The London Library is the world's largest independent lending library, and one of the UK's leading literary institutions. It was founded in 1841 on the initiative of Thomas Carlyle, who was dissatisfied with some of the policies at the British Museum Library. It is located at 14 St. James's Square, in the St James's area of the City of Westminster, London, which has been its home since 1845. Membership is open to all, on payment of an annual subscription; and life and corporate memberships are also available. As of March 2012 the Library has 7,155 members. T. S. Eliot, a long-serving President of the Library, argued in 1952 in an address to members that, "whatever social changes come about, the disappearance of the London Library would be a disaster to civilisation".
The Library's collections, which range from the 16th century to the present day, are strong within the fields of literature, fiction, fine and applied art, architecture, history, biography, philosophy, religion, topography, and travel. The social sciences are more lightly covered. Pure and natural sciences, technology, medicine and law are not within the library's purview, although it has some books in all of those fields; books on their histories are normally acquired. Periodicals and annuals on a wide range of subjects are also held in the collections.
In 1944, the Library lost some 16,000 volumes to bomb damage, and in 1970 its few incunabula were sold. With those exceptions, it has (apart from some duplicates) retained all items acquired since its foundation. The Library now holds more than one million items, and in 2011 it acquired 8,123 books and periodicals. 97% of the collection is available for loan, either on-site or through the post. It is the largest lending library in Europe.
It is a central tenet of the Library that, as books are never entirely superseded, and therefore never redundant, the collections should not be weeded of material merely because it is old, idiosyncratic or unfashionable: except in the case of occasional duplicate volumes, almost nothing has ever been discarded from the Library shelves.