The London Library has been a literary institution for 175 years

When Charles Dickens was researching A Tale of Two Cities, his friend Thomas Carlyle picked a selection of books on the French Revolution from the London Library and had them sent round in two carts. Decades later, when Arthur Ransome was in St Petersburg, he would flourish a letter demanding the return of some overdue books in front of whichever policeman, soldier or minor official was obstructing him.

Bearing both the library’s crest and the formidable signature of the Librarian, it was ‘far more useful than any other paper I possessed. At the sight of it opposition wilted’. Even today, fragments of shrapnel have to be picked out of books damaged by the bomb that hit a newly built tower of stacks during the Second World War, devastating Religion.

These are just a few of the stories from the London Library’s 175 years of existence. As a haunt of writers, as well as book-loving members of the general public, it has all the mystique that you would expect of a great literary institution, enriched through occasional appearances in the works of authors whom its shelves have nourished.

But the physical character of the Library, smiling on St James’s Square from behind its quietly idiosyncratic front, hardly needs a novelist to heighten its personality. August, mahogany-panelled public spaces combine with book stacks that resemble the lower decks of a destroyer.

Staff are not now as intimidating as the portly Frederick Cox, a Jeeves-like fixture behind the issue desk for 50 years of the 20th century. J. B. Priestley was among the writers too popular to meet the high standards required for his approval. Asked to repeat his surname louder when signing out a book, the great littérateur did so. On which Cox enquired: ‘Initials?’

The ghosts alone are enough to inspire awe, but the stories tend to miss the point of the London Library. Arcane, even dotty though it may appear at times, it is and always has been as up-to-the-minute as any resource for the serious reader could be. At one level, the needs of today are oddly similar to those faced by Carlyle when he founded the London Library or, to be more accurate, re-founded a defunct 18th-century institution in 1841.

Although many public libraries have become a cross between coffee shops and computer suites, in which the printed word plays a declining part, the London Library continues, in the words of the Librarian and Chief Executive Inez Lynn, the first woman to hold the role, ‘what we have always been’, adding half a mile of books to its collections every three years.

Regular users of the British Library, who have taken to complaining about the number of students now crowding it, might well sympathise with Carlyle’s tirade against the ‘snorers, snufflers, wheezers, spitters’ who occupied its predecessor at the British Museum. Besides, a reference library can only provide books during opening hours. By contrast, nearly everything at the London Library can be taken out to be read at home (books are even posted to country members). Readers can find books themselves, on open shelves, and roam at will through a whole subject category, discovering treasures they might not otherwise have known existed.

In the 19th century, Carlyle’s inspiration fired the literary colossi of the age, from Tennyson and Dickens to Gladstone and George Eliot. Donations and an increasing membership saw the Library grow, to the point that the corner it occupied in St James’s Square from 1845 the ‘worst house in the square’, as the biographer and antiquarian A. I. Dasent described it became inadequate.

In 1896–8, the house was rebuilt, with a stately reading room on the first floor, lit by three tall windows a departure from the Georgian pediments elsewhere in the square.

These appear, at first sight, to be off-centre, because the façade in which they are set seems to continue across the full width of the plot; the cornice of its neighbour, built in the 1730s, projects in front of it as though it came later, rather than vice-versa. Leather armchairs, the comfort of which is apt to overwhelm some members after lunch, preserved something of the domestic character.

The architect, James Osborne Smith, had previously done some refitting of the Bodleian Library in Oxford. Now obscure, his name deserves to be better known, because the new London Library may have been nothing less than the first steel-framed building in London predating the more familiar claimant to that title, The Ritz, by a decade. The frame seems to have been made of book-stacks, supplemented by columns. To reduce fire risks, iron had been associated with library architecture since Henri Labrouste’s Bibliothèque Ste-Geneviève in Paris of 1838–50, but Smith’s work must have seemed radical to readers. As collections grew, so did the need for book stacks.

The Library expanded backwards and sideways, to the point that it now occupies the site of what were seven separate properties bet-ween St James’s Square and Duke Street. These piecemeal additions have created a warren of spaces, navigated by means of ancient finger signs and notes posted by librarians. Readers may occasionally be baffled, but most would probably not want it any other way. We appreciate, even relish, the quiddity. But we’ve been grateful, too, for the enhancements made by the architects Haworth Tompkins, which won the company a RIBA award.

The interventions have been made in materials and colours that echo the Library’s existing character, established largely in the 1890s and 1930s. More is planned. Some of this will occupy, so to speak, a virtual space, as the Library offers access to more publications online. Those of us who can remember when the catalogues, in printed form, pasted into huge, red-leather volumes that fell open with a thump, were supplemented by a card-index system, are amazed by the new digital catalogue, which searches every resource available to members, not only printed books, but the millions of articles available through the internet.

Carlyle would surely be pleased, however, to hear that the Library remains just as committed to the printed word as it was in the Victorian period. Not only are e-books unsuitable for some purposes, they are also ‘a much less attractive purchasing proposition’, since the licence for them will expire after 10 or 15 loans. Print, by contrast, does not die until the book physically disintegrates and, even then, the London Library has a team of five conservators to prolong life.

There is no sign of print publishing significantly declining in activity, hence the need for yet more shelf space a fundraising campaign is underway to cater for the next 30 years. The much-loved 1890s book stacks, in proximity to some alarmingly primitive-looking pipework and ducting, are also due for refurbishment.

Where once, not so long ago, the reading rooms were deserted, they are now busier than at any time in living memory. This is unexpected, given not only that the Library’s books can be read at home, but also that more work is done on screen. Part of the answer may lie in the attractiveness of the rooms and their equipment; the Sackler Study, with its Robert Adam fireplace from Shelburne (later Lansdowne) House, is an example. But Dr Lynn thinks there is another reason: ‘The more people can research independently on screen, the more they want to be with other people.’

Future plans include a larger members’ room for talks and socialising; Scrabble nights are expected to be hard fought. An encouraging phenomenon is the Library’s popularity among young people, who take advantage of the subsidised subscription for under-25s. The bookish older person may keep a good thing to himself, but ‘the young tell their friends’, says the Librarian. The London Library is in safe hands.