The British Library

This past Sunday we were actually spontaneous.  I know! How crazy is that? Alex and Astrid, the ridiculous planners, actually did something without scheduling.  We were on a bus going to St. Pancras International, and as we passed the British Library I happened to mention that I wanted to see the “Magnificent Maps” exhibit before it comes down on August 30. And before I could think twice, Alex suggested that we go that very afternoon.  And so we found ourselves entering the red-brick courtyard of the British Library.

We actually had quite a long conversation about the exterior of the building. Alex really likes the red-brick, and thinks that it makes the building (which in concrete would appear brutalist) more approachable. Personally, I dislike it. It reminds me too much of elementary school. I think brick works well on a small scale, or on a period building (like St. Pancras next door), but not on a modernist design of this scale. I would much prefer a glass and steel exterior! The courtyard also appears to be a dead space: no one uses it, and it’s got no shade to escape from the sun. Bring on some trees and benches!

The only part of the courtyard that I really like is the entrance gate. It’s a bit off-putting when it’s closed, because I think the whole philosophy of a library and knowledge and learning should be based on open-ness, which this gate denies. But there is also a bit of a historical tint to an iron-gate: back in the day gates like this were designed with the family crest on it. They functioned a bit like house numbers or addresses today — you knew you were at the right place because the gate proudly proclaimed the family crest or design. Here, there is no doubt as to where you’ve arrived: The British Library.

The interior of the building carries on the red-brick, but adds much needed white space to lighten the whole effect.  I love the atrium in the center, and the natural light is very easy on the eye. The one thing that Alex commented on however, which is pretty ironic, is the lack of books. This is a library for friggin sake, but you don’t see any books!  Where are the books?  We saw this sculpture of a book, which I think is also a bench (?), but I’m not sure I like the ball and chain attached to it. What is that supposed to mean? Isn’t knowledge supposed to set you free? I’m sure it’s meaningfull and all, but I just don’t get this one.

Ah ha! Finally! Books!  But wait, they are all behind this tall glass column in the atrium, and you can’t get to any of them…  These books are all really old and important looking. I guess they don’t want the riffraff like us to get our grubby little hands all over them. (Someday I want a library that looks like this, with a really tall ladder on wheels that I can roll around on.)

Okay, enough about the lack of books. There are plenty of books in the British Library (they have more than 150 million items!), even if they are not on prominent display. Among the very special items, the British Library has “Beowulf, a Gutenberg Bible, Geoffrey Chaucer‘s Canterbury Tales, Thomas Malory‘s Le Morte Darthur (King Arthur) Captain Cook’s journal, Jane Austen‘s History of England, Charlotte Brontë‘s Jane Eyre, Lewis Carroll‘s Alice’s Adventures Under Ground, Rudyard Kipling‘s Just So Stories, Charles Dickens‘s Nicholas Nickleby, Virginia Woolf‘s Mrs Dalloway and a room devoted solely to  Magna Carta.” (from wikipedia)

This is a page from the Lindisfarne Gospels. And what do we know about Lindisfarne?  Well, if you were paying attention earlier in the week, you would know that Lindisfarne was the home to St. Cuthbert, and these gospels were written in his honor. And St. Cuthbert’s bones are now housed in Durham Cathedral. That’s some nice symmetry there, isn’t it?

And here is Magna Carta. Yes, it’s just Magna Carta over here. In the states we would call it THE Magna Carta, but apparently the British think that it is special enough not to need the THE. It’s quite funny in conversation to say “We saw Magna Carta yesterday” … like it’s a person or a play … but I digress.  I am personally interested in the Magna Carta because it was written by one of my favorite British monarchs: King John. (Alex challenged me once to name my favorites in order, which would be a tough one. That might be a whole ‘nother post!)

This document (the British Library has two copies of the 1215 charter) has it’s own room, and is behind specially protected glass. And yet it is surprisingly accessible. There is no visible security, no fees, and not much waiting to catch a glimpse of it. Not that seeing it will do much for you, since it was written in Latin.

We also saw the map exhibit. That was the original point of going there, after all! It’s a lovely little show with lots of unique and original maps, and the accompanying texts do an excellent job of succinctly explaining why each map is unique or special. We enjoyed looking at the oldest map of the United States after the Declaration of Independence (and it seemed appropriate as it was the Fourth of July!). On this map Georgia and Carolina extended all the way west to the Mississippi, and Connecticut takes up most of modern-day Canada!

We also enjoyed this map, which shows the southern-most point of South America. I liked the fire breathing dragons in the ocean, and the sections in the interior of the continent that were just labeled “Terra Incognita” — the land unknown!

So there you have a nice little portrait of the British Library. It’s a nice afternoon, but I don’t think I’ll put it in my London Top Ten. Everything I’ve read about it talks about the really remarkable Philatelic Collections (that’s stamps…) so we might have to go back and take a peek at those.  🙂

I hope you all have a lovely weekend. Alex is leaving for Tokyo on Sunday, and I’m going to Bastille Day in Battersea Park for a crepe and some mime-spotting!


Posted on 09/07/2010, in Exploring the UK, Publishing, Within London and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 6 Comments.

  1. Well… it is a research library-of-last-resort, so the books are all kept well away from ordinary folk (deep underground, mostly), and those who do have access have to go through security checks to get into the reading rooms. The ball and chain, BTW, commemorates the way mediaeval libraries literally chained the books down, bearing in mind how expensive it was to make them by hand, and how precious they were as a result. You can still see this in the old cathedral libraries.

  2. Every time you talk about St. Pancras International I misread it as St. Pancreas 🙂

  3. The scale is phenomenal! I love the colors on the Lindisfarne. It is so much fun being on your tour!



    examples of the chained book bindings and bellow a link to a short description about them

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