The beginning of May promises to be a great week for book lovers as The London Library marks its 175th anniversary with a major literary celebration in London’s elegant St James’s Square.
From 5th-8th May The Words In The Square festival will feature a memorable line-up of over 50 leading writers discussing writing, history, art, science, memoir and sport. Sebastian Faulks, Nick Hornby, Joanna Trollope and Victoria Hislop join a cast list that includes Claire Tomalin and Hermione Lee. Simon Schama, Bettany Hughes and Anthony Beevor feature alongside Simon Callow and the Library’s President Tom Stoppard. Dillie Keane (Fascinating Aida) joins Eleanor Bron, satirist Craig Brown and mimic Lewis McLeod for a hilarious evening of comedy.
That the Library can share its anniversary in such distinguished company is no surprise as it has enjoyed an association with famous writers, thinkers and commentators ever since it was founded by Thomas Carlyle in 1841.
Carlyle had become intensely dissatisfied with the studying facilities available to Londoners (there were no lending libraries) and was forced to work alongside the “snorers, snufflers, wheezers” in the British Museum reading room. His solution was to set up a lending library of his own. In 1840 he began gathering supporters to generate early subscriptions. Charles Dickens, Harriet Martineau and JS Mill were among them. A rousing speech at London’s Freemason’s Tavern put the project on the map, and there was no looking back.
Throughout its subsequent history the Library has been supported by an impressive range of members – from Charles Darwin, George Eliot and EM Forster, to Virginia Woolf, TS Eliot, and Agatha Christie. A Tale of Two Cities was written with the help of books from the Library’s shelves that Carlyle sent Dickens in a cart; nearly 150 years later Sebastian Faulks’ Charlotte Gray was written with books posted to him in France.
That the Library has remained unchanged in fulfilling the purpose that Carlisle set out for it is perhaps a testament to the enduring affection that so many writers and researchers have held for the place. This is very well reflected by James Runcie (of Grantchester Mysteries) and historian David Kynaston who have co-directed the Words In The Square festival. “For both of us, the Library has been a cherished part of our lives; in the late afternoon of a winter’s day, there are few more evocative sights than turning the corner into St James’s Square and seeing through the lit-up windows those shelves of books: precious objects that the founder, Thomas Carlyle, called “friends that never fail me”.”
Today these friends are in abundance – the Library hosts an astonishing collection of over one million books and periodicals covering over 2000 subjects. Remarkably, 95% of its collection – that dates from 1500 to the present day – can be freely browsed on open shelves and borrowed. With open access to 17 miles of books, and outstanding reading and working spaces The London Library has something genuinely unique to celebrate.