Sunday 12 July 2009

Private Libraries

Private libraries – the older the better – enthral me. There’s something very special about these places, which are usually oases of calm in the middle of a bustling city. For about fifteen years, I have been a proprietor (that is, member) of the Athenaeum in Liverpool, which has a truly fabulous library, full of antiquarian curiosities. And last year, I did a Victorian mystery event at the Lit and Phil in Newcastle, a place I found deeply impressive (especially because of its wealth of obscure crime novels.)

This last week, I added an excellent new private library to my list. This is the Portico Library in Manchester. I’ve walked past it many times, but never been inside before. This changed when Jennifer Palmer, of Mystery Women, invited me to take part in a panel discussion.

My fellow panellists were two long-time friends, Cath Stainclife and Kate Ellis, and another local crime writer, Dolores Gordon-Smith, whom I first met at Crimefest last year. I’ve never done an event with Dolores before, but she proved to be a lively and entertaining speaker, and I felt the combination of the four of us worked well (even if I am a rather unlikely Mystery Woman...)

The Portico organised a first-rate buffet, and the ambience was fantastic. You really had the sense of history, in a room where people have read and studied for a couple of centuries. There was a thought-provoking exhibition about myth and legend in literature, very well illustrated, that I enjoyed reading. And I loved the heading above one set of bookshelves: ‘Polite Literature’. Couldn't help wondering how many have searched in vain for the Rude Literature….


Dorte H said...

Private libraries, is that common in Britain? I have never come across any in Denmark.

Good point about the polite literature. In our holiday cottage I found a Mary Steward (old library edition). Inside it was marked "mild/good" which is perhaps a bit of the same thing.
The cottage was a wonderful surprise however. Not only because of the view, but there was actually a collection of 300 crime novels. I could see myself snowing in there with a good fire and plenty of food.

Martin Edwards said...

Hi Dorte. Not common, but there are some. A famous one is the London Library, which I have yet to visit.
The cottage sounds idyllic!

Elizabeth Spann Craig said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Elizabeth Spann Craig said...

I'm rewriting my comment here, because my previous comment accidentally included a comment about a different subject! (I think I need more coffee. :))

Anyway, I was curious about private libraries. Here in the States we have small museums that cover a particular area (like that town's history, African Americans in the South, etc.) Those museums would have different exhibits, including books. Are the private libraries you mention solely books?


Mystery Writing is Murder

Uriah Robinson said...

Martin not only does Dorte's cottage sound idyllic but also the whole concept of a private library!

Martin Edwards said...

Hi Elizabeth. Yes, the libraries I have mentioned are open to subscribers, who in return for their subscription can read in the libraries or (sometimes) borrow the books, at least all except the most valuable ones. The Athenaeum combines a members' club (dining and social activities etc) with the library. They are great places for writers to do research.

Martin Edwards said...

Hi Uriah - couldn't agree more!

Jane said...

I would love to visit the Athenaeum. I have to say I do like the idea of private libraries. Not the exclusive expensive membership idea but the concept of the preciousness of libraries.

Martin Edwards said...

Hi Jane. I'm sure a visit can be arranged for you!
These libraries can only survive on rather pricey subscriptions, unfortunately, but I think most if not all of them also do good things in reaching out to wider communities - it's certainly true of the Athenaeum.

Peter Rozovsky said...

I believe there are a few left in the U.S. I attended a Maltese Falcon panel a few years ago in the plush rooms of the Mercantile Library in New York, which I think may since have moved.
Detectives Beyond Borders
“Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home”

Unknown said...

Hi - just found this blog whilst looking for something else, hence the rather delayed reaction to the comments! I'm Emma Marigliano, the Librarian of the Portico Library, which Martin visited. We're a founding member of the Association of Independent Libraries (Independent has better connotations than private, I think) and if you go to their website you can learn a lot more about the various independent special collections in the UK and Ireland ( The libraries are deemed independent because, as we are not generally supported financially by any local or central government agency or academic body. This means that the only way we can function and survive is to charge a fee for certain privileges. Members of these institutions can borrow the books, read the newspapers and periodals, work, study, sleep, bring guests, thus winning friends and influencing people (!) and some of us (like the Portico) serve refreshments, hire our rooms, have active and vibrant programmes of events, exhibitions and work hard to maintain precious historic collections that say a lot more about that societies that put them together than just what's on the covers of the books and between! We enthusiastically encourage researchers - who generally do not have to pay to consult the collections which cover the range of subjects that were of interest to the early members.
They do appear to be a feature of English-speaking countries - The Boston Athenaeum e.g, but even if initially there was an elitism about these institutions we are now probably more accessible than, say, the British LIbrary and the Bodleian - to which access is not plain and simple. If you're in the region of any of the Libraries in the AIL please do visit - and if you know of others, let me know too (