Rare collection that inspires passion

An exceptional library should not be wilfully messed with, except perhaps to add a little bank alongside
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The Independent Online
There is nothing like a library for exciting the emotions - both the dubious ones (nostalgia, possessiveness, anger, pride) and the good ones (pride again, gratitude, awe, the sense of something being valued and preserved, love of learning, anger again at something extraordinary being destroyed). I think that when people become incensed about the fate of some library, at the basis of it is a good emotion, one of the best of all: the feeling that here is a place where I was given something, this was where I had my big break and I want others to enjoy the same chance.

This feeling can transfer from one library to another, or from one kind of library to another, but for the real intense passion there is probably only one library at any one time in the life of any individual.

For many writers, it would be the London Library, and I can understand this feeling well, while not sharing it. I like the London Library and have sometimes used it, and am intrigued by the really quite powerful static electric shocks you can receive in the stacks, but I suppose what I really feel is that the London Library does not belong to me. London belongs to me, as the saying goes, but the London Library does not.

The Lindley Library, on the other hand, does, both emotionally and in the sense that I am a member of the Royal Horticultural Society. But it also belongs to the general public, although few people realise that they are entitled to drop in. If you do, you will see immediately why people like it so much. It has a small, comfortable reading room with open shelves, and the stacks are so close that any book you need can be found quickly. And the staff have always been helpful and knowledgeable in handling any inquiry of mine.

So the first feeling you get on using the Lindley Library is amazement that this thing still exists in the hostile world. But it is only a part of the wealth accruing to the RHS, which, in addition to its numerous gardens, has a large building in central London, plus two excellent and valuable exhibition spaces.

The regular London shows held by the RHS in these Vincent Square halls are much the most useful events for the interested gardener, because they are not overcrowded and you can buy unusual plants there, cheaply, from the people who have grown them, who will advise you as to how to treat them.

This is astonishingly good value. And then a trip upstairs to the Lindley Library makes a logical addition to the day.

Now the number of books you need to consult for the practicalities of gardening is really very limited. The point about the Lindley Library is that it has all this down to a T, but it also has an unrivalled collection of botanical and garden history books. This is, then, a library for students of the history of science, for students of garden history (a growing subject, which relates to architectural, literary and social history), for botanists and for professional and amateur gardeners.

One thing about the RHS is that if you set out today to refound the thing from scratch, you would never be able to afford to do so. Many of the library's books are considered works of art in themselves. The scientific illustration of flowers became, if you like, an inadvertent art form.

Today, one would not be able to afford the books, let alone the building to put them in, along with the large exhibition spaces in central London. So it seems a particular shame to do anything to reduce the facilities available to the society's members, let alone the public.

The proposal to remove the library to Wisley, in Surrey, has already been vigorously opposed by this paper's gardening correspondent, Anna Pavord, and, as far as I can see, by most of the people who have addressed themselves to the subject. And, of course, had it not been the occasion for such passion, no doubt the decision would already have been made and one would have woken up to find the present accessible arrangement ended, irrespective of the wishes of the society's members.

Since the only problem, at present, appears to be lack of space for the books and their conservation, I very much hope that the counter-proposal prospers, and that it becomes possible to purchase the Rochester Row police station, which is due to be decommissioned, and to convert it for the purpose. The matter is now being put before Sir Ralph Gibson, an independent assessor, who is to draw up a report.

If the Rochester Row proposal would leave the library with an embarrassment of space, I have a suggestion, modest but, I think, creative in its way. There seems to be no shop or centre to which one can go in the certainty of finding all the varieties of seed that are commercially available, let alone those which are collected by botanical gardens and other scientific institutions. Yet the number of varieties of plants that are of interest to the modern gardener is quite astonishing. The Plant Finder, the book that lists outlets for growing plants, features some 60,000 varieties.

Many of these varieties are plants which are propagated vegetatively, so the total list of seeds of interest to the gardener would be different from the total list of plants. Whether it would be larger or smaller I do not know, but it would undoubtedly be huge.

It would seem eminently practical to have a London Seed Bank, at which there were well-maintained and preserved stocks of seed from all commercial merchants, from heritage groups and from scientific institutions around the world. Since a part of the interest of the society, and of keen gardeners, is in the preservation of plants whose habitat has disappeared, or plants which once featured prominently in gardens but are now mysteriously in abeyance, it would seem congruent with the function of the library that there should be a bank next door from which one could, as it were, withdraw the genetic material one had been reading about in books.

Whatever happens, the row over the Lindley Library will have destroyed that quality it once had, the quality of being one of the best-kept secrets in London. One would happily let that pass if one was confident that the bright future that is being proposed was not, in fact, a way of making the library more obscure than ever.

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