Day 6: British Library


Wednesday, July 1, 2015
The British Library is housed in a large edifice near King’s Cross and St Pancras stations. It was designed by Sir Colin St John Wilson to look like an ocean liner, and took 36 years to build.

British Library (via Jack1956 on Wikipedia)
British Library (via Jack1956 on Wikipedia)

The British Library just formally opened 1998 making it very young. It is the national library of the United Kingdom and a legal deposit library, meaning that the British Library can receive a copy of any book published in the UK or Ireland.

3 above and 4 below (via K. Emmons)
3 above and 4 below (via K. Emmons)

It contains 200 million items in its seven floors (three above ground, four underground), including King George III’s Library located in the middle for all to see.

King George III's Library in the center of British Library (via K. Emmons)
King George III’s Library in the center of British Library (via K. Emmons)

Previously all collections, and the library itself, were part of the British Museum. It is a reference library, which means all materials must be looked at on site; no book is lent out to readers. Readers cannot roam the stacks, and must apply for a reader’s pass. Anyone can register, but must have a reason for using the collections.

If you can think of it, the British Library probably has it. There are books, manuscripts, letters, paintings, sound recordings, handwritten, typed, documents in any language you’d want, maps, patents, newspapers… the list just goes on!

One of my favorites spaces was the treasures room. It has handwritten lyrics by The Beatles, Leonardo Da Vinci’s notebooks, Jane Austen’s writing desk, and a couple dozen religious tomes both ancient and beautifully decorated. They even had workstations where you can electronically flip through the books! It looks like you’re turning the page! Imagine a Kindle or Nook but the size of a television screen and in High Definition even when you zoom in. There’s some amazing scanning technology behind these computers.

Now on a personal level, I was so excited to visit this library and was slightly intimidated by it’s rules and how mechanical it seemed. This is a well-oiled steamboat! I imagine this is what most people feel like when trying to visit any library; this is the stereotypical “gateway” librarian. A lot of places in America seem to be pushing access, but I didn’t quite get that from the British Library. Yes, Kelsey, this is a different country and they probably have different values. I know. That’s what this trip is about: learning and understanding similarities and differences between US and UK libraries and archives. And if you look at the facts they seem to support patron access:

  • *onsite space for 1,200 Readers
  • *16,000 people use the collections each day, onsite and online
  • *they operate the world’s largest document delivery service providing millions of items a year to customers around the world
    (via About US)

But… still… the process to use the materials in The British Library isn’t a walk in the park. You have to apply for (online) and obtain (in person) a Reader’s Card. Fairly normal. You sometimes need a letter of introduction (several students in my library class did). A little archaic to me. You really need to have a reason to use the materials in the library; you can’t browse or see things just for fun. I know, this is probably for security reasons. I understand that. Even electronic access can be a bit tricky on their website, but perhaps I just haven’t spent enough time learning their system.

The British Library works like a machine. They work very efficiently from what I can tell, which is saying great things for a GIANT library.


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