Given that numbers of membership is falling I offer this post in the spirit of my (surprisingly!) popular Short guide to Southwark jury service to encourage people of letters to join the London Library. Such august institutions (the Library dates back to 1840 and counts a Who’s Who of literary genius among its past and present members) can seem rather intimidating to the outsider and my aim is to acknowledge that the Library definitely has higher expectations of its members’ behaviour than most contemporary libraries (yeah, I’m talking about you, the BL) but also offers delights not to be found anywhere else.
But I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking, ‘Isn’t it expensive?’. Well, it’s not cheap. At £510 per annum for old farts and £255 for the under-25s it’s not a negligible sum. However, I hope that I can persuade you, dear reader, that at less than the price of a cup of coffee a day if you’re of an intellectual inclination you get plenty of bang for your buck. I would also point out that if, like me, you’re occasionally outside the perimeter of the academic community membership at Senate House is not cheap, and is far less salubrious than the digs in St James’s Square.
Of course this guide is my own, partial, opinion. Other members will value some services (for example the postal loan system for those outside commuting distance of Central London) that I rarely use if never. So where should one start? Oh yes,
Yes, they have books at the London Library. Big deal you might think, I can get books for free at my college/university/Senate House/BL. I have to say, however, that the LL’s collection is outstanding. Its strengths lie in its antiquity and its scope. While not as broad as some (and I emphasise, some) university library collections its acquisition policy is rigorously academic and keeps abreast of the latest scholarship.
As a historian though I value the way in which you can trace the genealogy (to borrow a Foucauldian term) of a subject over time. For example, over the past year I’ve been conducting two research projects. The first, on Marivaux, I’ve discussed elsewhere in these posts. The second, on the history of the West India Committee, was greatly aided by the fact that the library has holdings of first editions by the WIC’s Chairman, published in the 1900s, which I could borrow and peruse in the comfort of my own home while prepping a (failed) application for a research grant.
Having such historic books on open access means that you can serendipitously stumble upon things in the library’s collection that are relevant to your research but of which you may have been entirely ignorant given the focus of most reading lists and scholarship on the up-to-date. And old books smell great. Yes, that’s a thing. The idiosyncratic shelving system is also, once you’ve mastered it, a pleasure to use.
If you’re a student or hold an academic post you can take the fact that you have on-line access to thousands of journals rather for granted. As someone who has occasionally fallen out of the legit academic community the London Library’s e-library has proved a godsend with university department sized access to essential resources (for me) like JSTOR, the DNB, and the Bibliography of British and Irish Historiography. They also have access to some resources that aren’t on offer elsewhere, such as digital access to the Guardian and Observer archives. If you take a look at what there is in their e-library you’ll probably find plenty to get stuck into that isn’t on my radar.
The reading room is a joy for the magazine and journal browser. If you want to keep up with new scholarship there are physical copies of the latest big journals there to consult. If you’re reading for pleasure you can pick up, say, Sight & Sound, Private Eye, the LRB etc etc. Laptops are barred (at the moment) in this room so it really is a place of peace and tranquillity, in which to read or snooze if you’ve an idle hour waiting for an appointment in town.
Every library member will have a favourite spot, my own is next to Who’s Who? up top in the St. James’s building where people rarely go. Though it can be a bit galling to toil up the stairs and find the desk occupied. Traditionalists will like the old school wooden desks dotted around among the history and literature collections.
Modernistas my prefer the up-to-date environment to be find in the writing room, the art room or the lightwell in the basement. The point is that you get to choose your writing environment, which will be more intimate and calming than the vast plains of Humanities 1. And the earlier you get to work the likelier you are to find your optimal spot.
They offer expertise and courtesy. The best of their profession.
Food & Drink
Of course you can’t eat in the stacks. And why would you? If you’re frugal you can eat a packed lunch in the Members’ Room at the top of the building. However, there are plenty of places to go in the vicinity if you want to get refreshed or fed.
Personally, I’m happy to go to Eat for food if I’m aiming to go back to work afterwards, or Waterstone’s Café if I can’t get a seat in there. If it’s booze you’re after The Chequers in Masons Yard is a peerless pub in this part of London. ‘Hearty’ pub food, cheerful barmaids and good beer at a reasonable price for the area. Or if you’re feeling more lizardy why not snaffle along to Royal Opera Arcade?
The Library hosts a full programme of literary events throughout the year. With a good tranche of the leading lights of literature and the arts (for example, incoming President Sir Tim Rice) you won’t need to go to Wye to hear talks by leading writers.
This is by no means an exhaustive list of the pluses of joining but I hope that it’s piqued your interest. If you want to dip your toe in the water the Library will arrange for someone to show you around to see if it’s the place for you. I urge you to give it a go and soon, like me, you’ll be putting aside the money for membership week by week.
Go here to see their membership page for details of how to join. If you’re a member of the Library already why not add a comment on your experience of being a member.
Blue Badge guide to London and academic specialising in early twentieth century history. Blogging on history, academia, and food and culture in the capital (and occasionally elsewhere).