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Feature

Lost Libraries of London

Our pilgrimage continued to Tom’s Coffee House, which opened in 1652 and besides slinging joe is thought to have carried around two thousand printed items. Ford-Smith noted that coffee-house collections were lively and modern, with the latest broadsides and pamphlets, periodicals and magazines, satires and books of a “libertine, or pornographic nature” shelved therein. This, she put in contrast to Samuel Fancourt’s “First Universal Circulating Library,” founded in London in 1742. Fancourt was a dissenting minister and library pioneer who tried several times to get library schemes off the ground. His library was heavy on theology and had to be on the up-and-up. With nothing of a titillating nature among his offerings, it becomes clear why he might have had a harder time sustaining subscriber interest.

The St. Bride Library, which opened in 1895 and holds a collection of more than 50,000 books, with a particular focus on the history of printing and allied crafts. In recent years, budget shortfalls have caused severe limitations of its hours and services. Courtesy of St. Bride Foundation.

Toward the end of our tour, Ford-Smith stops by St. Bride Library, which was opened in 1895 as a cultural center and printing school. The library holdings contain a world-class printing and graphic art collection, founded upon the extensive library of printer and bibliographer William Blades, who died in 1890. Ford-Smith explained that St. Bride is not a “lost library as such, but is in danger of becoming one.” It closed for a time to new researchers due to limited funds, and the reading room is only open two days a month. She then encouraged us to support it.

I registered for this tour after reading this description for it: “Twenty-first-century London contains some of the finest book collections in the world, but what about the libraries that haven’t survived? If you know where to look, the city’s streets and alleyways are crammed with the ghosts of libraries past.” It did not disappoint. Ford-Smith’s tour not only informed me of what is lost to time, but what kind of loss can be prevented, and what kind of knowledge is at stake. Johnson’s lost library, while offering intrigue and mystery, is also heartbreaking for bibliophiles—the sources for the Dictionary of the English Language could so easily have been known to us. But, as with many of the points of interest on Ford-Smith’s itinerary, there is something poignant about learning about all the libraries London had that are now gone, or were damaged during fires or wars, or were closed simply due to budget shortfalls. The Lost Libraries tour, what might seem at first a very nerdy way of learning some of London’s multi-layered history, is incredibly resonant and important given the current funding and closure threats in the United States and Great Britain to libraries private and public. In my own new neighborhood of Hampstead, my local library, which is literally attached to the historic John Keats House Museum, had its funding cut several years ago. It has been saved and made independent, spared from closing by volunteers who donate both money and time. One of the first things I did upon moving here was sign up to serve at my local library.

Sometime after I took her excellent tour, I sat down with Ford-Smith at Quaritch, surrounded by rare books, and we talked a bit more about her love of book and library history and how the tour developed. I put her on the spot for her favorite London lost library, and she chose Boots because, although its library has largely disappeared from popular memory, you can still find ex-Boots volumes at used bookstores. “Everyone can have their own bit of library history for a few pounds,” she later wrote to me in an email, attaching a picture of her prized ex-Boots library book. Not a week later I was rummaging through book stacks at a shop in Hampstead and pulled out a biography of Mae West with a Boots sticker, unexpectedly pleased I had found one, and took it home.

A. N. Devers is a writer, editor, and rare bookseller who lives in London. Her first book, Train, is forthcoming from Bloomsbury in 2018.

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