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With more than one million books and periodicals in over 50 languages, the collection includes works from the 16th century to the latest publications in print and electronic form.


Sharp-eyed browsers at The London Library will spot a couple of small but not insignificant changes to the Library’s shelfmarks – the system that details how books are categorised on its shelves.

For over one hundred years The London Library has grouped its books by subject and there are now over 2000 separate shelfmarks in its classification systems. Within Religion, there has long been a shelfmark for Holy Water, even though only a tiny handful of books have ever occupied it.  Recently it was decided that the Holy Water collection – four books in total – was too fragile to occupy our general lending shelves and the books have been moved into our Special Collections to give extra protection. The books can still be accessed under consultation but can no longer be borrowed. In the process, the Holy Water shelfmark on our lending shelves will be gently retired.

At the same time, the Library has taken a broader view of Sex. Originally, this category – part of the Library’s Science & Miscellaneous collection - involved a narrowly biological definition; but as the decades have rolled on, the collection has become more diverse and its 500 books now incorporate a much wider range of topics including gender identity and sexual orientation. Accordingly, the Library has recently made a subtle but significant change to the shelfmark – “Sex” will now be “Sex &c.”

Dunia Garcia-Ontiveros, Head of Bibliographic Services, commented: “We adapt our shelfmark systems on an ongoing basis, making adjustments where needed to reflect the ways in which subjects themselves - and the ways in which they are studied - are changing.  While Holy Water can now be better looked after in our special collection, we fully expect Sex &c. to be part of lending life at The London Library for the foreseeable future.”

DesertIslandAs part of the Words In The Square 175th anniversary celebrations we were joined by Ned Beauman, Philippa Gregory, Deborah Levy, John O' Farrell, Nikesh Shukla and Sara Wheeler in a hugely entertaining "Desert Island Books" session chaired by Tom Sutcliffe.

During a fascinating hour the panel was asked to nominate books in different categories that they would take with them as castaways on a desert island. 

 The categories were:

My Favourite Childhood Read

The Book that Most Influenced Me

My Guilty Reading Pleasure

A Former Favourite I Won't Be Bringing to the Desert Island

An audience vote then picked the following category winners:

  • Favourite Childhood Read: “The Secret Garden” by Frances Hodgson-Burnett (nominated by Deborah Levy)
  • The Book That Most Influenced Me: “A Room of One’s Own” – Virginia Woolf (nominated by Philippa Gregory)
  • Guilty Pleasure: “These Old Shades” by Georgette Heyer (nominated by Philippa Gregory)
  • Former Favourite: “Gone with the Wind” by Margaret Mitchell (nominated by Philippa Gregory); joint winner with “1984” by George Orwell (nominated by John O'Farrell)

Recommended Recent Reads

Each member of the panel also selected their recent book recommendations:

  • Family Life” by Akhil Sharma (chosen by Nikesh Shukla)
  • Preparation for the Next Life” by Atticus Lish (chosen by Ned Beauman)
  • Simple Gifts” by Joanne Greenberg (chosen by Philippa Gregory)
  • Beautiful Ruins” by Jess Walter (chosen by John O’Farrell)
  • The Lure of The North” by The London Library/Pushkin Press (chosen by Sara Wheeler)
  • Outline" by Rachel Cusk (chosen by Deborah Levy)

The London Library - one of the world’s great literary institutions – is officially 175 years old today!

Founded by Thomas Carlyle – with support from Charles Dickens, Harriet Martineau, John Stuart Mill and William Gladstone – the Library first opened its doors in 1841. It has been at the heart of UK literary life ever since and hundreds of famous writers have worked here and roamed its famous bookstacks.

Tom Stoppard, the Library’s President since 2002, commented: “For 175 years The London Library has held a special place in the affections of those who love books and the written word. It has stayed true to its purpose and become more than a great library – this is one of the places where literature keeps its soul”.

History pic

On 23rd February 1944 The London Library came within a few feet of being totally destroyed.

The Library had had several near misses during air raids earlier in the war, but that February night its luck ran out. High explosive 500lb bombs dropped from a German plane recorded a line of destruction across St James’s – the first hit the Library, the last exploded in the road outside St. James’s Palace, blowing out ancient glass and destroying the windows of the Chapel Royal.

The Library’s Central stacks took a direct hit, severely damaging five floors of the recently built 1930s stacks plus parts of the Art Room, Prevost Room (now the Sackler Study), Issue Hall and the north bay of the main Reading Room (now the Writers’ Room). Photos of shattered windows and twisted girders provide stark evidence of the bomb’s impact.

02370238 The Sackler Study 1944


Stephen Fry


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