What makes the perfect library? Is it one that still spends money on books, not just computers and DVDs? One that nevertheless uses modern technology to its fullest extent to make the best research tools available to its readers? One that never throws out books? One that has reading rooms that are genuinely quiet enough to work in? One that lets you borrow books for as long as you need them? One that offers you access to on-line catalogues and research databases from your own home? One with membership open to all?
They’re certainly the things I look for in a library. Not one that periodically throws out books and journals. Not one where you’re trying to work against a background of chatter, the rustling of food packets, the blare of mobile phones. Not one that culls its reference sections and moves the much reduced collections into tiny corners of its premises. Not one that thinks the bulk of its budget is best spent on computers. Not one that has bought into some Gradgrindian ideal of providing “information” and thinks it’s done its duty when people can Google. A good library is unashamedly intellectual. That’s why I’ve decided to splash out on a subscription to the London Library in St James’s Square.
The Library was founded in 1841 after a successful campaign by Thomas Carlyle and others to establish a library in the capital from which books could be borrowed, a service which was not provided by the British Museum. Carlyle was sick of the “importunate distraction” of the public reading room: the “buzz and bustle…waste of time in coming and going; waste of patience in waiting; add discomfort, perturbation, headache, waste of health.” The issue of libraries and health was clearly one that haunted the Victorian mind: in 1891 an advocate for free public libraries described a method of vaporising books with carbolic acid to disinfect them. As far as I know the London Library hasn’t introduced any such scheme, although the books are housed in stainless steel stacks on grilled shelves which no doubt allows for the bracing circulation of air.
Carlyle himself, after passionately pleading the cause of a city that was worse off than “the wretched fishy village of Reykiavik” which had a “Public Lending Library, free to all Icelanders”, resigned from the Committee and in the main kept out of the business of running the Library once it was established. He was, however, a great borrower. He took out the novels of Balzac and George Sand, the Latin chronicle of a monk at Bury St Edmunds by Jocelin de Brakelonda, while his wife Jane borrowed Currer Bell’s Shirley because some people thought she herself had written the Jane Eyre books and she “was curious to know whether the new one was up to my reputation”.
The Library is undergoing a major redevelopment, some phases of which are already completed. It seems to me, however, that the spirit of the place can’t have changed all that much. For all the computer terminals, photocopiers, and modern lighting, it’s still the books that dominate. I feel that if I went looking for Shirley I’d find the very copy Jane Carlyle read all those years ago. In the London Library I’ll be walking in the footsteps of Charles Dickens, Rudyard Kipling, George Eliot and Virginia Woolf; maybe sitting at a desk recently vacated by Tom Stoppard or Peter Ackroyd. Perhaps their shades will guide my pen, or at the least nudge my elbow when I’m typing. The London Library is not only a place to go and look up a few things or get a bit of today’s favourite commodity, information. It’s an inspirational place, and that is what makes a perfect library.
You can get some idea of what the London Library looks like by visiting http://news.bbc.co.uk/today/hi/today/newsid_8743000/8743878.stm
The London Library website is at - http://www.londonlibrary.co.uk/index.htm
And finally - and absolutely unconnected - who wants to see something amazing? One of the highlights of our recent holiday in Scotland was a visit to Loch of the Lowes where we watched nesting ospreys via a live webcam in the visitors’ centre, before going out to the hide to see the birds with our own eyes. It was an experience not to be missed. You can visit the Scottish Wildlife Trust’s website now and watch live footage of these beautiful birds - http://www.thewebbroadcastingcorporation.com/swt/swt.php.