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)

Facade smallThe 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 grille floor smallin 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”.

Reading Room smallThe 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 Signage smallcarried 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.

Carlyles House smallThomas 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 Conservationoriginally 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.

Little Red Books have been in the news recently with Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell raising eyebrows in the House of Commons by reading passages from Chairman Mao during the Autumn Statement.

Radio 4's Broadcasting House decided to do a follow up and came into The London Library to interview our Archive Librarian Helen O'Neill to find out more about the history and magnificence of small and miniature books.

In a fascinating five minute interview Helen takes us through some of The London Library's collection.

Small books 2 crop

Small books 9 crop

Small books 14

Featured books include 16th century Latin and Spanish Bibles; the UK's smallest authorised Bible, dating from 1896 and coming with its own magnifying glass; and one of our earliest small books printed in 1515 by Aldus Manutius, the originator of the printed pocket book and the inventor of the space saving italic typeface. Helen also discusses the beautifully illustrated A Simple Story by actress and novelist Elizabeth Inchbold.

Describing the collection as "a feast for the eyes" Presenter Paddy O'Connell marvels at some of the craftsmanship on display.Touring the Library, he records the silence in the Reading Room (a creaky floorboard is a good sign of our 175 year heritage!) and delights at the smell of books in the central bookstacks - "the smell here is gorgeous; breathe in this smell and you feel a lot more well-read than when you came in!"

Find out more about our collection of small and miniature books in our latest blog.