Orlando Whitfield on the London Library

Although I’ve never visited the London Library, in my time working at a public library, one of my duties was dealing with the inter-library loans. This meant that, every now and then, amongst the stuff from neighbouring counties, I would get to handle more exciting books from the likes of the prestigious Bodleian and London libraries.

One of those books was something that blew my naive little mind: it was a concordance to the works of William Shakespeare. I’d never come across such a thing before, and I was amazed at first at the size of it – roughly 60x40cm and about 20cm thick.

But it wasn’t till I came to open it and realise just what it was. It was an alphabetical list of every word (except a few common ones) Shakespeare used in his entire works. Alongside the words was a legend, providing information as to where, in which work, that word occurred.

It was, in essence, a search engine. A Shakespeare-specific search engine. A big, lovely, hardback, paper search engine.

But enough about me. On my way home from work tonight, I was reading an article on iOS app Read It Later (about which, more, in a few days). It was from the blog of literary publication the Paris Review, and it’s a captivating description of one man’s lifelong love affair with the London Library.

Some bits of Orlando Whitfield’s post that I liked:

I would get up early, eat breakfast in the square, and arrive at the library when it opened. I ate lunch in the square when the weather was good, in the members’ room when it was bad; I smoked cigarettes on the embassy steps; in the evenings, I drank at the Red Lion on Duke of York Street around the corner […] On Sundays, when the library was shut, I was listless. Days among my own books and those of my parents felt inadequate, less nourishing; I longed for Monday to arrive and for my explorations to begin again.

If you borrow an old book from the library, you may go to bed with a volume that Dickens once read by candle light in Doughty Street, or that Eliot read as he walked over the London Bridge.

The library is a place of safety for the bibliophile, and a cooling refuge for the city-heated mind.

On the spine of the book, the title and the author’s name and the date of publication were embossed in sans serif, gold letters. On the front, centered at the top of the board was a green bookplate bearing the name and address of the library. Inside, on the reverse of the front cover, were stuck some extracts from the library’s rules.

Lovely stuff. Pop over and read the rest of the blog post now, if you like: http://www.theparisreview.org/blog/2012/02/28/the-london-library/

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