Newest Review: ... is movable, and internal lifts and stairs allow the staff to retrieve books from the collection to deliver to researchers in the Libr... more
Sitting on history
British Library (London)
Member Name: MykReeve
British Library (London)
Date: 16/05/01, updated on 16/05/01 (105 review reads)
Advantages: Excellent exhibition galleries, Well informed and helpful staff, Intriguing building and artworks
Disadvantages: Guided tour quite dear, Not a whole lot of fun if you don't like books
As a tourist attraction, the British Library has a fair amount to offer, and perhaps more importantly, it's completely free. Perhaps it's not the first port of call for a tourist visiting London, but alongside the British Museum's new Great Court, it's one of the most interesting new structures in the city.
The British Library is located just to the west of St. Pancras station on Euston Road, and is a huge red brick building, designed by Professor Sir Colin St John Wilson. Originally, the building was intended to occupy a much larger area, extending further to the north onto an area of currently derelict land, however, Governmental squabbling over the location of the London EuroStar rail terminus prevented the British Library from being able to acquire that site.
The British Library is the largest publicly-funded building constructed in the last century in the United Kingdom, with a total floor space of around 100,000 square metres. The basements, which contain the majority of the Library's collection of books, are London's deepest, with some 300 kilometres of shelving.
The building is approximately L-shaped, with the entrance on the inside of the corner. In front of the library is a large piazza with a coffee stall, dominated by a big statue of Newton designed by Sir Eduardo Paolozzi after William Blake's painting of Newton using a pair of dividers to measure the universe.
As you enter the building, your first view is of the various floors of the library complex. The library's information desk is directly in front of you, the reader admissions office to the right, and the bookshop to the left. The library's cloakroom is downstairs. Just next to the bookshop is the entrance to the library's exhibition galleries.
If you walk up the main set of stairs in opposite the entrance, you can walk towards the library reading rooms. If you're not a reader at the Briti
sh Library, you won't be allowed entry to any of the reading rooms, however, you can see the enormous 17-metre tower of the King's Library, which extends upwards through the floors of the Library building itself. The King's Library was presented to the nation by George IV in 1823, having been collected by his father, George III. It consists of some 65,000 volumes, 20,000 pamphlets and 400 manuscripts, and is stored on six storeys, with glass-walls on the outside so that visitors can see the books. All of the shelving is movable, and internal lifts and stairs allow the staff to retrieve books from the collection to deliver to researchers in the Library reading rooms.
Behind the King's Library can be found a café and restaurant. The café is not unreasonably priced, however, the restaurant is pretty costly. Both give excellent views of the King's Library, allowing visitors to watch the staff at work in the collection.
One of the most interesting things about the Library's design is the way that the floor patterns extend throughout the building. For example, the square-design brick-patterned floor of the piazza extends into the foyer of the building, and the marble floors of the Library extend into the lifts.
There are four exhibition galleries in the Library – The John Ritblat Gallery; the Pearson Gallery; the Workshop of Words, Sound and Images; and the Philatelic Display, all of which are open to all visitors for free.
The Pearson Gallery is located just behind the Library's bookshop, and hosts temporary exhibitions either from the British Library's own collection, or of material leant from other collections. At the time of writing, for example, the Pearson Gallery was hosting an exhibition entitled "Treasures from the Ark", collecting together items from 1,700 years of Armenian Christian art including statues, reliquaries, bibles and religious vestments.
On the basement level beside the Pearson Gallery is the Workshop of Words, Sound and Images, which allows visitors to chart the history of the written word, from a recreation of a scribe's desk through to modern printing techniques. On Saturdays, demonstrations of printing, calligraphy and hand book-binding take place in the gallery.
However, it is the exhibition gallery directly above the Workshop that is the most interesting. The John Ritblat Gallery collects together some of the most valuable treasures in the British Library itself. The exhibition space is fairly large, with the historical books and documents displayed in glass cabinets.
There are some truly remarkable treasures on show in the gallery. In the 'Sacred Texts' corner are ancient copies of the Koran, as well as Buddhist and Daoist scriptures. Alongside this are several copies of the Bible, including the 4th century Codex Sinaiticus, written in Greek. Some very early printed books are on display in the gallery – including an 8th century Japanese document entitled 'The Million Charms of Empress Shotoku' and the 15th century Gutenberg Bible.
Among the historical documents on display are two of the four original 1215 copies of the Magna Carta, one of which has been seriously fire damaged. Others include letters by Florence Nightingale, Gandhi (writing about his fasting), Henry VII, Charles Babbage, Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin and Galileo Galilei. Scott's last Polar journal, John Evelyn's Diary (opened to the pages referring to his 'annus mirabilis'), and pages from Leonardo da Vinci's notebook are on display.
From the world of literature, original manuscripts of works including Charlotte Bronte's 'Jane Eyre', Jane Austen's 'Persuasion', Charles Dodgson's 'Alice's Adventures Under Ground' (you may know it as Lewis Caroll's 'Alice in Wonderland'), George Eliot'
;s 'Middlemarch' and Rudyard Kipling's 'The Jungle Books' are on display. These are generally open to interesting points in the stories, and reveal a lot about the approach the various writers took to their work. Dodgson's manuscript, for example, is littered with carefully drawn illustrations, and meticulously printed text. The manuscript of James Joyce's 'Finnegan's Wake', by contrast, is a scrawled mass of writing, with words running over each other at different angles.
Also on display is an original 11th century copy of the manuscript of 'Beowulf', alongside a modern printed version bearing Seamus Heaney's annotations, made in preparation for his 1999 Whitbread Prize winning translation of the work.
Selected works from the Library's National Sound Archive can be listened to at listening posts dotted around the gallery, allowing visitors to hear historic speeches, works of literature read by celebrities, and pieces of music.
Music itself is represented in the galleries by original manuscripts of works written by Bach, Purcell, Gilbert and Sullivan, Britten, Stravinsky, Tippett and Vaughan Williams. Mozart's manuscript of his musical interpretation of Psalm 46 ('God is out refuge') was presented to the Library by Wolfgang himself on a visit to the Library. A separate cabinet in the Music area is devoted to the Beatles, including lyrics for hits including 'Fool on the Hill' and 'A Ticket To Ride' scribbled on scraps of paper in Lennon's fair hand.
At the back of the John Ritblat Gallery is an area entitled 'Turning the Pages' at which visitors can page through some of the library's most valuable works, using interactive computer terminals. Touching the screen allows you to turn the pages of books, or roll your way along a scroll. Works accessible via the 'Turning the Pages' terminals include the Lindisfarne Gospels, one of
Leonardo da Vinci's notebooks and the Diamond Sutra.
The British Library's bookshop is very well stocked, selling a fascinatingly diverse, but seemingly random selection of books, including "books on books" and displays on the making and history of books. In addition to the books, the shop sells gifts from the Library – ranging from the usual selection of stationery, through mugs, to postcards.
Guided tours of the Library are very informative and run at 3pm every Monday, Wednesday and Friday, as well as twice on Saturdays (10.30am and 3pm), costing £5 per person (£3.50 concessions). I went on one of these tours shortly after the Library opened, before any of the periodicals had been moved into the Science and Technology reading rooms, and the tour encompassed a brief visit through the empty rooms.
Nowadays, if you want to visit a reading room on your tour, you'll have to visit at 6.30pm on a Tuesday, or at 11.30 or 3pm on a Sunday, and the tour will cost an additional pound. Bookings can be made up to two weeks in advance, though it is unlikely that you would need to pre-book.
The British Library has a fully featured conference centre, at which current authors and poets frequently speak. I saw Jung Chang (author of 'Wild Swans') speak at the conference centre a few months after the Library opened, for example.
The British Library is a fascinating building, with a lot to offer a tourist. There are some impressive exhibition galleries, with a truly stunning collection of historically-important papers and books on display, and some fascinating artwork on display throughout the Library. Admission to the galleries, and to the Library building itself, is free. Although there is quite a substantial charge for the guided tour – though it is well worth it!
Nearest Underground station is Kings Cross S
t. Pancras. Walk west from there along Euston Road, and you can't miss it.