By tactful questioning of the other member I was able to establish that there was a clash of interests but not of intent, and reassure the novelist, who eventually went on to successful publication.'

In addition, the London Library offers a postal service which can be enormously useful to members who live out of London, indeed out of the country, or disabled members who are unable to get access to all parts of an old and eccentric building. That access is in fact soon to improve considerably when a new entrance is opened up in Mason's Yard, leading directly into the issue hall. The 19th-century stacks with their narrow corridors will never be possible to get a wheelchair into but Library staff are happy to pile books onto a trolley and wheel them to people as necessary.

The policy of never discarding books reflects fascinating changes in attitude. Books that were once put on restricted circulation for moral reasons are still restricted but not for the same reasons. The first edition of Lady Chatterley's Lover, once banned from the shelves, is now protected because of its rarity and value. Fiction of the 1940s and '50s, in which the Library is particularly strong, has proved an invaluable resource for Persephone Books, whose list, reviving interest in the writing of Dorothy Whipple, Frances Hodgson Burnett and Monica Dickens among others, closely reflects the Library's holdings. And, as Inez points out, 'What was a serious source of research at the time now becomes an interesting insight into the way of thinking about a subject in, say, the 1920s, so it has a different value. And we can do a little judicious culling when we only need one copy of something that was flavour of the month in the '20s and greatly in demand.'

Hot tip for generous grandparents or godparents: there's a young person's membership rate and, if you go for a three-year deal, it's fixed at the price of a year so is inflation-proof for that period. Imagine being introduced to such riches at the age of 17 or 18. You'd be bang on track to acquire the library habit, a fine habit to have and one that lasts for life.