Last Wednesday I went on a tour of the Guildhall library, as organised by CLSIG. Although I have often walked past the Guildhall when I worked near Moorgate, I never even knew the Guildhall library existed, and I was even more surprised to find out that it is a public reference library. I assumed that it would be a private corporate library, as it is run by the City of London Corporation.
Jeanie, the librarian who gave us the tour, was extremely knowledgeable about the long history of the library and its most precious collections, and she made the tour very enjoyable. By the way, if you would like to go on the tour yourself (which I highly recommend) there are scheduled public tours of the Guildhall library available via their website.
The first Guildhall library was opened as long ago as 1425, and was originally for students of theology – which is about as different an image as the current City of London Corporation as you can get! Unfortunately in 1549 the Duke of Somerset ordered for all of the Guildhall library books to be taken to his new palace on the Strand, and that was the end of the first Guildhall library. The current Guildhall library currently has only one known book from the original collection, which is a 13th century manuscript of the bible.
The City of London Corporation opened the next Guildhall Library in 1828, which became a public library in 1973. Unfortunately, during the Blitz of WW2 the library stores were hit and 25,000 books were lost. Jeannie showed us some black and white photos of the aftermath, and it was devastating – the building had no roof and the floor was nowhere to be seen under the mountains of rubble.
The current Guildhall library was opened in 1974. It provides a modern business library with all of the key electronic databases, primarily aimed at helping those who wish to start up or develop their own business, as well as holding the largest library collection in the world devoted to the history of a single city (London). It has over 7km of shelving in the bookstore, which was an absolute warren of bookcases so that I made sure to stay with the group and not get left behind to never find my way out again! Even the staff have trouble navigating the maze, and they have placed memorable pictures on to the sides of bookcases to help themselves find their way around (trust me to spot a Disney picture!).
The Guildhall library specialised in London history and has some very special collections of bodies that used to, or still do, operate in the City of London; such as the Livery Company, the London Stock Exchange, organisations that specialised with gardening, clockmaking, archery, as well as anything to do with business history. Due to its historical collection of trade body materials and directories it is also often used to trace family history, as well as by London historians.
Jeanie kindly showed us some special items from the historical collection, including the Court of the Exchange (or the first London stock exchange) from 1698 which only used to be published twice a week (and has items such as “pieces of eight” listed!), and a copy of a chained bible published in 1589 and previously owned by Tylers and Bricklayers’ company (see picture below).
The library obviously has an extremely varied user group from business entrepreneurs to historians, which was reflected in its modern technology and the latest online resources for business, as well as its archive of London materials and 13th century manuscripts. It was a really interesting library tour, and reminds me of how broad and varied our profession truly is.