03 July 2014

British Library

The King's Library

Model of the British Library
Visiting the British Library proved to be one of the best experiences I have had in London so far. Upon entering the library you see the six-story King's Library, which houses a collection of about 65,000 books gifted to the nation by King George IV as well as the Thomas Grenville collection. This structure, designed by architect Colin St. John Wilson, is stunning and interestingly the only place in the library where you can see books on shelving. Unfortunately, only staff can enter the structure. One of our first stops on the tour was near a model of the building, which clearly reflects Wilson's time in the Royal Navy as it resembles a large ship. This also shines through in the building's details like the porthole-style windows in the doors. The ceilings and walls in the building are designed to reflect natural light, and as a result the main room almost glows.

Much like the Library of Congress, the British Library receives copies of everything published in the UK, which leads them to receive about 400 new items per day, which amounts to 9 miles of material per year. The items in the collection cover every known language on Earth (including Klingon for all the Star Trek fans in the UK). About 40% of their collection is on-site in the basement levels, including high-traffic materials and rare or fragile items. These materials are delivered to the main floor via ABRS (Automatic Book Retrieval System), which consists of 1.2 miles of track throughout the building. A book's journey from basement to the reading room is approximately 70 minutes long. The library uses their own system of shelf marks to delineate an item's category, size, and location. With the vast amount of materials available, having this intuitive system probably helps employees locate items more quickly.

Entrance to the "Treasures of the British Library" gallery

All of the experiences in the British Library so far were great, but a visit to the Treasures Gallery proved to be even more exciting. No pictures were allowed in this section of the library because of the value and rarity of the items contained within. The Tudor enthusiast in me was thrilled to see the prayer books of Elizabeth I and Lady Jane Grey and the handwritten letters of Henry VIII, Elizabeth I, and Edward VI. There were pages from da Vinci's notebooks, Michelangelo's letters, Jane Austen's writing desk, an early Beowulf manuscript, and so many gorgeously illuminated manuscripts. The music collection was quite extensive and held a copy of the first printed music as well as handwritten scores by Mozart, Beethoven, Handel, Purcell, Bartok, Vaughan Williams... I have studied and adored so many of these composers over the years. This room is quite possibly my version of heaven.

The last little room in the Treasures Gallery is a low-light area holding two copies of the Magna Carta. This is an important document for England, but also significant to me because I am a direct descendant of King John and five of the 25 Magna Carta barons. To be so close to a document that was most likely touched by six of my ancestors was especially moving. For anyone who may be interested in the barons, here is some light Wikipedia reading on my ancestors:

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