I’m a librarian, and recently I went on a visit to the British Library organised by a group I’m a member of. The visit comprised a library tour, which really interested me because although I have visited the BL several times, it’s always been as a visitor to the exhibitions: I’m not a member and I’ve never been in the reading rooms or behind the scenes.
The British Library, which is a relatively new institution that only came into being during the second half of the twentieth century, is the national library of the UK and the largest library in the world in terms of items catalogued. The building holds around 170 million items from numerous countries and in every language in the world. Information is held in multiple formats: print books and ebooks, manuscripts, journals, newspapers, magazines, audiovisual recordings, playscripts, patents, databases, maps, prints and drawings. The collections include around 14 million books, and the Library holds ancient historical items dating back as far as 2000 BC.
Our tour, which was delivered by a very knowledgeable and entertaining guide, began in the foyer where we learned about the library’s beginnings. The BL originally started out at the British Museum: the famous Round Reading Room is where people including Marx used to study. The British Library Act of 1972 enabled the BL to be established in 1973, although materials were dispersed around London and around the country for several years. When deciding upon a location for the eventual library site, there wasn’t much choice available: it would have to be within walking distance of the British Museum in Bloomsbury, so that the rarest and most valuable books could be carried there by hand, as they were not permitted to be transported on vehicles. Eventually the site at Euston Road was decided upon: located next to St Pancras Station, it used to be a goods yard.
The Library is a Legal Deposit Library (the others are the Bodleian at Oxford, the University Library at Cambridge, the Trinity College Library in Dublin and the National Libraries of Scotland and Wales), meaning that it receives a copy of each book produced in the United Kingdom and Ireland, including several overseas books distributed in the UK.
The Library was designed by Colin St John Wilson, and the building has met with a mixed reception (apparently Prince Charles hates it, but the Queen is a fan). Looked at from the right angle, it resembles a ship. It was made a Grade I listed building earlier this year, so it is now recognised as a landmark of design: however it is not without its problems. Wilson spent so much of the Library budget on expensive marble, containing fossils, to be laid outside on the piazza (meaning that it is extremely slippery in the rain) that there wasn’t enough left for decent shelving, resulting in some collapses as the second-hand shelves couldn’t bear the huge weight of the books.
It is impressive, however, that most of the books are stored underground: the stacks run several storeys beneath the ground, stopped only by the tube that is even further down. The Fleet River also runs nearby, so that the lowest floor does flood on occasion.
From the foyer we were taken to the Members’ Area in which you can register to become a member of the Library. Anyone can register so long as they have the appropriate ID: you don’t have to be an academic. Near here, there is a book handling system which delivers books users have ordered to the surface by means of a conveyor belt. Staff collect book requests, remove them from the shelves and send them up to the Library.
We went upstairs and were able to get a brilliant view of the King’s Library, made up of 65,000 printed volumes and numerous pamphlets, manuscripts and maps collected by George III between 1763 and 1820. The glass tower was inspired by a similar structure in the Beinecke Library in New Haven, Connecticut.
From the old to the new: our next stop was the news room where readers can view newspapers and watch a live news feed. We explored the Library considerably, taking a look at the many busy – but extremely quiet – reading rooms.
Before leaving, we had a quick look at a Library video in one of the quietest corners of the building – left “unfinished” to show off the brickwork.I really loved my tour: I learned a great deal about the British Library that I hadn’t known before. Public tours are available and I do recommend signing up.