Last month, the TV don Tristram Hunt wrote a rather bad-tempered piece for the Guardian complaining about the British Library's decision to allow undergraduates to use its reading rooms. Hunt said the admission of undergraduates, with their 'pubescent histrionics' and chirruping mobile phones, had made it impossible for serious researchers to get any work done.
Hunt's complaints echo those made more than 160 years ago by Thomas Carlyle. By 1841, Carlyle had grown tired of the working conditions in what was then the library of the British Museum, and wanted to take books home with him to Chelsea (the British Museum, like the British Library today, was not a lending library). So, with the help of such luminaries as Gladstone, Thackeray and Dickens, he founded the London Library, on the first floor of a club in Pall Mall. It soon had to move to bigger premises at 14 St James's Square, where it remains today.
Many of those who have joined the London Library since Carlyle's day (including Tennyson, Leslie Stephen, TS Eliot and Tom Stoppard) have not paid their annual fee merely for the privilege of taking books away, but also for the sheer pleasure of wandering the Library's gloomy, labyrinthine stacks, clattering up and down the cast-iron latticed floors.
The iron floors date from a refurbishment overseen by librarian Charles Hagberg Wright in the mid-1890s. Hagberg Wright was also responsible for a unique system of classification, arranging the books as one might at at home. The result was a scheme of eccentric genius that continues today.
One delicious idiosyncrasy of the system is the alphabetically-arranged shelfmark 'Science & Miscellaneous', a repository for books that can't find a place anywhere else - permitting the kind of aimless browsing that's impossible in other libraries. On a recent visit I scanned from 'Insanity' to 'Insects' and 'Insurance'. So next to Henry Yellowlees' 1953 treatise To Define True Madness‚ I discovered Alternative Generations: A Biological Study of Oak Galls and Gall Flies by Hermann Adler (1894) and Insects At Home by JG Wood shelved alongside Edmond About's L'assurance. The Library has a policy of not throwing books out, which preserves what the novelist AS Byatt called the 'felicitous alphabetical conjunctions of Science and Miscellaneous'.
Byatt's Booker Prize-winning intellectual mystery Possessed is partly set in the London Library. In idle moments, I fantasise about writing a literary thriller in which some unfortunate is discovered crushed between the giant rolling cases in the basement (between, say, 'S. Coins &c.' and 'S. Folklore &c.'). At other times I prefer just to pull up one of the leather armchairs in the reading room and doze beneath a copy of the Times. You can't do that in the British Library.