'The London Library.
The London Library is, I believe I am right in saying, the world’s largest independent lending library. Which is to say it is not affiliated to a university, it is not owned or subsidised by any local council, by government or any public body. It was founded by, amongst others, that monumental man of letters Thomas Carlyle. The list of current and past members is astonishing. Darwin, Dickens, Gladstone, Thackeray, George Eliot, Virginia Woolf, Winston Churchill, Agatha Christie, Rudyard Kipling, J. B. Priestley, T. S. Eliot … and these days members include its president Tom Stoppard, and writers like Sebastian Faulks, A. S. Byatt, Claire Tomalin, Simon Shama and, even, er, me.
You wouldn’t believe that its modest entrance (well I agree it’s a grand address, but there is a more discreet back door in Mason’s Yard behind) could reveal so remarkable and beautiful a building.
There are fifteen miles of shelves containing over a million books dating back to the very beginning of printing: you can clamber across the marvellously mysterious original 1890s catwalks and gantries or luxuriate in the light and modern Art Room. They never throw a book away and there are NO FINES! You can keep a book as long as you like or until another member asks for it, in which case a polite letter will ask if you could return it at your earliest convenience.
You don’t have to live in London, in fact a third of the over 7,000 members live outside the city. There’s a postal loans team who’ll send you the book you want, and there are unique internet archives (including every past edition of the Times newspaper as well as dozens of scholarly journals and databases).
One of the miracles of this unique institution is the quality of the staff. They seem to know where everything is and will hunt down what you’re after with zeal and good humour. Some of the cataloguing is inspired. The Science and Miscellaneous collection is especially highly prized. Books about Coffee, Explosives and Dreams jostle happily alongside works on Home, Duels, Yachts and Cheese.
You can bring in your laptop and find just the cranny, desk, table or sofa where it best suits you to work, study, chase ideas or dream.
If the subscription is beyond your reach I’m sorry to have tempted you, but maybe it won’t always be thus, and maybe you can save up or hint to an aunt or uncle… there are student prizes offered too.
Anyway. I have no vested interest in getting you to join other than the enthusiasm that anyone who enjoys something is anxious to communicate.
Overgenomen van Stephen Fry's blog over goed bewaarde geheimen in Londen. En wat voor een bibliotheek, nog nooit een boek afgeschreven en geen boetes!