Go through an archway and leave behind the busy city centre, the noise and the crowds, the fast-food outlets and the travel agents. Turn into a doorway and find yourself at a bottom of a grand staircase. Climb up to a set of double doors that open into a Georgian interior with plaster ceilings and eighteenth century portraits. There are bookcases on every wall, a mahogany table spread with periodicals, and red leather armchairs. A cast-iron spiral staircase leads to a gallery lined with yet more books. Through the white-painted sash-windows you glimpse a walled garden. You are in Bromley House, the 1752 town house that is the home of the Nottingham Subscription Library.
There were once hundreds of independent libraries in Britain. Most did not did not survive the twentieth century and the spread of public libraries. Nottingham is one of the thirty or so that remain. I only began to appreciate their full range and their glorious eccentricity when I set about creating my own fictional independent library as the setting for a novel.
Independent libraries can be divided into two kinds. The older ones, such as Chetham’s Library (1653) in Manchester and Innerpeffray Library (c.1680) in Perthside, were founded and endowed by benefactors and tend to be for reference libraries. The others are proprietary subscription libraries, established in the later eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, and it is those that are the subject of this article.
At a time when higher education was limited to a very few and books were expensive, subscription libraries were the plain man and woman’s university. These days books are readily available – from the local public library, from book shops, both real and virtual – and many are cheap. Yet independent libraries still have much to offer readers, and I would argue, writers, too.
For one thing, they are usually governed, even owned, by their members, so they tend to be very responsive to requests for book purchases and relaxed about long loans. I have had books out of the London Library for literally years. They weren’t recalled unless someone wanted them and nobody did want Southey’s 1817 edition of Malory’s Le Morte D’Arthur. On one memorable and embarrassing occasion I asked for a book to be recalled. A few days later a letter arrived asking me to return it: it had been on my shelves for so long that I’d forgotten I had it. That couldn’t happen now that the library is computerised, but the principle still holds. As long as you go on renewing your loan, you can keep the book until someone else wants it.
You can no doubt get the latest crime novel out of your local public, but if like me you also enjoy Golden Age crime fiction, you are more likely to find Anthony Berkeley and Nicholas Blake on the shelves of an independent library, where they tend to hang on to their collections. You can get hold of books that were de-accessioned from your local library decades ago. A book might not have been taken out for fifty years, but no-one would dream of throwing it out. You never know what you will find. For sheer bibliophilic romance what can beat taking a volume from the shelf, as I did with Rose Macaulay’s The Towers of Trebizond, and finding that it had been bequeathed to the London Library by the author and contained her own bookplate?
Of course you can find also pretty much everything in the British Library and the other copyright libraries. I love the British Library and feel like a Renaissance prince with all the knowledge of the world at my fingertips when I am there, but only when I am there. Independent libraries have the edge over research libraries in this: if they have it, you can usually take it home. During my research on stepfamilies in Victorian fiction I’ve been able to stagger away from the London Library with armloads of three-decker novels by Mrs Braddon and Charlotte M.Yonge. Or I can e-mail the library and ask for them to be posted to me. That is one of the benefits of being a Country Member. I can’t help regarding the London Library as the jewel in the crown of independent libraries, but I am treading on dangerous ground here, because independent libraries inspire great affection and loyalty in their subscribers.
And truly all over the country there are wonderful independent libraries with their roots firmly in their local communities. They tend to have excellent regional collections. That’s true, for instance of the Portico in Manchester which offers a biennial prize for the best book with connections to the North West. The Armitt Library in Ambleside (Wordsworth was an early member) specialises in the social and natural history of the Lake District, including early guides to the lakes and Beatrice Potter water-colours. Some collections display an astounding degree of specialisation. The Athenaeum in Liverpool has among other things a collection of seventeenth century grammars of South American Indian languages. The Morrab Library in Penzance holds the Dawson Collection of bound volumes of prints and engravings of Napoleon and his times. St Deinol’s Library in Flintshire is strong on theology. It was founded by Gladstone with his personal library at the core and has this further distinction: it is the only residential library in Britain. Instead of taking the books out, you move in with them at the very reasonable rate of £36 a night (grants are available and there is a discount for members of the clergy).
You might not want to stay overnight, but independent libraries are a boon to the writer who needs to get out the house sometimes – and don’t we all? Some libraries supply lunch, as well as a quiet place to work away from the distractions of home. And they are agreeable places to visit. Listed buildings are the rule rather than the exception and modernisation is kept to a minimum. Leeds Library is still in its 1808 Greek Revival building, the Portico in Manchester still in its Neo-classical 1806 building. Some have lecture programmes and social events just as they did in their heyday. The Portico last year offered the treat of Lancashire hot-pot eaten beneath its splendid domed ceiling followed by a talk about Mrs Gaskell.
Being a member of subscription library is a little like belonging to a gentleman’s club, but it need not cost a fortune. Subscriptions range from £5 to join the Saffron Walden Town Library Society to £195 at the London Library and the writer can set this against tax. One caveat: opening hours are often more restricted than in public libraries. Some independent libraries are closed on Saturdays and generally they do not open in the evening. For further details see www.independentlibraries.co.uk, the website of the Association of Independent Libraries.
Christine Poulson is a research fellow at the Centre for Nineteenth Century Studies at the University of Sheffield and the author of a series of crime novels. The most recent, FOOTFALL, is set in an independent library.
First published in The Author, Winter, 2006, vol CXVII, NO.4
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