The finest place to find yourself in the whole of the capital is in the book stacks of the London Library, best of all on the metal staircase that runs between the topography, history and science and miscellaneous sections. A million books are within your reach: almost everything interesting ever written in English, and several other languages besides. The wonder of the place is that most of this great collection is on open access, and, unlike academic libraries, available to take home. You don't just use the London Library, you explore it. The clanking, slatted cast-iron floors; the long narrow passages; a layout that sends even old hands into literature by mistake when they were seeking biography; the warm, deep scent of carefully bound books; the fact that you can, if you want, read every copy of the Times ever published, on paper: all this is available in return for the membership fee, and can never be replicated by an online search using Google. There is nothing pompous about the place, though it is a private club and has a roll call of famous literary members running back to Thomas Carlyle, who helped found it in 1841.Think of how chronically understaffed, underfunded, and overworked your local library seems when you go in. Have you ever heard a librarian say "I can't believe it. I have all this money to buy books that the question isn't which ones should I get but can I find enough titles to spend the budget this year?" A yearly membership at your local library could go a significant way toward alleviating all the ills that plague the American free library system. I know that this, by definition, smacks of elitism because there will be people who can't pay a fee at all, hence the natural advantage of a free system. But the system has become untenable and in every community across the nation the sands are starting to be washed away from the foundation of the system. Admit it, your local library isn't open as much as you remember it was when you were younger. With a little tweaking and some compromise (the true American gift) there would be ways for anyone who couldn't afford the fee to have it waived. How about 2 hours per month of volunteer time in the library for anyone who can't pay the fee? Every library I have ever set foot in could use some help shelving, alphabetizing, and straightening the shelves. A fee (and volunteer structure for those not able to pay) could go a long way in returning libraries to their rightful place as the cultural heart of a community.
Wait, what?!? "Almost nothing has ever been discarded from the library's shelves." That is awesome and the annual fee goes to directly support the acquisitions and maintenance of a collection which never shrinks. Think about that. Furthermore, assuming you join the London Library, you get to read here:
Over many generations the London Library has been amassing books and periodicals covering every aspect of the humanities to give readers, writers and researchers the riches of a national reference library for use in their own homes or workplaces. The Library's founding principles remain a blueprint for providing the most direct and liberal access to knowledge.
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.
Over 95% of the collections, which now number some one million volumes, is stored on some 15 miles of open-access shelves which may be freely browsed, and over 97% is available for loan. With books dating from the 16th century to the latest publications in print and electronic form, the Library has sought to be contemporary in every age.
In any case, it isn't going to happen here but it might just be the panacea that would cure the entire library system in the United States. For now, I understand the value of the free public library system but sometime in the not too distant future there will be a reason to start instituting a yearly membership fee to guarantee the survival of these institutions. The notion of government support-from local to national-is under siege and it is not out of the realm of possibility that one day libraries won't be supported by the municipalities in which they are located. When that happens they will either shrivel up and die or find a new way to survive. If the library system dies, we're totally fucked.