The London Library at 175
May 2016 promises to be a special time to celebrate the world of words, ideas and literary invention as The London Library – one of the world’s great literary institutions - gears up for its 175th anniversary.
On Tuesday 3rd May 2016, the Library will be marking 175 years since its foundation in 1841 by Thomas Carlyle and by founder members including Charles Dickens, Harriet Martineau, William Gladstone and John Stuart Mill.
The Library has been at the heart of literary life ever since and its miles of atmospheric bookshelves have provided a unique resource for thousands of members - including an extraordinary roll-call of the world’s leading writers and thinkers.
Our recent news item highlighted the interview given by Helen O'Neill - our Archive, Heritage & Development Librarian - with BBC Radio 4's Broadcasting House, in which Helen talked about our collection of small and miniature books. The full interview can be heard here.
Following the broadcast, Mr Peter Quinn of York has very kindly gifted a little book to the Library that had belonged to his father Frank, who was born in Manchester in 1898 just two years before Queen Victoria died.
Donated to us in his father's memory, "Queen Victoria The Good Queen and Empress" by Eleanor Bulley measures just 2x2.5 inches and is beautifully presented with fancy boards, gilt edges and bound in fine leather binding.
It was published as part of "The Midget Series" by Wells Gardener, Darton & Co in 1901, as a keepsake after Victoria's death. The London Library's first patron was Prince Albert so this little book is a fitting and fine addition to the small and miniature books collection at the Library. It will join over 300 other small and miniature books which span the 16th to the 20th centuries.
We're extremely grateful to Peter Quinn for this touching act of generosity and we're delighted to have this beautiful book joining our small and miniature book collection.
The 5th of December 1898 has a special place among lovers of the printed word as the day when The London Library first unveiled the amazing building in St James’s Square that we recognise today.
The Library (which was founded in 1841) had already been in existence for over 50 years, but it had long outgrown the unappealing Georgian freehold it occupied in St James’s Square and during the 1890s it had successfully raised money for a complete rebuild.
Overseen by President Sir Leslie Stephen (Virginia Woolf’s father) and by Charles Hagberg Wright, the Library’s Secretary and Librarian, work began in 1895 and within three years had seen “the worst house in the square” transformed into the striking building the Library occupies today, with its Portland stone façade (developed as a result of a special fundraising drive), spacious Issue Hall, elegant Reading Room and beloved iron grille floor bookstacks.
The design was the brainchild of architect James Osborne Smith and involved the construction of one of the first steel framed buildings in London. In its cutting edge bookstacks it utilised the latest thinking about the use of steel flooring to achieve the optimum combination of space-saving and strength. The grille floor design was also implemented to aid ventilation – an aspiration which any contemporary user of the Backstacks can testify has not been realised!
Work continued intensively for three years and Leslie Stephen – an early pioneer of Alpine mountain climbing - could regularly be found clambering up the scaffolding to monitor progress.
The opening ceremony was held in the new Reading Room on 5th December 1898. Among the attendees were The Bishop of London; Lord Wolseley (the Commander-in-Chief); Irish historian and political theorist Mr Lecky MP; and the Liberal statesman Robert Crewe-Milnes, 1st Earl of Crewe. Sir Leslie emphasised that the project “was not undertaken from any desire for bricks and mortar, nor with the view of adding to the beauties of London. It was undertaken because of dire necessity”. Quite simply, with a collection approaching 200,000 volumes, the Library had outgrown its premises and “it was necessary to either build or burst”.
The new building immediately caught the public’s imagination. The Times reported that “The reading room which is some 50ft long and excellently lighted, is one of the finest of its kind in London, and the book exchange on the ground floor offers abundant room even for the rush of borrowers on a busy Saturday afternoon.… The iron book stacks, as American librarians call them …are planned to hold the largest possible number of volumes in the available space”.
The Times also praised the new classification system which “reflected great credit on the librarian, Mr Hagberg Wright who has carried it through”.
They concluded: “The transformation is … far more satisfactory than could have been expected. The books, which formerly crammed passages, garrets, and pantries, have now found proper shelf-room in accessible places; the latest methods of arrangement approved by the Library Association have been put in practice; everything is readily under the reader’s hand; the reading room is excellent; and in a word, the London Library is properly housed”.
After three years of hard work – during which, remarkably, the Library closed its doors to members for just three weeks - Sir Leslie Stephen reported with evident relief that they were now emerging from the chaos that had surrounded them for the last few years and he felt sure the public would appreciate the convenience of the new building.
But one person missed out on the accolades. The architect James Osborne Smith did not feature at the opening ceremony and his contribution in developing one of the best-loved libraries in the world was overlooked. Something current users may reflect on as they continue to enjoy the unique building that he designed and that remains strikingly unchanged from the day it was first opened over a century ago.
Thomas Carlyle - writer of works such as The French Revolution: A History - was also the founder of The London Library and this month, the Library’s Collection Care team have started an exciting conservation project to help restore and protect some of the books from his collection.
The books are owned by The London Library and have been on loan to the National Trust so they can be displayed - along with many other of Jane and Thomas Carlyle's possessions - in the drawing room of the Carlyle House at Cheyne Row in Chelsea.
With the house closed for annual winter maintenance and conservation, we're carrying out much needed repairs and conservation to 28 books originally owned by the Carlyles - many of them by classical authors, but some written by Thomas and Jane Carlyle themselves. Our Collection Care team are ready with special Japanese paper and wheat starch paste to give the books a new lease of life so they can safely go back on display at Carlyle's House in Cheyne Row next Spring.
Find out more from our latest blog.
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