Thursday, July 8, 2010

British Library

Today we got up bright and early to leave for the British Library. We took the tube (unfortunately, as it was rush hour, it was packed) to King's Cross-St. Pancras Station. Several took the opportunity to snap photos at a certain platform (see photo at right). Afterward we continued on to the day's activity, a tour of the British Library.

The British Library is the national library of the United Kingdom. Along with The Library of Congress, The Bibliothèque nationale de France, and The Russian State Library, The British Library is one of the four largest libraries in the world. Collections date from 1753, but it was not until 1997 that the current facility opened. From the start of planning to opening day, it took 36 years to complete the new building. The collection currently contains about 200 million items and grows at a staggering rate of 8,000 items a day. The Library is a depository library, meaning that it holds a copy of everything published in the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland, as well as items released in those countries.

Only half of the collections are housed on-site. The on-site collections are located below the Library's front pavilion, in the equivalent of an eight story building. One can hear Tube trains rushing past while in the storage area. Requested items are available to be viewed in one of the eleven reading rooms in a couple of hours. They are fetched from the storage area by a highly efficient delivery system (for normal, non-fragile books only). The rest of the collections are housed in Yorkshire, and requested items located there take two days to travel to the Library.

While The British Library is a public library, it is a reference library, meaning that it does not lend out items. One must register for a Reader Pass to view materials in one of the 1200-1500 desks for readers. Because desk space is limited, only those who have a need to use the Library are granted a pass. Users may register online, but they must be age 18 or over and they must also bring proper identification. Our tour guide Chrissy gave us some colourful examples of unusual requests for Readers Passes. One woman wanted a copy of Oscar Wilde's pseudonym Sebastian Melmoth's signature so that she could get a tattoo of it done (what a cool idea!).

After our tour we got the opportunity to visit the Library's Magnificent Maps and Treasures of the British Library exhibitions. The Treasures exhibition included a copy of the Magna Carta as well as several illuminated manuscripts, musical scores, and handwritten Beatles lyrics. Unfortunately, the Lindisfarne Gospels, which I had wanted to see, were not on display. However, I enjoyed the tour and exhibits immensely.

Photos courtesy of (Platform 9 3/4) and Tamil Heritage Foundation (British Library).

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