Monday, 22 April 2013

The Lit & Phil

The Literary and Philosophical Society Library, or the Lit & Phil as it is commonly known, is a subscription library near Newcastle's Central Station. It is the largest library of its kind outside of London which boasts the illustrious London Library. Unlike the London Library, access to the Lit & Phil is truly public; yes, if you want to be able to borrow books you need to become a paying member, but if you would like to use the books  on the premises then you can walk in off the street, mount the grand staircase up to the first floor and the library entrance, spend a couple of hours reading and even enjoy a cup of tea or coffee.

One of the first aims of the Society, set up in 1793, was to establish a library. Initially, the creation of the collection relied on gifts and donations and the majority of the books dealt with scientific themes. As the collection grew the subjects held by the library increased to include travel writing, geography, history, biography, poetry, classics and architecture. A decision was taken very early on not to buy novels for the collection, but this decision was later overturned and the library now holds a large selection of literary and popular fiction.

Until 1811 the collection was catalogued by size of book into the following four categories: folios, octavos, quartos and duodecimos. In that year the library attempted cataloguing the collection according to subject matter. The library relocated to its current premises in 1825, and by that time the library held 8,000 volumes, by 1989 they had 130,000 volumes and today the library boasts a collection of 150,000. I was intrigued to learn that the Lit & Phil began using the Dewey Decimal Classification in 1887 (this seems very early and I am still trying to find out where Dewey was first used in the UK).

The enquiry desk in the main library, taken from the Upper Gallery.
When I visited, the library had many visitors, there were people borrowing and returning books, people quietly reading and carrying out research and many people who seemed to have come for a cup of coffee and a chat. Although the James Knott Reading Room was very quiet and a suitable place for serious study, the table and chairs near the refreshments' hatch in the main library were occupied by people who had obviously come for a good chat with their friends and fellow members. The atmosphere of the library as a whole was very relaxing and welcoming.

The James Knott Reading Room seen from the Upper Gallery.
The Library File does not have a head for heights, in fact, my knees tend to start wobbling on reaching the fourth rung of a ladder, so I was a bit nervous about investigating the Upper Gallery as to start with I could only find one access point, which was the knee-knocking steep spiral staircase.

I was not brave enough to try these stairs.

Thankfully, there are more conventional stairs in the main library which enabled me to visit the Upper Gallery. Once I was up there I realised just how small the wooden walkway was that runs around the edge of the room. However, there are so many fascinating books stored up there that I spent a long time browsing and held on to the bookshelves if I felt a bit wobbly. I had a good chuckle at a book entitled 101 Things for the Housewife to do from 1949 which was full of some pretty mind-numbing activities like cleaning pots and pans, to be fair, it did include some interesting crafty projects too.

The roof of the Main Library
Newcastle City Library keeps a record of the Society's laws, proceedings and membership lists from its earliest days. The Society was set up as an institution for its members to debate and discuss scientific theories and advancements and in the description of the aims of the Society I found a wonderful quotation used as a rallying call for debate and discussion,
"Knowledge like fire, is brought forth by collision."
The quotation is not referenced in the text. Does anyone know to whom this quotation is attributed?

The Lit & Phil continues to offer opportunities to learn, discuss and debate with their public events. In the near future they will feature: lectures about the solar system, the railways, architecture and folk music concerts and piano recitals.

If you are in the North East of England the Lit & Phil is certainly worth a visit.


  1. WOW, is that a beautiful library (and building). I've got to get back to GB someday solely to make a tour of all the beautiful libraries you've highlighted. Don't know when that will be but I can dream!

  2. It was certainly one of the most beautiful libraries I've visited. I have now moved away from Newcastle, but I'm really glad I managed to visit the Lit & Phil before I left.