Wednesday, March 24, 2010

London Library Lightens Up

The London Library, 14 St. James Square.
(Image Courtesy Of The London Library Website.)

Remember the hedge maze in Stanley Kubrick's film The Shining? Acres of impenetrable green walls, artfully arranged to bedevil intrepid explorers determined to find the calm, cool center of a secret, secluded space. Each new corner promises one more step towards the goal, but more often that not results in yet another dead end. But even those dead ends have a certain beauty. Each is a quiet oasis among the leaves, often with a marble bench on which to rest and reflect before continuing the journey to the end of this botanic rainbow. Now imagine a library that over time became just like that labyrinth. Miles and miles of never ending bookshelves arranged with such baffling intricacy that finding a specific book is more challenging than getting to the center of a hedge maze. Actually there's no need to imagine it. Just pay a visit to the London Library at St. James Square.

The St. James Entrance To One Of Nearly A Dozen Levels Of Book Stacks
(Image Courtesy Of The London Library Website.)

The London Library bills itself as "a university library for people who are no longer at university." It is the largest independent lending library in the world, with over one million books and periodicals housed on some 15 miles of open-access shelves. Over 95% of the collection may be freely browsed, and 97% is available for loan. The central tenet of the library is that since "books are never entirely superseded, and therefore never redundant, the collections should not be weeded of material merely because it is old, idiosyncratic or unfashionable: except in the case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 exact duplication, almost nothing has ever been discarded from the library's shelves." This has resulted in a library chock-full of books, ten floors of them and growing, with another half-mile of shelving required every three years. And all of this in a library that has been located in the same London townhouse on posh St. James Square since 1845.

Does This Look A Bit Confusing? Vintage Signage At The London Library.
(Photo Courtesy of Jake Tilson of Haworth Tompkins.)

The doors of the London Library opened on May 3, 1841 at Number 49 Pall Mall, the first floor of The Traveller's Club, with a mere 3,000 volumes. Its first location consisted of three rooms and a coal cellar. It was founded by historian, biographer, and world-class curmudgeon, Thomas Carlyle. He became disenchanted (to say the least) with the British Library's closed stacks and non-circulating collection. In a move that most of us could only dream of, Carlyle decided to found his own library, where open stacks could be perused at leisure, and if by serendipity the perfect volume was discovered, it could be borrowed for a few weeks.

Carlyle's London Library was for members only. Those wishing to enjoy the collection submitted their names to the librarian, who passed them along to a membership committee for consideration. Approved members paid an annual subscription fee. The library began with 500 members including Charles Dickens, William Makepeace Thackeray, and William Ewart Gladstone. In what was a portent of the shape of things to come, by 1845 the Pall Mall location was outgrown, and the London Library moved to its present St. James Square address.

A Section Of London Library's Book Stacks, Unchanged Since 1898.
(Image Courtesy Of The London Library Website.)

The St. James Square townhouse was originally rented, but was purchased outright in 1879. This allowed for a higgledy-piggledy, hodge-podge of additions over the years to accommodate its ever-growing collection. The building was entirely reconstructed in 1896-98, becoming one of the first steel-frame buildings in London. Major additions, accomplished by purchasing adjacent buildings and real estate, took place in 1913, 1931, 1995, and 2004. The library eventually snaked the width of an entire city block, through various buildings and extensions, from St James Square to Duke Street.

The Library Survived Bomb Damage In 1944.
(Image Courtesy Of The London Library Website.)

The result of over 160 years of expansion is a jumble of intertwined buildings and assorted extensions, assembled piecemeal and jammed into the property behind the library's genteel facade. Books are spread over nearly a dozen uneven, mismatched floors in rooms marked by hidden nooks, crannies, and alcoves, and linked together by narrow corridors, gloomy passageways, and clattering iron staircases. Members often rely on the institution's librarians not only for bibliographic advice, but also for simple directions. Now all of that is about to change.

The Main Reading Room Of The London Library.
(Image Courtesy Of The London Library Website.)

The London Library, a monument to its mid-nineteenth century founders, with iron grille and opaque glass floors, leather armchairs and leather-bound books, and a unique cataloging system devised in the late 1800's, is about to move into the 21st century. For the first time, an architect with a complete plan for the entire property is in the process of giving this great Victorian lady a makeover.

A Section Model Of The Remodeled London Library.
(Image Courtesy Of Haworth Tompkins.)

London-based architectural firm Haworth Tompkins has made it their business to reorganize this labyrinthine library so members might find a particular book without risking the fate of Jack Nicholson in Kubrick's hedge maze. The 25 million dollar remodeling project is one of the largest ever devised for a historic London building. Design and construction problems have been monumental. The library staff have insisted that the building remain open, and the entire collection accessible, throughout construction. Firm constraints were placed on the number of hours construction noise would be tolerated. (For example, 10 AM to Noon, and 2 PM to 4 PM are designated "quiet times" each day.)

The Library's Skylight Before The Face Lift.
(Image Courtesy Of The London Library Website.)

The logistics involved in working at a site surrounded by valuable books, and their very particular readers, are only half the battle. The Library's location, amidst an upper crust neighborhood full of luxury high rises, allows for only very limited access for dozens of workers and their machinery. The site has almost no storage space suitable for building materials. Additionally, all areas of the existing buildings must either remain accessible despite the on-going work, or have all volumes relocated before being closed off. Quite a tall order for those tasked with a tremendous transformation.

The Skylight Area Post-Op.
(Image Courtesy Of The London Library Website.)

The first two phases of the London library's face lift have been completed. (Two further stages are yet to come.) An all new reading room especially designed for the library's bound volumes of the London Times is up and running, complete with custom-made reading tables and movable shelving. A central skylight has been removed and replaced by a two story glass roofed reading room for the periodicals collection. The "Issue Hall" (what we on this side of the pond call a "circulation desk") and main reading room have been lightened and brightened through the removal of structures added as passageways to the book stacks. These walkways have been replaced by new elevators and ramps to provide wheelchair access. The Library's original Victorian main staircase remains unaltered, and the architect is determined to maintain the great lady's "bespoke grandeur."

The "Issue Hall" Circa 1935.
(Image Courtesy Of The London Library Website.)

All of which should mean members can locate volumes without getting lost in a labyrinth. But one challenge, albeit a charming one, remains. The London Library still uses its own idiosyncratic, arcane cataloging system (.pdf format) created by librarian Charles Hagberg Wright in 1894. Books are arranged by subject according to "shelf marks" (.pdf format) and alphabetically by either author or title within subject section. This is both wonderfully entertaining and incredibly baffling in turn. It leads to such gems (in the "F" section alone) as "Science-Miscellaneous: Falconry see Fowling," "History: Filibusters see Buccaneers, Privateers," and "Science-Miscellaneous: Farriery see Horseshoeing."

Fortunately, The Stacks Will Always Offer Plenty of Places To Get Lost In.
(Image Courtesy Of The London library Website.)

Surprisingly for such a tastefully traditional institution, the London library has an incredibly detailed and multilayered website. (Kudos to web designer Ned Campbell and the firm of Jones LaFuente.) It includes a complete guide to the shelf marks, a detailed history of the institution complete with historic images, and a much needed map of the library's various and sundry reading rooms and book stacks. All of which indicates a desire to help the intrepid reader navigate the maze. Thankfully this does not eliminate the possibility of blissfully meandering through the grand old collection, and intentionally getting lost in a wistful remembrance of libraries past.

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