From Eyesore To Five Star



The British Library, which separated from the British Museum to become a modern building on London’s noxious Euston Road, was hated at the time of its unveiling by the Queen in June 1998 – over 20 years after it was first approved and at £350m over budget. But now it has been awarded Grade 1 Listed Status. Part of the problem was that users remembered the beautiful round Reading Room in Bloomsbury, now the centrepiece of the British Museum’s Great Court, and couldn’t see the new building as an attractive replacement.

The library runs underground to hold a fast-growing collection, around 150m objects, with an extra 1.5m items a year. The oldest texts In the collection are inscribed into 3,000-year-old Chinese oracle bones. Shakespeare’s First Folio is here, along with a Gutenberg bible. The library also has a huge sound archive, including recordings of Nelson Mandela’s trial speech, and Alfred Lord Tennyson reading ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’.

The exterior always struck me as bare and unwelcoming (its outside walls are solid red brick, shielding it from the unlovely arterial road outside). The treeless space is daunting in summer but miserable in winter. There are no shaded arbours here, just blank bare spaces. But the sides act as a welcoming embrace to the inside, which has human scale and warmth.

So how does it get listed status? By the fact that it is used and loved by users; a mark of its success. If anything, the library is too successful; even with its fast ordering system and helpful staff (for anyone who recalls the old circular reading room and its snail-paced trolleys), it’s overcrowded with the world’s students and not the easiest place for novice writers to get to grips with. I have friends who are ardent advocates, but for me online access from home is preferable.

The building proved to be ahead of its time in its choice of brick and tile – which are starting to become fashionable in London again. Paris made the monumental mistake of housing its national library, the Bibliotheque Francaise, which ran into massive cost overruns and technical difficulties because of its glass-box high-rise design (not ideal for storing books) and became known as the TGB or Très Grande Bibliothèque, which is a very good joke.

The British version also has the National Newspaper Archive in Yorkshire, with 750m pages of news, covering more than three centuries of British life, which is run by archiving robots. Modern newspapers are made with groundwood pulp and have short cellulose chains which make them more acidic. Oxidation turns them yellow and releases volatile organic molecules. Modern books yellow much faster than old ones, so there’s a race to digitise these ephemeral items.

Over at the London Metropolitan Archive the old court rolls (actually rolls of parchment) come in soft leather tubes and must be unrolled without shattering to dust so that they can be photographed, and the leather is prone to mites.

I’ve always wanted an excuse to join the London Library, but its exclusivity is down to it being expensive – you buy membership for a month. I’ll do it once just for the glamour of working there!

5 comments on “From Eyesore To Five Star”

  1. Andrea yang says:

    Thanks for this post. Enjoyed hearing about the Britidh Library. The London Library used to have an amusing Twitter presence but maybe the staffer responsible left.

  2. Mark Pack says:

    The building has grown on me too – save for the unwelcoming facade it offers on the side facing St Pancras. That just makes for a soulless through road rather than something that is connected with the neighbourhood it is located in.

    But that’s a blemish on what is otherwise so good – including the fact that the cafe, exhibition and toilets are all open to the public. The reason I mention the toilets? Because there is a quite brilliant optical illusion on the way to them. ‘Visit the toilet at the British Library’ should be on anyone’s list of top 10 things to do in London.

  3. Vivienne says:

    I have stolen a book from the British Library! The only other theft I can recall being guilty of were some aniseed balls I stole from a sweetshop when they were 8 for an old penny, and I was probably about 8 too. It wasn’t the Gothenburg Bible or anything though, it was just that I was in the bookshop where they had some Open London information books. I assumed they were free (I’m sure they used to be) so I just picked one up and walked off with it.

  4. Alan Morgan says:

    My mum went to work at the library in the Big Round Room straight from school. She left when she got married. Difficult choices are perhaps best in early life.

  5. Mim says:

    I love the British Library. I’ve used the India Office collection for research, and have always been amazed to be given access to so many amazing things.

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