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London Library

The London Library
Entrance to the London Library in James's Square
Formation 1841
Type Subscription library
  • 14 St. James's Square, London
Elizabeth II
Sir Tom Stoppard
Chairman of Trustees
Bill Emmott.
Inez Lynn

The London Library is one of the world's largest independent lending libraries, and one of the UK's leading literary institutions. It was founded in 1841 on the initiative of Thomas Carlyle, who was dissatisfied with some of the policies at the British Museum Library. It is located at 14 St. James's Square, in the St James's area of the City of Westminster, London, which has been its home since 1845.[1] Membership is open to all, on payment of an annual subscription; and life and corporate memberships are also available. As of March 2012 the Library has 7,155 members.[2]

T. S. Eliot, a long-serving President of the Library, argued in 1952 in an address to members that, "whatever social changes come about, the disappearance of the London Library would be a disaster to civilisation".[3]


  • Trustees and governance 1
  • History 2
  • Collections 3
  • Buildings 4
  • Subscription 5
  • Support 6
  • Awards and competitions 7
  • Cultural references 8
  • Patrons 9
  • Presidents 10
  • Librarians 11
  • See also 12
  • References 13
  • Bibliography 14
  • External links 15

Trustees and governance

The London Library is a self-supporting, independent institution. It is a registered charity[4] whose sole aim is the advancement of education, learning, and knowledge. It was originally incorporated by Royal Charter on 13 June 1933, with a supplemental Royal Charter granted on 21 October 1988. On 6 July 2004, the Queen granted the Library a new Royal Charter, which revoked both the 1933 and 1968 charters.[5] It has its own byelaws and the power to make or amend its rules. It has a royal patron, an elected president and vice presidents, and is administered by an elected board of a maximum of 15 trustees, including the Chairman and the Treasurer.


Thomas Carlyle in 1854

The chief instigator in the Library's foundation was Thomas Carlyle.[6][7] He had become frustrated by the facilities available at the British Museum Library, where he was often unable to find a seat (obliging him to perch on ladders), where he complained that the enforced close confinement with his fellow readers gave him a "museum headache", where the books were unavailable for loan, and where he found the library's collections of pamphlets and other material relating to the French Revolution and English Civil Wars inadequately catalogued. In particular, he developed an antipathy for the Keeper of Printed Books, Anthony Panizzi (despite the fact that Panizzi had allowed him many privileges not granted to other readers), and criticised him, as the "respectable Sub-Librarian", in a footnote to an article published in the Westminster Review.[8] Carlyle's eventual solution, with the support of a number of influential friends, was to call for the establishment of a private subscription library from which books could be borrowed.

19th-century London Library book label

The Earl of Clarendon was the Library's first President, Thackeray was its first auditor and Gladstone and Sir Edward Bunbury were on the first committee. The Belgian freedom fighter and former Louvain librarian Sylvain van de Weyer was a vice-president from 1848-1874. (Van de Weyer's father-in-law Joshua Bates was a founder of the Boston Public Library in 1852.)

A vigorous and long-serving presence in later Victorian times was Richard Monckton-Milnes, later Lord Houghton, a friend of Florence Nightingale. Dickens was among the founder members. In more recent times, Lord Clark and T. S. Eliot have been among the Library's presidents, and Sir Harold Nicolson, Sir Rupert Hart-Davis and the Hon Michael Astor have been Chairmen.

(Sir) Charles Hagberg Wright, who served as Secretary and Librarian of the Library from 1893 to 1940, is remembered as "the real architect of the London Library as it is today".[9] He oversaw the rebuilding of its premises in the 1890s, the re-cataloguing and rearrangement of its collections under its own unique classification system, and the publication of its catalogue in 1903, with a second edition in 1913–14 and later supplements.

In 1957 the Library suddenly received a demand from the Westminster City Council for rates (despite being registered as a tax-free charity), and the Inland Revenue was also involved. Most publishers then donated free copies of their books to the library. The final appeal was turned down by the Court of Appeal in 1959, and a letter in The Times of 5 November from the President and Chairman (T. S. Eliot and Rupert Hart-Davis) appealed for funds. An auction of manuscripts from many authors on 22 June 1960 raised £17,000 and £25,000 respectively; enough to clear debts and legal expenses of £20,000. At the sale T. E. Lawrence items from his brother fetched £3,800, Eliot’s The Waste Land fetched £2,800, and Lytton Strachey’s Queen Victoria £1,800, though 170 inscribed books and pamphlets from John Masefield fetched only £200, which Hart-Davis thought "shamefully low". The Queen and Queen Mother both gave some rare and valuable old books.[10][11]

In the 1990s, the Library was one of a number of academic and specialist libraries targeted by serial book thief William Jacques. It was the identification of several rare books put up for auction as having been stolen from the Library that led the police to investigate Jacques, and so to his eventual prosecution and conviction. Security measures at the Library have since been improved.[12]

20th-century London Library book label designed by Reynolds Stone


The Library's collections, which range from the 16th century to the present day, are strong within the fields of literature, fiction, fine and applied art, architecture, history, biography, philosophy, religion, topography, and travel. The social sciences are more lightly covered. Pure and natural sciences, technology, medicine and law are not within the library's purview, although it has some books in all of those fields; books on their histories are normally acquired. Periodicals and annuals on a wide range of subjects are also held in the collections. Special collections include subjects of hunting, field sports, Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, and of Jewish interest.[13]

In 1944, the Library lost some 16,000 volumes to bomb damage, and in 1970 its few incunabula were sold. With those exceptions, it has (apart from some duplicates) retained all items acquired since its foundation. The Library now holds more than one million items, and each year, it acquires approximately 8,000 new books and periodicals.[14] 97% of the collection is available for loan, either on-site or through the post. It is the largest lending library in Europe.

It is a central tenet of the Library that, as books are never entirely superseded, and therefore never redundant, the collections should not be weeded of material merely because it is old, idiosyncratic or unfashionable: except in the case of occasional duplicate volumes, almost nothing has ever been discarded from the Library shelves.[15]

The Library also subscribes to many ejournals and other online databases.[16] All post-1950 acquisitions are searchable on the on-line catalogue, and pre-1950 volumes are progressively being added as part of the Retrospective Cataloguing Project.[17]

95% of the collection is housed on open shelves (the remaining 5% includes rare books which need to be held in secure storage). This open access policy – which contrasts with that in many other large libraries, including the British Library – is greatly valued by members. Colin Wilson remembered his first visit to the library in the mid 1960s: "I have always had an obsession about books, and in this place I felt like a sex maniac in the middle of a harem".[18] Arthur Koestler recorded how in 1972, commissioned to report on the Spassky–Fischer chess championship in Reykjavík, he visited the Library to carry out some background research:

I hesitated for a moment whether to go to the "C" for chess section first, or the "I" for Iceland section, but chose the former, because it was nearer. There were about twenty to thirty books on chess on the shelves, and the first that caught my eye was a bulky volume with the title, Chess in Iceland and Icelandic Literature by Williard Friske, published in 1905 by the Florentine Typographical Society, Florence, Italy.[19]

Peter Parker wrote in 2008:

One of the pleasures and privileges of belonging to the London Library is wandering through its labyrinthine book-stacks with no particular aim in mind. Anyone who wants to find a particular one of the million or so books or 2,500 periodicals can do so easily enough in the catalogue, but serendipitous browsing is what many members find particularly rewarding. ... One of the best places to do this is in the capacious Science and Miscellaneous section, that glorious omnium gatherum subdivided into such widely divergent subjects as Conjuring and Colour-Blindness, Domestic Servants and Duelling, Gas and Geodesy, Human Sacrifice and Hypnotism, Laughter and Lotteries, Pain and Poultry, Sewage Disposal and Somnambulism, or Vinegar and Vivisection.[20]

And Roger Kneebone wrote in 2015:

Because the Library's classification – especially in Science and Miscellaneous – is so idiosyncratic, it doesn't conform to the systems that populate my own mind. So going in search of a book becomes a journey of discovery in itself.[21]
Bookstack in the 1896–8 building.


Following its foundation in 1841, the Library spent four years occupying rooms on the first floor of 49 Pall Mall.[22] In 1845 it moved to 14 St. James's Square, and this site has been its home ever since. However, its premises have undergone a considerable number of changes and extensions over the years as the collections have grown.

The property in St James's Square first occupied by the Library was a house, Beauchamp House, built in 1676 and renovated at later dates. A proposal in the 1770s (when it was owned by Lord Newhaven) to rebuild it to a design by Robert Adam was abandoned, but it was refronted shortly afterwards. It was located in the north-west corner of the square, and had a much smaller frontage than its neighbours, being described by A.I. Dasent in 1895 as "admittedly the worst house in the Square".[23] The Library rented the house from 1845, but in 1879 bought the freehold.[24][25] In the early years, to defray costs, some of the rooms were let to the Statistical Society of London, the Philological Society, and the Institute of Actuaries.[26][27][28]

In 1896–98 the premises were completely rebuilt to the designs of James Osborne Smith, and this building survives as the front part of the present library complex. The facade, overlooking St James's Square, is constructed in Portland stone in a broadly Jacobethan style, described by the Survey of London as "curiously eclectic".[24] The main reading room is on the first floor; and above this three tall windows light three floors of bookstack. Another four floors of bookstacks were built to the rear. In 1920–22, an additional seven-storey bookstack was built further back still, again designed by Osborne Smith. (This new stack was notable for its opaque glass floors: an unforeseen drawback of the combination of glass floors and structural metal shelving was that browsers in the stacks were liable to receive periodic jolts of static electricity, a problem which continues to catch new members unawares, and for which no solution has ever been found.[29]) In 1932–34 another extension was carried out to the north, incorporating a committee room (named the Prevost Room, after a major benefactor; now converted to use as a reading room), an Art Room, and five more floors of bookstacks: the architects on this occasion were the firm of Mewès & Davis.[24][30][31]

In February 1944 the northern bookstacks suffered considerable damage when the Library suffered a direct hit from a bomb: 16,000 volumes were destroyed, including most of the Biography section. Although the library reopened in July, repairs to the buildings were not completed until the early 1950s.[24][32][33]

Following World War II, the Library continued to experience a need for increased space, although the practical possibilities for expansion were limited. A mezzanine was inserted within the Art Room in the early 1970s; four floors of bookstack were constructed above the north bay of the reading room in 1992; and in 1995 the Anstruther Wing (named after its benefactor, Ian Anstruther) was erected at the extreme rear of the site, a nine-storey building on a small footprint designed principally to house rare books storage.[34]

View of the library buildings from Mason's Yard. The lighted windows at centre left include those of the Writers' Room (the northern reading room) on the first floor, with the 1992 bookstack above. The darker brick building to the right is T.S. Eliot House.

In 2004, the Library acquired Duchess House, a four-storey 1970s office building adjoining the north side of the existing site, which increased overall capacity by 30%.[35][36] The building was renamed T.S. Eliot House in 2008. The opportunity was taken for a major rationalisation and overhaul of the greater part of the library's premises. Staff activities were concentrated in T.S. Eliot House (freeing up space in the older buildings for book storage and members' facilities); a new reading room was inserted in a lightwell; the Art Room was completely restructured and redesigned; the main Issue Hall remodelled; new circulation routes created; and other alterations made elsewhere. The first phase of work, the modification and refurbishment of T.S. Eliot House, was completed in 2007; and the second phase in 2010. The architects for the redevelopment were Haworth Tompkins with Price & Myers acting as consulting structural engineers; while the toilets were designed in collaboration with Turner Prize-winning artist Martin Creed.[37][38]

The London Library's copy of a book by Patrick Leigh Fermor on location, Morea, August 2007


In 1903 the annual membership subscription was £3. Around the time of the First World War it was £3 3s, with an entrance (joining) fee of £1 1s. During the 1930s it was £4 4s with an entrance fee of £3 3s, and fees remained at this level into the 1950s.[39] (In fact, by 1946 the joining fee had fallen to £2 2s, although by 1951 it had returned to £3 3s.) In November 1981 the annual subscription was £60. In the wake of the acquisition of T.S. Eliot House, it was raised dramatically in January 2008 from £210 to £375 (with no initial fee, and certain concessionary rates).

As of March 2015 the annual fee for Individual membership is £485. Concessionary rates include Young Person's membership (£243), Spouse/Partner membership (£243) and Carlyle membership (a reduced fee for those unable to afford the full rate). Life membership is available, on a scale depending on age; and corporate bodies and other institutions may also join.[40]


The Library has a Corporate Patron scheme offering benefits including exclusive hire of the Library for private events. The Founders' Circle is a group dedicated to supporting the running of the Library: named in honour of the first 500 members who set the Library on its feet in 1841, the members of the Founders' Circle meet at a variety of exclusive events through the year.

Individuals can also support the Library by donating to The Book Fund or taking part in Adopt a Book schemes, whereby members can adopt new, favourite or rare books in the Library.

Awards and competitions

In 2011 the Library launched its Student Prize, a writing competition open to final-year undergraduates at higher education institutions in the UK. The theme was "The future of Britain lies with the right-hand side of the brain", and the winner was announced in March 2012 as Ben Mason, a student at Trinity College, Oxford.[41] The prize was awarded for a second time in 2013, but has now been discontinued.

Cultural references

A London Library book, Gothaisches Genealogisches Taschenbuch der Freiherrlichen Häuser, Justus Perthes, Gotha, 1910. This one has been out since 2009. (Photo: 14.4.2014).

The Library has featured in a number of works of literature and fiction.[42]


Shortly after the Library's foundation, Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother; and Queen Elizabeth II.[48]


The office of President of the Library has been held by the following:[48]

Vice-presidents have included Lord Lyttelton, Sir Isaiah Berlin, Sir Rupert Hart-Davis, Lord Kenyon, Lord Rayne, Hon. Sir Steven Runciman, Dame Veronica Wedgwood, and Dame Rebecca West. Trustees have included Philip Ziegler, Correlli Barnett, Bamber Gascoigne, Lewis Golden, John Gross, Duff Hart-Davis, Sir Charles Johnson, Sir Oliver Millar, Anthony Quinton, Christopher Sinclair-Stevenson, and Claire Tomalin.


London Library's copy of Lady Wilde's Ancient Legends of Ireland, 1888, in 2014.

The office of senior librarian (historically known by the title of Librarian and Secretary, but in recent years simply as Librarian) has been held by the following:[48]

  • John George Cochrane, 1841–1852
  • William Bodham Donne, 1852–1857
  • Robert Harrison, 1857–1893
  • Charles Theodore Hagberg Wright, 1893–1940
  • Christopher Purnell, 1940–1950
  • Simon Nowell-Smith, 1950–1956
  • Stanley Gillam, 1956–1980
  • Douglas Matthews, 1980–1993
  • Alan Bell, 1993–2001
  • Inez Lynn, 2002–

See also

  • List of organisations in the United Kingdom with a royal charter


  1. ^ "Libraries." City of Westminster. Retrieved on 21 January 2009.
  2. ^ London Library: 2011-2012 Annual Report and Financial Statements
  3. ^ T.S. Eliot, A Presidential Address to the Members of the London Library, July 1952: reproduced in McIntyre 2006, p. 33.
  4. ^ The London Library, Registered Charity no. 312175 at the Charity Commission
  5. ^
  6. ^ Grindea 1978, pp. 9–13
  7. ^ Wells 1991, pp. 24–31.
  8. ^ Wells 1991, pp. 26–31.
  9. ^ "History of the Collections". The London Library. 
  10. ^ Wells 1991, pp. 188–202.
  11. ^ Hart-Davis, Rupert (1998). Halfway to Heaven: concluding memoirs of a literary life. Stroud: Sutton.  
  12. ^ Rayner, Jay (26 May 2002). "There was a bookish man". The Observer. Retrieved 9 July 2015. 
  13. ^ Murray, Stuart (2009). The Library: An Illustrated History. New York, New York: Skyhorse Publishing. 
  14. ^ Murray, Stuart (2009). The Library: An Illustrated History. New York, New York: Skyhorse Publishing. 
  15. ^ Murray, Stuart (2009). The Library: An Illustrated History. New York, New York: Skyhorse Publishing. p. 271. 
  16. ^ "E-library". 
  17. ^ "The London Library online catalogue - basic search". 
  18. ^ Grindea 1978, p. 91.
  19. ^ Quoted in Wells 1991, pp. 224–5.
  20. ^ Parker, Peter (2008). "A horticultural ramble in the London Library". London Library Magazine 1: 22–25 (22). 
  21. ^ Kneebone, Roger (2015). "Uncertain Territories". London Library Magazine 28: 14–17 (17). 
  22. ^ Wells 1991, p. 57–66.
  23. ^ Dasent, Arthur Irwin (1895). The History of St James's Square. London: Macmillan. p. 127. 
  24. ^ a b c d Sheppard, F.H.W., ed. (1960). "St James's Square: individual houses". The Parish of St James Westminster: Part One: South of Piccadilly. Survey of London 29. London: Athlone Press. pp. 139–42. 
  25. ^ Wells 1991, pp. 66–8.
  26. ^ Wells 1991, pp. 69–70.
  27. ^ McIntyre 2006, pp. 9-10.
  28. ^ Dasent 1895, p. 237.
  29. ^ Wells 1991, pp. 221–2.
  30. ^ McIntyre 2006, pp. 11–19.
  31. ^ Wells 1991, pp. 159–66.
  32. ^ Wells 1991, pp. 178–81.
  33. ^ McIntyre 2006, pp. 19-20.
  34. ^ McIntyre 2006, pp. 22-3.
  35. ^ McIntyre 2006, pp. 23, 39–40.
  36. ^ "Timeline: A fascinating history". London Library. Retrieved 13 January 2013. 
  37. ^ "The London Library (phase 1)". Haworth Tompkins. Retrieved 13 January 2013. 
  38. ^ "The London Library (phase 2)". Haworth Tompkins. Retrieved 13 January 2013. 
  39. ^ Fees are given as £4 4s per annum, and entrance fee of £3 3s, in Harrod, L.M. (1951). The Libraries of Greater London. London: G. Bell. p. 119. .
  40. ^ "Join". 
  41. ^ "London Library Student Prize". Retrieved 29 September 2014. 
  42. ^ Further references are noted in Grindea 1978, pp. 64–5; and in O'Neill, Helen (2015). "Telling stories: the novelisation of the London Library". London Library Magazine 27: 16. 
  43. ^ Conan Doyle, Sir Arthur (1928). "The Illustrious Client". Sherlock Holmes: the Complete Short Stories. London: John Murray. p. 1108. 
  44. ^ Grindea 1978, pp. 35, 65.
  45. ^  
  46. ^ Grindea 1978, p. 14.
  47. ^ Wells 1991, p. 51.
  48. ^ a b c McIntyre 2006, p. 43.


  • (describes the London Library)  
This book includes contributions from D. J. Enright; John Julius Norwich; Miles Kington; J. W. Lambert; John Weightman; A. E. Ellis; Bruce Berlind; Dorothy M. Partington; Stanley Gillam; Douglas Matthews; Michael Higgins; Oliver Stallybrass; Charles Theodore Hagberg Wright; Antony Farrell; Marcel Troulay; and Colin Wilson. The cover was by Nicolas Bentley, and other illustrations include drawings by Edward Ardizzone and Michael Lasserson.
  • Robert Harrison (1875). Catalogue of the London Library (4th ed.). London. 
  • McIntyre, Anthony (2006). Library Book: an architectural journey through the London Library, 1841–2006. London: London Library.  
  • (10 vols.) Includes: Supplement: 1913-20. 1920. Supplement: 1920-28. 1929. Supplement: 1928-53. 1953 (in 2 vols). Subject index: (Vol. 1). 1909. Vol. 2: Additions, 1909-22. Vol. 3: Additions, 1923-38. 1938. Vol. 4: (Additions), 1938-53. 1955.  

External links

  • Official website
  • "In pictures: Behind the covers of the London Library". BBC Radio 4: Today. 29 June 2010. Retrieved 13 January 2013. 
  • Stephen Fry on the London Library [2]

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