I’m not making this up – Marylebone Information Service’s reserve stock (stack) is housed in three large basement chambers, each of which extends beneath the pavement on Marylebone Road. One room, in a previous life, was used as an explosives store. The cage remains but, as far as we can tell, the only explosive substances left are of the literary variety – some of those 19th Century diaries are incendiary stuff!
Three rooms – what could possibly justify having all these books hidden from public view? Have we got something to hide? If we had a bigger library, most of the reserve stock wouldn’t be reserve at all – it would be on the open shelves, for everyone to browse. Just a few frail books might still have to be kept aside. And perhaps we wouldn’t display shelf after shelf of the same magazine or journal (I will talking about these periodicals in a later post). As for the rest, what’s it all about? And how do you find out about it?
I asked a couple of colleagues for their opinions on the particular strengths of the Marylebone collection. They both said the same thing – its strength is its breadth, its coverage of a wide range of knowledge, just a few steps away from the library’s reading room. They said – and I know this to be true – that books are brought up from the stacks every day. They are all listed in the library catalogue; the only difference between the ones on the open shelves and the ones in the stacks is that the latter have to be requested, but the wait is usually only about five minutes.
I pressed my colleagues to pick out some “jewels”. One mentioned the fantastic collection of old country-wide street directories, so useful for ancestor-hunters. It’s not as big as the National Archive collection at Kew, but it outstrips most other public libraries, and it’s North of the River! Another colleague mentioned the various biographies, collected letters and diaries. Our history collection is ace, but sometimes (often, actually) it’s useful for researchers to see primary sources (aka the horse’s mouth).
Don’t see your specialist subject mentioned above? Don’t panic – we’re a wide-ranging reference library, with a wide-ranging reserve stock. Give us a try.
PS We’re not the only library with a ‘reserve stack’ – most have them, and you can read about Victoria’s stack here.