The Alpine Club Library

Outside my day job as a graduate trainee librarian, I am a keen climber with an interest in climbing and mountaineering history and literature. In the past, I served as the Librarian of the Oxford University Mountaineering Club and the editor of its journal, and I spent long days paging through the OUMC’s rich guidebook collection, dreaming of working in a specialised library. When I first started my library traineeship and was encouraged to see various libraries, arranging a visit in the library of the Alpine Club was one of the first things on my to-do-list.

I do not suppose many of our readers will be familiar with arcane mountaineering terminology, so a bit of a background: the Alpine Club is the oldest mountaineering club in the world, founded in 1857 to facilitate access and exploration of the mountains of the world. Since its inception, its members have been the leading mountaineers and explorers of their generations, including household names such as George Mallory, one of the first mountaineers to attempt to climb Qomolangma (Mount Everest) in 1921, 1922, and 1924. Today, the Alpine Club is based in Shoreditch, London, and houses one of the most extensive collections of mountaineering literature in the world: over 30 thousand books, magazines, photos, and other archival material. Truly an exciting place for a budding climber-turned-librarian.


12 book spines in vibrant reds, greens, blues and browns. Many of them have gilt detailing or other decorations.
Pretty bindings in the Alpine Club Collection


To organise the visit, I reached out to Nigel Buckley, Assistant Librarian at Balliol College (my DPhil home) and the former Librarian of the Alpine Club. Nigel very kindly agreed to travel with me to London to show me around on a particularly sunny November Tuesday.

Upon our arrival to the hip borough of Shoreditch, the first of our two stops was the Library itself. Full of excitement, I foolishly did not take many photos, so my description will have to do. The Library, located in the first floor of the club house, is a small room with a handful of reading spaces, full up to a brim with all kinds of mountaineering literature: guidebooks, maps, biographies, historical accounts of climbing, or magazines. I even spotted the issues of Oxford Mountaineering Journal that I edited! After some time ogling at the shelves, Nigel showed me the digital catalogue that he created during his appointment using the free library management software called Koha.

The second stop – the basement – proved to be even more exciting than the Library. It houses all kinds of material, from journals, outdated climbing guidebooks, and historic collections, to paintings, photographs, and all sort of mountaineering paraphernalia. Ice axes, ropes, compasses, tents, you name it. At one point, Nigel opened a random drawer, and there was a pair of solid leather mountain boots!

What were some of my favourite objects? I fell in love with ice axe that used to belong to Dorothy Pilley (1894-1986), a pioneer British female climber who established many routes in Wales as well as further afield in the Alps. Although hundred years old, this tool seemed much lighter and sleeker than my own modern ice axe, and it has probably seen more action in the mountains as well.



An ice axe with smooth wooden handle and metal pick. It is held in someone's hands over its storage box which lies open underneath and contains book bound in black textured leather surrounded by tissue paper.
The ice axe of Dorothy Pilley


I also want to mention a couple of illustrations. The 19th-century edition of Edward Whymper’s Scrambles Amongst the Alps made me excited for its excellent illustrations and lovely Victorian binding. Whymper (1840-1911), the first ascensionist of Matterhorn in 1865, was an engraver before he was a mountaineer, and his illustrations are an absolute joy. Furthermore, I loved the book plate of The Ladies Alpine Club (founded in 1907 and merged with the Alpine Club in 1975) which seems to capture the spirit of mountaineering very well.

There are many more books, paintings, and objects that Nigel showed me that day, but these should be enough to showcase the atmosphere of the library and the collection. We eventually made our way back upstairs to see the archives, and then moved towards the bar to finish our tour off with a pint. There was a lecture planned that evening – the cutting-edge British mountaineer Tom Livingstone spoke about his latest ascents in the Himalayas – so we stayed in London until about 10pm before catching the train back to Oxford.

I have enjoyed the visit tremendously, and I encourage you to make use of the Alpine Club collections if you are in the slightest interested in mountaineering and climbing. Many thanks, of course, go to Nigel Buckley for taking the time to show me around and chat about librarianship and mountaineering.


A black and white line drawing depicting four men on a mountain. The first man is falling off an icy overhand, his guide rope still attached but flying loose in the air. Below him three men stand on a ridge watching. Two simply lean against their sticks and observe, the third has sunk his ice axe into the ground beside him and has his arms wide in shock.
Illustration from Edward Whymper’s “Scrambles”
A decorative bookplate with a picture of a mountain scene. Below it texts reads: "The Library of the Ladies' Alpine Club" Above their moto reads: "per aspera as astra" with a small semi-circle containing seven stars right at the top. Around everything is a thin checkered border.
Bookplate of the Library of the Ladies Alpine Club