Thursday, July 8, 2010

Library Visit: The British Library

Oh, the British Library. By far one of my favorite places in London (how can a person, let alone a bibliophile, not like such a place as this?). I've had the pleasure of visiting the British Library and its treasures before, but I assure you, never quite like today.

The British Library, as I mentioned before, was once a part of the British Museum. The current (marvelously-designed) building adjacent to King's Cross St. Pancras opened in 1997, at which point all readers wishing to look at materials held by this library started visiting the same building I toured. The British Library is the UK's legal deposit library, meaning that by law it must acquire and keep at least one copy of everything published in the UK. That's quite a lot: right now the collection holds over 200 million items, with the collection growing by 8,000 items per day on average.

How does a library hold such a massive collection, you ask? They hold about half of their materials in the library building itself. In fact, they've got storage space equivalent to an 8-story building reaching 25 metres (82 feet) underground. Any of these items that are requested by library readers for perusal in one of the library's reading rooms are brought up to the main library levels via an automated material retrieval system that is made up of over a mile of conveyor belts. All items, and the bins in which they are transported, have barcodes unique to each request, allowing the whole automation thing to work. It works so well, in fact, that my tour guide specifically pointed out that the library has never lost an item via the system. Rare and delicate materials are delivered by hand, the old-fashioned way, in case you were worried about that.

The other half of the library collections is housed off-site in Yorkshire. Any item held in Yorkshire requested by a library reader will take two days' transit to get to the library itself; readers, plan ahead.

A prized "small" portion of the British Library's holdings, the original collection of around 65,000 volumes amassed by King George III, is housed on-site in a veritable tower fortress of rare books. This collection, officially called the King's Library but more grandiosely called the Jewel in the Crown of the British Library, is contained in a six-story structure sitting in the middle of the public area of the library space. The walls are glass, allowing the collection to be visible at all times. These items, though rare and prized, are available for readers' use just the same as everything else the library holds; about 70 of these items are requested any given day.

Readers at the British Library are those who need to use the collections for some specific purpose--emphasis on need. Not just anyone can get a reader's card; one needs to be a scholar or someone with proof of specific interest in a particular work or works, and one can only view these items once having exhausted all other possible means of viewing them in other collections. These strict qualifications result directly from the British Library's number one concern: the security of the collections. Like pretty much any library, rare books or no, they've had ocassional security issues in the past. No one can blame them for putting measures in place to prevent any in the future. One specific measure, not at all uncommon for rare books libraries, is that the British Library maintains a record of every item requested and viewed by every reader. Happily, this precaution serves both library security and the forgetful reader who can't recall the exact volume he read, oh, about six months ago...

My favorite part of this British Library tour? The Readers' Terrace. On the third floor of the library, in a public space that seems very sparsely used, there is a small room in which readers (and the public, presumably) can have a snack they've brought from home. Right outside the doors of that space is a lovely deck space, covered in blooming greenery, where library visitors can get a breath of fresh air before returning to their studies. Very comfortable indeed.

It was no secret that I was a fan of the British Library before this visit, but now that I know some of the finer details of its history, operation, and layout, I must say I'm an even bigger fan than before!

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