Thursday, January 14, 2010

Travels with Alex in British libraries, Part 4: London, Day 3

In which a kind gentleman helps Alex find William Blake, we visit the old publishing 'hood of Paternoster Row, we find commonalities between the library at the National Research Council of Canada and the London Library, and we learn that "bookstore categories" for non-fiction collections isn't a new idea....
(with brief interruptions for the second fire alarm of the trip and, oh yes, theft!).

This day was my day alone in London. Kris and I parted ways for the moment, so I could meet up with the lovely Colette, a dear friend from high school now studying in Plymouth. Well, now it's Dr. Mesher, actually, since she graduated days after this visit! There is something exciting about exploring a city on your own, and I reveled in my hour before I went to meet Colette at Paddington (dear Colette deserves a giant shout-out for taking the train up to London. For the day. From Plymouth. Four days before she defended her viva. Seriously).

I secretly wanted to squeeze in a tour of Shakespeare's Globe that morning, but I thought it might be too tight. I felt badly that the day before, we'd been a stone's throw away in Southwark, at the Tate, without even laying eyes on the theatre. What kind of a daughter/niece was I? At the very least, I figured I could see it, even if the tour was a stretch, time-wise. So off I went, southwards, and quickly discovered that, um, yes, I wouldn't be making that tour...

Oh, look, it's the Globe!

Oh, look! Hordes of schoolchildren!

If there's one thing I have learned from Stratford, Ontario, it's that being in a crowd of 15-year olds can really ruin a good Shakespearean moment (Merchant, 2005, Care and me...).

The new, improved, Zen-like me sighed, dusted herself off, and decided to simply walk across the Millenium Bridge and see what caught her fancy over there. Oh, St Paul's, I forgot about you....

Thus did William Blake and I get introduced. I nipped into the Cathedral (I am pleased to announce the only revolving door I am friends with: great quote, and suitably solemn!) and just sort of breathed it all in. I'm usually good at situating myself, but I got hopelessly lost in the crypt looking for Blake. A dapper older man striding purposefully through on his way somewhere probably less crypt-like observed, "You look like you're looking for something," to which I replied, "I'm looking for Blake" (now, how often do you get to say that?) Off we went (he's in the OBE section, in case that helps you), and I hung out with him for a bit before mercifully coming above ground again (that crypt is a bit stuffy).

Up into Paternoster Square, formerly Paternoster Row (destroyed in the Blitz). Paul Collins talks about this neighbourhood magnificently in The Book of William, painting this picture of booksellers, swindlers and clergy rubbing elbows, with errand boys carrying fresh cuts of meat taking the short way past the Cathedral (which was, actually, through the Cathedral!) He also talks of the Great Fire, and how booksellers, confident St Paul's wouldn't burn, stuffing their wares into the hollows of the crypt. Of course, St Paul's went up (blame Wren, actually), and countless quartos with it. One bookseller, according to Collins, was able to read a book he'd pocketed while fleeing, by the light of the fire alone. I elected for a steamy cup of coffee instead, and then off again to the tube to pick up Colette.

She and I visited the Imperial War Museum, and again, not library-related, but they did an excellent job of exhibiting common, everyday objects to tell a story. Thanks to Megan and Mathieu for the suggestion to visit. We were enthralled by a home-made life vest made by a child's mother for his Atlantic crossing (fleeing the Blitz). The mother instructed her son to wear the vest AT ALL TIMES, even at night; he was told to never take it off. The ship was torpedoed, and few children survived, but he did. Colette and I were having a great time, banging our heads on reconstructed Anderson Shelters, until the fire alarm went off. (Fire alarm #1, by the way, was moments before Kielan and Kate's wedding). What kind of luck did I have on this trip? Actually, don't answer that.

None the worse for wear after 45 minutes out on the street, I made my way back to Paddington, parted ways with Colette, re-united with Kris, and decided to conquer the London Library, the world's largest independent library, as my final library-themed pilgrimage of the trip. Thanks to Diana, this time, for the tip to visit.

The London Library is honestly a hidden gem, tucked into rowhouses in St. James' Square (I got a few good pics, as at right, but check out some great ones on their website here; not to mention wonderful historical photos here). The lovely Suzanne, from the Reference desk, led Kris and I on a tour of the library, which is entering Phase 2 of an $8m remodelling project. I first read about the library here, and then a colleague mentioned I simply must visit it.

Part of the reason for the remodel is that the London Library never withdraws anything; as the website says, "It is a central tenet of the Library that, as books are never entirely superseded, and therefore never redundant, the collections should not be weeded of material merely because it is old, idiosyncratic or unfashionable: except in the case of exact duplication, almost nothing has ever been discarded from the Library's shelves." Imagine the backlist of periodicals! Imagine the historical children's picture books! Another policy is that the collection is almost entirely circulating; 95% of it goes out, actually. Imagine, for a minute, driving yourself nuts looking for a science textbook from the 1950s. Not being a student or faculty member at the university, you can't access their collections. You can, however, join the London Library and borrow General physics : a textbook for colleges by Oswald Blackwood, published in 1943.

The London Library was founded by Thomas Carlyle in 1841; members included Thackeray Dickens, Darwin, Conan Doyle, Sassoon, Churchill, Christie, Sackville-West, Amis, Chatwin and ... Forster! T. S. Eliot was its president for 13 years, starting in 1952. In fact, his widow, Valerie, has donated $2.5m to the current remodelling project, and there is an Eliot Room now.

A few of my observations:
  • As you can see at right above, the London Library shares a feature with the National Research Council library on Sussex in Ottawa: see-through floors! In Ottawa they are glazed glass (too many lecherous scientists looking up skirts); in the London Library, they are a kind of grate.
  • The library has its own (we would say, "bookstore style") shelf mark and shelving system. I explained to Suzanne that many North American public libraries are eagerly adopting similar systems and that the London Library was, thus, trendsetting (albeit unknowingly)! An example from the above PDF: "In History, for example, the shelving sequence begins with H. Abyssinia and runs through all the sub-categories in strict alphabetical order, to end with H. Zululand. In Art, the sequence begins with A. Aesthetics and ends with A. Woodcarving."
  • The majority of the London Library's collections are in the humanities; the Art Room grows at a rate of 68 feet/year! The library also has material in more than 50 languages.
  • Deep breath: there are no fines. In fact, "books on loan are only requested for return to the library when they are wanted by another member." Oh, and they have a postal loans service, which means they will "despatch" (I had to. It doesn't come up much) "books and periodical volumes to members anywhere within Europe, for no more than the cost of the postage."
  • Upon reading the pamphlet I came home with, I was almost moved to tears by this quote from John McNally: "The London Library is a dream of an institution; slim and elegant on the outside, labyrinthine within. It is the stuff of fiction, the gentleperson's Google."
  • From same pamphlet, I have discovered I missed the Heron Allen Collection of the Rubdiyat of Omar Khayyam. Curses!
Can I just say, the members of the London Library are surely kindred spirits, because one of them begins his inscription in the suggestion book with "Three cheers for..." ("all the changes," in case you're wondering, but he goes on to lament the removal of the green chesterfield outside the Prevost room). That would be a passing Forster reference. Can I just move in, please? I'll sleep under the newspaper shelves.

We left the London Library for a short snack at Caffè Nero, and, well, you know how that ended. I tried to think of Helen Mirren's Prime Suspect, and Sherlock Holmes striding through the streets, while I was stuck in Charing Cross Police Station, just to keep myself from utter desolation, but it was not very effective. What's funny (ha.) is that while crunching through my brie and tomato pannini, I was honestly thinking, what a perfect trip. I can honestly say I saw everything and everyone I wanted to. How utterly content I am!

So there is that.

I can't end on that note, so, to close, a parting shot of the locked-tight library at Canada House (Of course I wanted to ask to get in, and of course I tried the door quite emphatically, but I wasn't sure if they'd stall/shred my temporary passport if I made trouble... eep!):

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