I Love Libraries!
Winter is still here and this is the time of year when my London tours slow up (even without a pandemic) and few. Normally, January and February are opportunities for me to do some 3-day tours in Paris, a few day tours to Oxford, and then lots of time for admin and paperwork. I always envision that I will spend these months curled up next to a thermos of tea in a library archive, researching away a new topic for a walk that I will launch in Spring. Most of the time, the research can be done at home, which means the library visit is more luxury than requirement. At present, researching via the internet is the only option, and luckily the kettle is always at the ready. With the skies looking so grey and foggy today, and the temperature a high of 5C with rain, staying inside is a sheer delight.
Over the years, the libraries of London have been my home away from home in many aspects. When the recession hit is 2008, I started teaching social media seminars to small business start-ups in libraries all over London. I would arrive a little early before my seminar to browse the rows of books on offer. I am proud to say I have lectured in at least 15 different libraries across London, not to mention visit many of the archives for my own research.
Libraries are an unsung hero in my opinion. If feels like, for a while anyway, that libraries were sort of forgotten gems. I think it is only recently that I have started to see friends who are becoming parents now take children to libraries as a regular outing. Maybe I’m wrong in this, but it felt like for a while, libraries were left out. I remember as a child, my mom took me to the library often. The smell of the books was intoxicating. Something about the aroma of old paper, ink and glue. (Apparently, this is a real scent and you can buy candles in this fragrance!) My visits to the library would start with attending some kind of reading hour and then browsing the children’s shelves for a book or two to borrow. I thought the idea of borrowing a book was so neat. I loved looking at the internal page to see the stamps from previous check-outs. These library outings were before my little brother was born when I was 8, so these memories must be some time between the ages of 5-7. Maybe this is why I hold the library so special, it was with me so early in life.
When I moved to London, our local village had a small library, but there was a larger one down the road, too. I felt spoiled for choice, and the interconnection of the library system meant that if my branch didn’t have a book I wanted, they would send out to another location to get it. What service!
As I enrolled in my City of London guiding course, I spent many days and evenings at the Guildhall Library. The collections here are vast, with most of it underground and not able to browse. This is sad, as they have a very large collection of food and recipe books. Those are the kind that require a look and a pick-up. It is hard to navigate these types of books via their computer system, but their historic collection is second-to-none. I used to take my laptop and find a corner in the Guildhall Library to work. My favourite place to sit was in front of a microphish file drawer that had the label “Titanic Passenger List” on it.
The British Library is this massive temple of reading and knowledge. To be a member, you have to produce a few documents and update your card annually. It is harder to dip into the stacks for a quick look, but it is worth the effort to gain access to such a broad catalog of work. Naturally, the building and atmosphere it evokes is breathtaking, so I always have to plan my time to include at least 15 minutes to gaze and ponder at the beauty of the building.
Tucked away down an alley off of Leicester Square in a building on the former site of a home to Isaac Newton is the Westminster Reference Library. I have held many evening workshops here in their grand room on the first floor amid the fashion and art collection. The library houses a large yet unknown collection of Sherlock Holmes items, and I always tell fans on my tour that they should stop in to look. This library has a telescope lending programme and regular lectures on all types of topics from business skills to their social clubs.
The Edgware Library is so hidden, you really have to watch for the signs or you will miss it. I was browsing their London history section one afternoon (prior to delivering a lecture on networking) and found a fantastic book about the suffrage movement. This book had large photos of the women protesting, sharing their message in the streets, and marching down streets with their signs in the air. In the Kensington Central Library, the decor has a 1950’s throwback vibe which makes me feel like I am in an episode of Mad Men. In the Westminster Archives, I have actually had to curl up to that thermos of tea when the heating was out but I needed to do some research on retail shops in Piccadilly.
London is a librarian’s heaven, where anyone wanting to research anything can find what they need. Of course there is the National Archives and the London Metropolitan Archives for your ‘big research’ needs. There’s The London Library for those who are discerning and enjoy paying membership fees for access. (They have miles of bookshelves tucked into the tiniest corner of St James’ Square. It is remarkable.) Yet, London also has smaller treasures like the Camden Archives and the Southwark Archives where you can drill down to local history in a way that you never imagined.
For someone who is a slow reader, I find libraries comforting. Perhaps that is why I have spend so much time during lockdown in my spare room, staring at my bookshelves, arranging the books in various orders, sitting down and diving into these stacks for hidden gems of knowledge to share with my followers. I hope that you will rediscover your local library and make regular visits to explore the treasure trove within. I believe there is some kind of hidden therapy inside their walls, some sort of soul-healing vapour that can’t be bottled or sold. So, if you are creating a Post-COVID to do list, add “regularly go to the library” to it.