The liberty of the library

Books in the British Library

Books in the British Library

I spend too much money on books. There are worse vices, but it’s time to explore other ways of feeding my reading. Enter the library, something I’ve not done often since my student days. I made up for it this week, joining not one but three London libraries. They have wildly different collections and were all free to join.

Monday morning saw me at the gates of the British Library in St Pancras. I took my two forms of identification and signed up for a readers’ card, feeling nervous as I explained about the 16th and 17th century letters I wanted to read as part of research for my novel. The library is busy and the librarians understandably restrict access to the reading rooms to those who cannot find what they need elsewhere.

My research passed muster and within minutes I had my new card and was upstairs in the manuscript room. I ordered the collection of correspondence I wanted and turned the ancient pages, deciphering 400-year-old handwriting, thrilled to read the words dashed off by these long-distant yet vivid characters.

There was Nicolas Carew in 1629, writing with anxiety to his sister Elizabeth Ralegh (widow of Sir Walter) about an unpaid debt she had run up: ‘for the not payinge of it will breede a distrust both of youre selfe and youre sureties’. And her answer, scribbled on the bottom of the same page, that ‘I wonder whi I shuld be mistrosted… but he shall be payed the prencipall and the intres presantly.’

And several pages on, reams of frantic scribble, much blotted and crossed out, from Thomas Walsingham, explaining how ‘I am confident you would find I have just reason to complayne’ about the violation of a lease on a farm left to him by his father.

How are these letters relevant to a novel about Elizabethan theatre? Walter Ralegh and Thomas Walsingham were both patrons of that dangerous playwright Christopher Marlowe, and reading letters from them and their associates helps me get a flavour of that world; one where people fretted about debts and credit-worthiness, leases and property, much as they do now.

I also wanted to read a collection of criticism about Marlowe’s plays, but the book would take several days to order, and could only be read in the reading rooms. I’ve discovered an online tool that helps you locate a copy of any book in a lending library near you, which led me to my second library of the week.

Westminster Libraries are free to join for anyone with a permanent address in the UK. There are a number of libraries across the borough, and books can be ordered online for collection. I also discovered the Westminster Reference Library, tucked away behind the National Gallery, which contains a useful-looking theatrical collection.

Finally, after all the heavy-duty research, I needed something to read in bed. Kingswood Library, my local branch of Southwark Libraries, is in ‘Bovril House,’ an amazing mansion built by the inventor of the meat extract of that name. The collection is small and focused on popular authors. I came away with just what I wanted – Dan Brown’s latest thriller Inferno. Don’t judge me – I love a good thriller. And what’s a library for, if not to cater to all tastes?

Image from Steve Cadman’s photostream on Flickr with CCL.

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Filed under Literary London, Writing

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