As Open House 2014 approaches, The London Library will once again open its doors to the public and showcase the building’s architectural history. It’s the fourth consecutive year the Library has taken part, and along with hundreds of other inspiring buildings across the capital, the Library will be offering tours to non-members that will provide a fascinating insight into one of the world’s largest independent lending libraries. Not everyone managed to get a place on this year’s tours, so we’ve put together a brief history of this historic building.

The London Library is a mere stone’s throw away from the hustle and bustle of Piccadilly. Yet quietly tucked behind it’s façade in the north-west corner of St James’s Square, is a building which houses over one million books on 15 miles of shelves spread across a labyrinth of disparate buildings which have been acquired over the Library’s  173 year history.

The origins of The London Library…

Founded in 1841 by Thomas Carlyle, The London Library was originally based at 49 Pall Mall in rented rooms with a part-time Librarian. It wasn’t until 1845 that The London Library moved to its present location at 14 St James’s Square. Since then the building has continued to change and grow as the demand for space to house an ever growing collection of books and periodicals has increased.

The London Library’s current location in St James’s Square was originally the site of a Georgian townhouse, Beauchamp House, which was built in 1676 and renovated at later dates. A proposal in the 1770s to rebuild it to a design by Robert Adam was abandoned, but it was refronted shortly afterwards. It is often noted that the frontage of The London Library is smaller than its neighbours, as was described by A.I. Dasent in 1895 as “admittedly the worst house in the Square”. The Library rented the house from 1856, and in 1879 bought the freehold.

1890s – 1920s: James Osborne Smith and the Book Stacks…

At the turn of the century, the building was entirely demolished and rebuilt to the designs of James Osborne Smith. The façade, overlooking St James’s Square, is constructed in Portland stone in a broadly Jacobethan style, described by the Survey of London as “curiously eclectic”.

The main reading room is on the first floor looking out over St James’s Square; and above this, three tall windows which light three floors of book stacks. Another four floors of book stacks were built to the rear. The book stack, known as the ‘1890s Stacks’, are Victorian metal frames and grille floors which still house some of the Library’s Science & Miscellaneous, History and Topography collections.

Tony McIntyre, architect and author of The Library Book, explains:

“The steel grille floors of the 1890s stacks, while unfriendly to anything but the most sensible footwear, are a triumph of practicality. Air circulates freely, light can permeate several floors and the structure is extraordinarily strong; the book stacks themselves are load bearing, meaning that this part of the Library truly is ‘made of books’.

The unusual architecture and magical atmosphere of the 1890s stacks also make them a firm favourite with photographers and television makers: Spooks, The Culture Show’s World Book Night special, and even an episode of New Tricks have all been filmed here.”

Osborne Smith was also responsible for an additional seven-storey book stack, built further back still in the early 1920s.

1930s – 1950s: Extensions and the effects of the Second World War…

Between 1932 and 1934, further extensions were carried out to the north of the building by architectural firm Mewès & Davis. During this period a new committee room, an Art Room, and five more floors of book stacks were incorporated.

In the first few months of 1944, substantial German air raids resumed on London in the so-called ‘Little Blitz’. In February, the northern book stacks suffered considerable damage when the Library received a direct hit from a bomb. 16,000 volumes were destroyed, including most of the Biography section. The Library reopened in July 1944, yet repairs to the buildings were not completed until the early 1950s.

1970s – 1990s: Further extensions…

The London Library never discards a book from its collection while acquiring books at the rate of some 8,000 volumes a year, and as a result, the Library continues to need ever expanding space for its growing collection. In the 1970s when expansion options were limited, development included a mezzanine constructed in the Art Room; four floors of book stacks constructed above the north bay of the Reading Room in 1992; and in 1995 the Anstruther Wing was erected at the rear of the site, a nine-storey building on a small footprint designed principally to house rare books.

2000s and the Future: The 21st Century Capital Campaign

In 2004, the Library acquired Duchess House. This four-storey 1970s office building, adjoining the north side of the existing site, was refurbished and renamed T S Eliot House in 2008. This was the start of an ambitious project of two stages encompassing four distinct construction phases. The first two phases of Stage 1 remodelled and integrated the T S Eliot House with the existing Library site, completed by Haworth Tompkins Architects to great acclaim and winning a number of architectural awards in 2011.

The refurbishment of the Reading Floor completed Stage 1 in summer 2013, and in 2014 the Library won RIBA London and National Awards for the architectural excellence of its designs. RIBA also shortlisted the Library as one of four projects for the RIBA London English Heritage Award for Preserving the Historic Environment.

The Library is now working towards the second stage of its Capital project plans. This will see the creation of The Andrew Devonshire Reading room – a modern complement to its Victorian counterpart on the first floor, and a new Members’ Room which will lead on to a roof garden offering views over St James’s Square and across to the Palace of Westminster and the London Eye.

Further Reading
Library Book: An Architectural Journey through The London Library by Tony McIntyre, London: The London Library, 2006 (available to buy online)

Securing our future: The 21st Century Capital Campaign

The London Library Façade

The London Library Façade

Lord Anson's House St James's Square

Lord Ansons House St James’s Square

The Reading Room Fireplace

The Reading Room’s Fireplace

The Reading Room

The Reading Room

The Stacks

The Stacks

The Stacks

The Stacks

The Art Room

The Art Room

The Sacker Study

The Sackler Study

WW2 Bombing Damage to the Library

WW2 Bombing Damage to the Library

The Wrtiers' Room

The Writers’ Room

The Reading Room

The Reading Room

The 21st Century Capital Campaign

The 21st Century Capital Campaign

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Many of you will have read in the Winter 2012 issue of The London Library Magazine that a substantial refurbishment of the Library’s Victorian Reading Room and North Bay will take place this summer. This latest phase — Phase 3A — of our capital project will see the creation of additional study spaces in both rooms and improved facilities for our members. Mary Gillies, Reader Services Manager, explains the ‘what’ and ‘why’ of the preparation work beginning now.

One of our aims in the lead up to the refurbishment, and throughout the process, is to minimise disruption to members. While both the Reading Room and North Bay (soon to be known as the Writers’ Room) will have to be closed for a short time — watch this space for dates, which will be given well in advance — we will ensure that Reading Room and North Bay materials remain on site and on open access, not in storage or locked away. We have identified pockets of space throughout the Library where we can relocate books; identifying heavily used items and making these readily accessible, trying our best to keep similar types of material together and choosing the most suitable available space for each. An example of this is the planned move to bring different sized Reading Room atlases to open access shelving in The Times Room, where they will be easier to browse and consult using the upright angled bookrests. We will also try to maintain a relevant and useful collection in the Reading Room and North Bay for as long as possible before work commences.

As part of this work you may see a variety of staff members in unusual positions as they crawl, with as much dignity as possible, around the Reading Room and North Bay floors, and in and out of cupboards, pencil and paper in one hand and tape measure in the other. A large part of ensuring that we can keep this material on site and in a logical fashion relies on us knowing that each section we identify to move (often filled with various size books) fits where we want to put it, with regards to height, depth and width!

As you can probably imagine, this is a mammoth task that will require careful planning and organising to ensure that stock movement is logical and easy to follow for both members and staff. Over the coming months, as different material is moved from the Reading Room and North Bay, we will keep you informed with new or updated signage within the building, up to date information on the Phase 3 section of our website ( and regular posts here on the blog. Please feel free to ask a member of staff to show you to the new location for something you are trying to find or to retrieve any items for you; there will also be an explanatory feature on Phase 3A in the Spring 2013 issue of The London Library Magazine, which will reach members in mid-March.

There are very exciting things ahead which will make using the Library an even better experience for all. We look forward to sharing updates and providing you with all the practical information you will need over the coming months!

If you have any questions or comments about this ongoing work or about the planned refurbishment, please  or contact the Development Office on (020) 7766 4704.

This short film gives an inspiring overview of the Library’s redevelopment, including both completed and planned phases. Librarian and CEO Inez Lynn, London Library President Tom Stoppard and architect Graham Haworth outline the Library’s vision for its future:


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Posted by on in Architecture

When we show prospective new members around on our Monday evening tours, one part of the Library always elicits gasps of wonder, and sometimes even a little vertigo: the 1890s stacks, part of the section of the building we refer to as the Back Stacks (a PDF map of the Library can be downloaded here).

What’s so special about the 1890s stacks? Architect Tony McIntyre, author of The Library Book, explains:

Home to some of our Science & Miscellaneous, History and Topography collections, the steel grille floors of the 1890s stacks, while unfriendly to anything but the most sensible footwear, are a triumph of practicality. Air circulates freely, light can permeate several floors and the structure is extraordinarily strong; the book stacks themselves are load bearing, meaning that this part of the Library truly is ‘made of books’. The unusual architecture and magical atmosphere of the 1890s stacks also make them a firm favourite with photographers and television makers: Spooks, The Culture Show’s World Book Night special and even an episode of New Tricks have all been filmed here.

The 1890s stacks aren’t just a labyrinth in which to browse and retrieve books, since reader spaces are dotted here and there for those who prefer the solitude of an isolated desk over the quiet communality of one of our Reading Rooms. The floors clank periodically as other members browse, layers of signage reflect the Library’s rich history, and shelves and shelves of books are within reach. For many Library members, this combination is just what they need to press on with reading, writing, studying or simply thinking.

And if you’re wondering what curiosities the oddly named Science & Miscellaneous section might hold? That’s a subject for another blog post – come back soon to read more!

…Everyone who steps off the half-landing of the main staircase into Science & Miscellaneous for the first time is astonished by the sudden break from mahogany panelling to cast- and rolled-iron, revealed in all their cold nudity. Here is a forest of densely packed, light iron columns, running up through four storeys to support a roof, and on the way supporting three grilled cast-iron floors, each only an inch in thickness. And the forest is solidly in-filled with books.

The 'Back Stacks'

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