The London Library has always beguiled readers who love books both as vessels of meaning and as physical objects; readers who love to touch and smell as well as to read. The library has nestled quietly in the north-west corner of St. James’s Square for over 160 years, and its modest façade now hides over a million books. You can measure its holdings in distance rather than number: miles of books, serried ranks of print, line its labyrinthine interior of cast iron floors and solid wooden shelving. A cavernous temple to the printed word, this library is the best place I know of in this part of London to spend a blustery autumnal afternoon, or showery spring morning.
Once inside your most faithful guide is the vast hand-written catalogue of the library’s books, the multivolume book of books, bound in red leather, which sits by the issue desk. It’s wise to consult its pages before setting off like an intrepid explorer into the dark heart of the building, reading the signposts of a unique and esoteric classification system as you go. But still it’s easy to lose yourself in these stacks, easy to become a flâneur of the shelves, drifting from ‘S. Bees &c.’ to ‘Bibliog. Belgian’, from ‘L. American Lit., Hist. of’ to ‘L. Amharic’, from ‘S. Suffrage’ to ‘S. Suicide’ via ‘S. Sugar’, barely registering how you got there, or how you’ll get out. The idiosyncratic cataloguing offers little guidance, but rather draws you ever onward with its silent siren’s call, giving titillating glimpses of new tranches of reading round every corner.
Most great academic libraries divorce their readers from their books, dispassionately delivering up orders via anonymous dumb-waiters and dispensing them, buffet style, from an issuing desk. Such a system denies you that crooked serendipity that is the hall-mark of inspiration, denies you the lucky discovery of a book you weren’t even looking for. The London Library is an institution you can inhabit, explore on your own terms, dwell in. There are parts of this library that I’m sure I’ve never been into before, hidden, creaking corridors and antechambers which defy my navigational ability. The feel is pseudo-industrial with a romantic twist: steam-punk stacks with well worn, stencilled signs on every surface sternly telling you to ‘Turn off the Lights’. Drop a pen here and it’ll clatter down through the grilled floors, falling, seemingly forever, into the chasm that lies beneath you. Feet scuffle on the floors above your head, before vanishing round a corner. Occasionally you come upon a clearing in the forest of shelves, inhabited by some wizened old scholar sitting like a woodland God at a desk hidden deep in the stacks.
It’s the closest thing in the world, I think, to Jorge Louis Borges’ ‘Library of Babel’: a bibliographical universe of seemingly infinite books, inhabited by a confused tribe of wandering bibliophiles. Up in the reading rooms, resting after doing battle with the guts of the building, bewhiskered old members fall asleep in battered leather armchairs, snoring gently. The worst offenders are prodded awake by their neighbours, not in accusation but with a friendly, almost maternal concern. They jerk awake, realise where they are and smile, before drifting gently back to sleep.
Photographs by Paul Raftery (above) and Christopher Simon Syke, courtesy of The London Library.