Senate House Library’s rare books librarian, Dr Karen Attar, considers the move of Sir Edwin Durning-Lawrence’s library from his home in Carlton House to its place in Senate House.

How do books and the areas designed to hold them interrelate? How does the physicality implied in the question matter in a ‘digital first’ environment? The University of London’s Senate House Library (SHL) begs these questions.

The Durning-Lawrence Library on the fourth floor of the finest lending library in London – one of three areas on that floor built specially to house its donor’s collection – is the most striking case. The Durning-Lawrence room contains the bookshelves which housed the prominent Edwardian Baconian Sir Edwin Durning-Lawrence’s books in his house in Carlton House Terrace. His niece insisted on their acceptance when Senate House was being built, and the room was included specially to fit them.

Ultimately a library stands or falls by its holdings. Just as the glass-walled King’s Library in the British Library makes George III’s beneficence to the nation instantly apparent to the millions who will never look into any of his books, the mere presence of the Durning-Lawrence library room signals to the casual entrant to Senate House Library the existence of rare and valuable books: Shakespeare folios, Shakespearean sources, Continental emblem books and others.

Believing passionately that Sir Francis Bacon wrote Shakespeare’s plays, Durning-Lawrence assembled a large number of books and pamphlets arguing for and against that theory. So, the room symbolises, too, the value of debate. It stands at the heart of the library much as questioning and the conviction that questioning matters stand at the heart of a great university.

Two pictures hang over the Durning-Lawrence Library door, of Francis Bacon and of his contemporary Thomas Egerton, 1st Baron Ellesmere. They are not part of the original furnishings; the university bought them in 1965. Yet they embody the rationale of the library, for Durning-Lawrence allegedly acquired every item to point to the person and authorship of Francis Bacon. The room indicates the connection between different kinds of arts. Neither literature nor visual art stands in a vacuum.

Durning-Lawrence’s books no longer adorn the shelves that they did from the late 19th century to the early 21st century. We know from insurance inventories the exact positions of books on the shelves in Durning-Lawrence’s house, including what overflowed from the designated library room.

The university upon receipt rearranged them, classifying the stock and separating the more valuable from the less valuable books and the manuscripts from the printed items. It thus gave the books in their totality a new and different meaning which depended on subject matter and form. It ignored distinctions made by Durning-Lawrence based on source of acquisition or mental connections.

For Durning-Lawrence, Sir Francis Bacon and Charles Darwin were connected as two of England’s greatest ever minds. For library purposes, they are divided as English literature versus biological sciences, at two ends of the sequence.

Everything evolves and mutates. For full understanding, we must hold the different meanings, past and present, in our minds. In its reminder of different perspectives, the Durning-Lawrence library epitomises some basic tenets of the humanities.

Dr Karen Attar is curator of rare books and university art at Senate House Library, and a research fellow at the Institute of English Studies, School of Advanced Study, University of London. She has published widely on library history and aspects of special collections and is the reviews editor for Library & Information History.