Monday, 10 August 2015

London Library: Accessibility in a subscription library

Dateline: Wednesday, July 1, 2015
Place: London Library
Time: 1:30 - 3 p.m.
Temperature: still 26°C
Song of the afternoon:  Kate McLeod at Rare Books (anything from this album)

I hang my hat on the stand reserved for members' head gear ... remarkable that I don't have to pay for a locker but perhaps this is one of the privileges of belonging to a private institution like the London Library.

Subscription libraries were common in the 19th century but have largely been replaced by public, lending libraries in Canada and the UK.

While it might seem that public libraries are more inclusive--because they are "free"--the organization and development of the London Library collection reminds me that core principles of access are used in many contexts.

British philosopher and essayist Thomas Carlyle and I might have had an interesting conversation about historical practice-- after all, he thought history was the story of "great men" while I write about women whose lives and efforts need to be recognized--but I think we'd agree on the continued importance of lending libraries.

Thomas Carlyle
In the early 1800s, Carlyle wanted to be able to borrow books from the British Museum Library but was unable to do so. The solution? An independent lending library to which he, and other scholars and writers, could subscribe and from which they could borrow core humanities reference materials to use for their work (Phipps, 2006). Although access to such a library would be limited to those who could pay the annual fee, Carlyle was still advocating for greater access to information.

From a relatively small collection that consisted of two rooms of books housed in two rooms in a townhouse in St. James Square, the London Library now has over 1 million volumes, shelved on several floors of the same building and is set to celebrate its 175 anniversary next year.  
St. James Square: filled at lunch time with people and Pret à Manger takeaway bags.
The entrance to the
London Library off the square.

It is still a subscription library but membership is still open to any who can afford the monthly fee of approximately C$80.00. The current library is lovely--steeped in history (e.g., poet T.S. Eliot and Virginia Woolf were members) and offering beautiful spaces in which to work such as the Writers Room as well as the opportunity to consult both general (in three broad areas) and 97% of the collection is available for loan.

Subscription libraries were certainly also open in Canada in the 19th century but have essentially been replaced by both the school and public libraries that were created in the late 19th and early 20th centuries as part of a movement to ensure that "everyone" could borrow books and other materials. I think of these later institutions as offering the greatest access to information and thus the greatest number of opportunities for knowledge creation. However, some of the core practices of the London Library remind me that access is not just about quantity but also about the quality of the reader experience (readers like Joanna Penn in the above video).

There are two aspects of the collection development and management approach at the London Library that resonate with me:

  • One, as Mary Gillies, the current deputy librarian of the London Library, points out, the library has an on-going collection development strategy that includes actively working with members to identify key texts that should be acquired. Not only has this approach specifically resulted in a "famously eclectic" collection (Phipps, 2006) but it also gives members the opportunity to be more involved in the selection of materials that are relevant to them.In my work, I also liaise with "members," i.e., the students and faculty and actively solicit their suggestions for acquisitions to ensure that I acquire important, core texts for specific disciplines. 
         I do have to make sure that my selections are balanced so that an area of specialty for
         one scholar does not outweigh the needs of researchers in general. Nonetheless, I 
         think that my approach and that of staff at the London Library is based on the idea
         that collections need to be built to ensure that readers can find and use the 
         information of interest to them.
  • Two, the London Library has cataloguing and shelving schemes that facilitates browsing and allows members to find materials relatively easily. Mary describes the cataloguing system as "our own." For example, books are classified by general subject subject categories (e.g, History,  and then alphabetically. They are also separated by size (e.g., quatro and folio) in recognition of the need to maximize limited space. Initially, I wondered about whether such a system makes it easier for users to find materials, particularly as it does not seem as detailed as Dewey or the Library of Congress. But, as Phipps (2006) suggests, this system actually encourages readers to browse the shelves, thus facilitating the serendipitous discovery of materials that is critical to identifying relevant information--not all the "good stuff" turns up in a catalogue search.

While I think that public lending libraries, as well as university libraries with liberal borrowing programs, undoubtedly make it easy for the majority of readers to access a significant quantity of materials in Canada and the UK nonetheless I respect the fact that the practices at the London Library are also predicated on a commitment to access to information, albeit at C$80.00 per month (and maybe I pay at least that through my taxes for my local public library?).

Phipps, C. (2006). The London Library. Art Libraries Journal, 31(1), 5-10.

Statista (2015). Statistics and facts on Libraries in the United Kingdom. Retrieved from

Thomas Carlyle. (n.d.). In Wikipedia. Retrieved on July 28, 2015

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