Chrissy gave us a tour of the British Library, which is the National Library and home to about 200 million items. If someone were to go through 5 of those items a day, it would take 80,000 years to see the whole collection! Started in 1753, the library gains about 3 million more items every year and keeps a copy of everything published in the UK and in Ireland.
In 1972 the British Library and the British Museum were declared to be separate institutions by Parliament and so the great establishment was split into two, as they remain today. Now the library lives alone in the biggest public building in the UK built in the 20th century, built of 10 million handmade bricks. Chrissy showed us a model of the building, which has sort of an “iceberg” quality to it and was designed to look like an ocean liner (the “ship of knowledge”, she called it.) Designed to be finished in multiple phases, only the first phase was ever finished. There are 8 stories underneath the library’s main public access floors, built right alongside the tracks for the underground trains — but amazingly, this isn’t enough space. Only about 1/2 of the holdings are held here, the rest are held at a site in Yorkshire.
The library is also home to the National Sound Archive and a conservation centre, as well as interesting permanent and traveling art displays and exhibitions. Currently, Cornelia Parker’s Magna Carta project is on display, which is a huge piece of cloth with the Magna Carta Wikipedia article embroidered on it in full by about 200 people. No small feat!
There are 11 Reading Rooms full of books on just about every known subject, where readers can find materials published in every known language on the planet. You cannot borrow items from the library but you can have access to items here that you cannot get other places. To register for a reader’s card, you must show some form of identification, proof of a home address, a copy of your signature, and some documentation of what you’re here for (in terms of what you need to see and why you want to see it). You can register for your reader’s card online and also pre-order books online to view at the library later.
The British Library has a research-level collection — it’s not a public library in the American sense of the word — but personal (non-academic) researchers are welcome to use the collections as well.
Once a reader requests a book, 2 tickets are printed, one of which gets stuck in the book and the other used for tracking purposes. A mile-long track system collects from various delivery points downstairs, carrying the books in boxes to their destinations. Barcodes are printed on everything, “which is tremendously efficient” Chrissy said, but books still might have to take long routes though the building. General items make their way to their readers in this fashion; rare or fragile materials would not travel like this. Somewhere between 2,500 to 3,000 boxes travel on these systems every single day.
Chrissy spent some time explaining the significance of the King’s Library, a towering display of old books featured prominently into the heart of the building. King George wanted the books to be gifted after he died and King George IV was not as keen on books as his father, so they soon came to the library. One stipulation of the donation’s terms was that the books always had to be on shelves that anyone could see. Thus, six floors of books display this collection in a place where anyone would walks into the central lobby of the library can see them immediately. (An interesting aside: the Enlightenment Gallery in the British Museum was originally built to house this collection.) Chrissy estimated that about 50 items come out of the space everyday (which is designed like a castle, with a “moat” and “drawbridge”) and make their way into the Rare Books Reading Room. Security is tight. After working there for 34 years, she said her access card does not allow her into the King’s Library. Of the 100,000 total books in the space, about 6,500 are from the King’s collection. All are housed on moveable rollers, which makes it easier for the librarians and assistants to move things about as necessary. The King’s Library never gets direct sunlight, thanks to a curved ceiling which directs light down and away from the precious books.
One item part of the King’s Library but not on display there (due to size constraints, instead is displayed on the 3rd floor) is the Klencke Atlas, dating to 1660 and a gift to King Charles II from Dutch merchants. Containing 41 maps, the atlas still has its original leather and clasps. It did receive some restoration in the 1960s, but still bears a noticeable circular mark on it that may have been left by a rather hefty mug. The library also has the smallest atlas, one of only 2 copies made for Queen Mary’s dollhouse.
The British Library is currently working on a project to archive all UK domain websites and also digitize some items in the collection. They can’t tackle everything, of course, but Chrissy explained that some things — such as the 19th century newspapers collections — are online and accessible. Many records are now easily found through the online catalog, although some of the Africa and Asia collections are still best searched by card catalog. She mentioned that many books are cross-referenced to corresponding Dewey Decimal System call numbers, but shelfmark references are generally unique to the British Library. Some very old items still say “CUP” (for cupboard) and “LR” (for large room) — marks of a librarian’s work long since outdated.
We ended the tour near the Treasures Gallery, which holds amazing, rare, and precious items on public display from the collections, such as St. Cuthbert’s Gospel. Chrissy told us about some of the other unique objects in the library’s holdings, such as the manuscript cabinets from Burma located outside the Asia and Africa Reading Room, some of the ashes of the poet Shelley, Alexander Fleming’s petri dish (molded over with penicillin), the copies of the Magna Carta and Beowulf donated by Sir Robert Cotton, and materials from Captain Cook’s Endeavor voyage donated by Sir Joseph Banks. She talked about Thomas Granville, an MP who was also a bibliophile and in 1847 donated 21 horse-drawn vans full of books to the library, including a Gutenberg Bible. Lastly, she ended the tour by paying homage to Sir Hans Sloane, on whose collections the British Museum — and inherently, the Library — was founded. The British Library is truly a national treasure.