Reasons To Love The British Library
It’s not the grandest of buildings. It’s designed to be low-profile, to keep open views to the gothic St Pancras, a building that was almost torn down. The BL is friendly and usable, a bit municipal but oddly cosy. And it is home to…deep breath…60,000,000 patents, 13,950,000 books, 8,000,000 stamps, 6,000,000 audio recordings, 4,347,505 maps, 1,607,885 music scores, 824,101 serial titles, 351,116 manuscripts and 260,000 journal titles. In other words over 200 million titles and 2 billion web pages kept on 625km of shelves spread over 14 vast floors.
It can’t all be stored in King’s Cross, though, so some is in Boston Spa in West Yorkshire. There are 60 million newspapers spanning three centuries there, kept in low-oxygen storage chambers operated by robots. The British Library’s basement goes 24.5 metres below ground, and the most valuable publications are stored in inert chambers of nitrogen, carbon dioxide and argon to protect them against fire.
The King’s Library tower houses all the books that were collected by King George III. The books are protected by a special layer of UV filter glass. This contrasts with the disastrous Paris library that failed to account for its modernist glass towers ruining the books, and proved inaccessible and inhospitable. The oldest items held in the collection are 3000+ year-old ancient Chinese oracle bones. ‘Alice in Wonderland’ is here, as are the greatest political speeches and Oscar Wilde’s handwritten plays.
And it’s used – boy, the place is always packed. It’s free to join (at least it was for me) and the process takes minutes – but the place is daunting in its vastness. Vast sections of the building are dedicated to saving parchment maps and legal rolls before they disintegrate. They also have a rolling schedule of extensive in-depth exhibitions and events. I got to do a gig there with the audience on headphones and me balanced on a steel beam three floors up.
The British Library’s biggest success was in making sure it did not become an arrogant architectural monument at the expense of the books, but concentrated on those who would use it. Thank God Boris Johnson hadn’t been in charge of it.
There are lots of academic libraries where one can study in London of course – from Senate House Library, where I went at the weekend to see their (disappointingly curated) display of Harry Price’s rare magic books, to the London Library, the private members’ lending library, which you can join for life on a sliding scale of payment according to how long you have left to live (I still can’t afford to join – I need to wait another 10 years).
The British Library’s move from the British Museum was well-handled, although not as much fun as when the national library in Riga, Latvia moved from one side of the city to the other. The residents formed a human chain across the river, passing books by hand, so that everyone felt invested in helping (it was minus 15C so we were only allowed to do short stints).
In a time when libraries are being closed all over the country, the BL is proof that knowledge and education are the key to the future, and the closing of libraries is a national disgrace.