Wednesday, September 1, 2010

London Library

What is there to say about the London Library? Well, one could start with the fact that they have 15 miles of shelving, add 8,000 new books a year, is one of the only public libraries that receives no public funding and has gifts in the form of illustrations from Roald Dahl, Ralph Steadman and other artistic greats. However, this only scratches the surface of this amazing institution. Its history has strong literary roots, having started out in rented rooms and including members such as T.S. Elliot and Charles Darwin, and their current president is the noted playwright Tom Stoppard. The 7,500 current lifetime members include Members of Parliament and officers in major corporations. Starting out in rented rooms, the original founders tore down the town house in 1890 and installed one of the first steel structures to shelve their materials. In 1920, they added a seven floor extension to the building in order to shelve an additional 200,000 books. With a staff of 60 and many dedicated volunteers, the library is staffed by many dedicated individuals. The library has a unique classification system which was designed by Charles Wright, and divides materials by subject materials without spine labels, instead using shelf labels and organizing books alphabetically by author, or by title if the book has been edited. In addition, there is no distinction between languages in any subject, they must leave space for new materials, add titles as they come and collect materials in 50 different languages The advantages of this system versus Dewey's is their system is easy to browse, covers a wide variety of materials and each new member gets an hour long presentation on how to use it. The disadvantages are that this is not a familiar system for most library users, and the descriptions frequently use Victorian language.

The building housing the London Library is called the Labyrinth owing to its twisting and complex nature. An interesting note, the London Library only buys hardcover editions, only collects written materials and only throws a book away if they have an exact copy. However, they also have considerable resources, including an online catalog, databases and more. Their Arts and Humanities Library includes over 1,000,000 items, 90% of which are available for loan as all stacks are available to members. Subjects for this collection include Literature, Fiction, Art, Biographies, Religion and more. They also collect books about the history of science, but not scientific subjects themselves.

As someone with an interest in archives and special collections, I was particularly interested to see the London Library's conservation department, which started twelve years ago with a six-month contract which discovered a great many problems, including poor shelving and awful accommodations for materials. In response, they brought up all the materials, assessed their condition, assigned them "loan status" to determine whether they could be used (e.g. NFC = Not For Circulation) and created bibliographical entries. Nowadays, they have bookbinders and conservators on staff working in a full conservation studio, use a BASSAir system which cleans all particulates from a book, and have developed organic wheat paste and starch for use in book repairs. In addition, they use a technique called "fowling," which adds aluminum salts to vellum to make it more durable. While the building has no controlled climate, they try to control the atmosphere, but all the rare materials have full climate control with radio telemetry. This year alone, they have had to move 85,000 periodicals or 14 kilometers of shelving to check for errors or defects in the books.

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