Thursday, 29 October 2009
The Literary & Philosophical Society is one of my favourite libraries. This Newcastle institution is located so close to the Central Station on Westgate Road that the parquet floors resonate when intercity express trains pick up speed on their way to Edinburgh. Now the largest independent library outside London, the Society was founded in the tumultuous 1790s as a ‘conversation club’, with an annual subscription of one guinea.
From its outset, the Society had an enterprising, inquisitive and liberal nature: the first women members were admitted by 1804, and various groundbreaking demonstrations of new technology took place, such as George Stephenson’s miners’ safety lamp in 1815. In 1820, The Newcastle upon Tyne Society for the gradual abolition of Slavery in the British Dominions was established at a meeting held in the Society’s rooms. The lecture theatre was the first public room to be lit by electric light, in a demonstration by Sir Joseph Swan on October 20th 1880.
The library collection now holds 150,000 volumes. The first catalogues were sorted by the size of the books, which would have been serious and improving works, such as the industrial treatises pictured above. It was only in 1891 that the decision was made to purchase novels; nobody seemed any the worse for this radical move excepting possibly, as one distinguished member pointed out, “those unfortunate enough to read them”. Novels now form a significant part of the collection, including an ever-expanding choice of contemporary literature. Even so, my favourite pursuit is to turn for entertainment to the older books which describe arcane subjects from chimney sweeping and jungle exploration to the breeding of sheep.
As the Lit & Phil is a lending library, these books have not lost their personalities through years of institutionalisation. They have escaped into people's homes and travelled on trains. They have been quoted from during after-dinner speeches and read to children at bedtime, returning to the library with a souvenir claret ring or a few biscuit crumbs hidden amongst the pages. The worn volumes exude stories, not only textual, but those of past members who enjoyed the books and have left their traces.
A team of dedicated bookbinders is working on the collection's preservation, but it will be some time before the Herculean labour of restoring volumes from over two centuries of publishing is complete. Meantime, some books in the reading rooms betray not only the habits of their readers but also the rescue efforts of librarians. Bias binding is an expedient way to hold the decrepit pages and boards of histories together, and to assist long-sighted browsers a Tippex enthusiast has carefully painted the faded titles back onto their spines. By contrast, the CDs in the famous music collection are very tidily arranged in little scarlet boxes, which almost conceal their contents.