I’m deep in the stacks of the London Library, trying not to get dizzy as I look down into a multistory drop from the iron-grille floor, when an older man approaches me, looking lost. He’s trying to find the music section, located… somewhere in the darkened rows of books. As a visitor to the historic members-only institution, it takes me a beat to realize that not only do I have zero clue where the section might be, it seems unlikely that I’ll be able to navigate my way out of the building’s origami-like interior without help. (Spoiler: I don’t.)
But therein lies the beauty of the London Library. From an idiosyncratic filing system, to a building that encourages exploration, it’s an institution where serendipity and tactile history meet. Which is why it’s the latest selection for Beast Travel’s once a month series on the World’s Most Beautiful Libraries.
The London Library doubles as one of the English capital’s more unassuming institutions, to the point that more than one local friend asked if I meant “The British Library” when I told them where I was visiting. An easy mistake, given that the larger of the two institutions is where the Magna Carta and a number of Beatles manuscripts live. But it’s also an ironic mix-up, since it was the British Library’s policies that first led essayist Thomas Carlyle to found subscription-based London Library in 1841. As library director Philip Marshall explains, his goal was to democratize knowledge by not tying it to a single location by charging members £3 annually for the privilege. (Memberships are now £262.50 annually for members under 29, and £525 for standard full memberships.)
“Before public libraries, you could get books in London from the British Museum or the library at the British Museum,” he says. “But you couldn't borrow it or take it home, you had to go read at the library. And so, a lot of writers and thinkers of the day felt they couldn’t be in the right environment to really get what they needed.”
Tucked into a corner of St. James’ Square, the exterior doesn’t so much scream library as it murmurs anonymous guest house, a remnant of the building’s former life as a private residence. But like Dr. Who’s famous TARDIS spaceship, the library is seemingly bigger on the inside. One million books on 17 miles of shelves are spread out across a cluster of four different buildings, creating a labyrinthine maze that director Philip Marshall says draws Harry Potter comparisons from nearly every visitor—myself included.
The Library has been open consistently for 181 years, closing only for the unprecedented times of World War II, when the central stacks, 16,000 books, and a statue of Carlyle was destroyed, and the COVID pandemic—when our mental health was if not destroyed then at least seriously damaged. However, signs of distress aren’t visible at this point. The bombed-out stacks were renovated into a skylight-lit art book section. And while not all of the library’s 7,500 members have returned to in-person browsing, there are enough people working in the reading room that Marshall’s voice drops to a whisper as we enter.
With its deep red carpet and dark wood walls lined with bookshelves, the space feels like an elevated hall of learning. Established in 1896 by Virginia Woolf's father, the 40-person room has become a library centerpiece, appearing in the opening scenes of A. S. Byatt’s 1990 Booker Prize-winning novel Possession, and later appearing in the 2002 film adaptation. Not that anyone blinks at success. The Library counts 11 Nobel Prize winners among their ranks, and estimates that members publish at least 700 books and 400 scripts per year. As we walk by, Marshall nods to John O’Farrell, the writer behind the Mrs. Doubtfire stage play, camped out at a nearby desk.
But all the current marquee names only scratch the surface, as evidenced by the photos that run along all six stories of the red stairs. While the gallery was installed last year, Marshall notes that there are already plans to swap out portraits so that eventually every notable former member is represented. Thanks to disheveled early records (the deed to the library was recovered in a biscuit tin discovered in a kitchen cupboard), it’s a list that’s still growing as they uncover new documents. But the names that they can account for are impressive. Charles Darwin, an early member, wrote On the Origin of Species with an assist from the library. Alfred, Lord Tennyson, and TS Eliot (who has a room named after him) were all early adopters. Mark Twain briefly joined while living in London. After his death, a quick check of the records proved that, yup—Philip Roth was a member. Stanley Kubrick, Alec Guinness, Agatha Christie, Charles Dickens, we stroll by a murderers’ row of creative minds. Occasionally, how these major names used the library come to light in unique ways. While it was known that Bram Stoker was a member, it wasn’t until 2008, when his notes were published, that they realized 25 books still sitting on the shelves had pages turned down and notes scribbled in them—a light defacement committed while he was writing Dracula in 1897.
The library staff are meticulous archivists, a spirit that’s built into everything they do. For example, the Times Room, which holds 200 years of the historic London periodical—which is how I found out that I was born on a particularly auspicious day for potatoes, Polish leadership, and food poisoning. However, rather than use Dewey Decimal, a method of cataloging used by the majority of libraries, the London Library uses an in-house filing system, driven by alphabetization, that turns other searches into more of a knowledge-based treasure hunt. Which means wildly variant subjects sit next to each other, like dogs, domestic servants, and dreams all appear across a single row of shelves.
“You might look up a book about dancing,” says Marshall. “But there’s the additional bonus of having your eye caught by the next subject, which in this case would be death. And you might just find that interesting. There was a journalist who had to write about a world championship chess tournament, which was happening in Reykjavik. And he didn’t really know where to start, because he didn’t know anything about Iceland. But he didn’t know anything about chess. So, he thought, ‘Well, I’ll go to London Library.’ And then he got in, and he’s confronted with ‘Well, do I go to geography and look up Iceland? Or do I go to chess, in science, miscellaneous?’ So, he decided to go to chess in science and miscellaneous walks down the row, and the first book that caught his eye was chess in Iceland.”
It’s a touch of serendipity that Marshall says will continue to define the library. Google searches are easy—but in a culture craving connection with each other and our history, it doesn’t get more authentic than finding answers at the library that nurtured so many influential thinkers.
“It’s partly the effect of a pandemic,” Marshall. “I expect people are returning to books, which I think is an interesting thing. But they also want something authentic, like the traditional library book, rather than just being able to use the internet to find things. It's something about this place drawing people back, and a lot of young people—which is really exciting for us. We have a very fast growing young person's membership. I think there's something to it. We're excited to get out of our sweatpants and touch real books.”