When we show prospective new members around on our Monday evening tours, one part of the Library always elicits gasps of wonder, and sometimes even a little vertigo: the 1890s stacks, part of the section of the building we refer to as the Back Stacks (a PDF map of the Library can be downloaded here).
What’s so special about the 1890s stacks? Architect Tony McIntyre, author of The Library Book, explains:
…Everyone who steps off the half-landing of the main staircase into Science & Miscellaneous for the first time is astonished by the sudden break from mahogany panelling to cast- and rolled-iron, revealed in all their cold nudity. Here is a forest of densely packed, light iron columns, running up through four storeys to support a roof, and on the way supporting three grilled cast-iron floors, each only an inch in thickness. And the forest is solidly in-filled with books.
Home to some of our Science & Miscellaneous, History and Topography collections, the steel grille floors of the 1890s stacks, while unfriendly to anything but the most sensible footwear, are a triumph of practicality. Air circulates freely, light can permeate several floors and the structure is extraordinarily strong; the book stacks themselves are load bearing, meaning that this part of the Library truly is ‘made of books’. The unusual architecture and magical atmosphere of the 1890s stacks also make them a firm favourite with photographers and television makers: Spooks, The Culture Show’s World Book Night special and even an episode of New Tricks have all been filmed here.
The 1890s stacks aren’t just a labyrinth in which to browse and retrieve books, since reader spaces are dotted here and there for those who prefer the solitude of an isolated desk over the quiet communality of one of our Reading Rooms. The floors clank periodically as other members browse, layers of signage reflect the Library’s rich history, and shelves and shelves of books are within reach. For many Library members, this combination is just what they need to press on with reading, writing, studying or simply thinking.
And if you’re wondering what curiosities the oddly named Science & Miscellaneous section might hold? That’s a subject for another blog post – come back soon to read more!