Thursday, July 16, 2009

British Library: "They are the books, the arts, the academes, that show, contain and nourish all the world."

The British Library is the national library of the UK, and is often likened to the Library of Congress in America. Although LoC is the largest library in the world, the BL is a close second, and contains about 150 million items. The BL is a copyright/legal deposit library, so it receives copies of all books (and certain other items) published in the UK and the Republic of Ireland. Therefore, the collection grows by millions of items each year, and is already running out of space. The BL is sponsored by the Department of Culture, Media, and Sport.

I cannot possibly give every detail of the BL tour, nor list everything that I loved - which was everything. However, I will try to hit the highlights. My group's tour guide was Stephen Sandford, who works in rare books, helped move St. George III's massive book collection, and shook the queen's hand. He provided us with fantastic information while injecting a bit of humour into the tour.

--"Sitting on History," the art installation piece by Bill Woodrow that is only complete when someone is sitting on it.

--Turning the Pages, an interactive program that allows you to view, flip through, and magnify (using a touch-sensitive screen) rare books that can't be easily accessed. I LOVE this - even though there are only a couple of them here and there, I do think that this is a great way to broaden access to rare materials. More information here.

--The SIX stories of books in the centre of the library that comprise King George III's personal collection. He donated them with the request that they be available to anyone, and they are. Librarians have to use lifts to access the books. The shelves they are housed in are made of bronze and use heat resistant glass, and they contain fibre optic lighting to avoid damaging the collection.

--The British Library provides free service to anyone in the world. To access the reading rooms, one need have a specific research interest and proof of ID, but you can be from anywhere. The magnificent Treasures Gallery is open to anyone, even without a reader's pass.

--The library is not a lending library, but readers can access a huge portion of the collection. 90% of books can be retrieved within 1 hour. Library workers read the book request, retrieve the book from the shelves underground, and place it on an intricate miniature railway (1.25 miles long!); the book will make it to another staff member, who gives it to the patron.

--The new business and IP centre, while not within my area of interest, is an absolutely amazing resource for those who want to start a business (and right now everyone needs all the help possible). It is funded by a £1 million grant from the London Development Agency. It offers a space for free workshops and networking. It's very clean and modern-looking, and its look provides a contrast to the rest of the library.

--"Paradoxymoron" by Patrick Hughes, a painting that cannot be explained unless you see it.

--As briefly mentioned earlier, the Treasures Gallery. I have to go back because I only saw two walls worth of rare manuscripts and papers, and they were all amazing: the sole surviving manuscript of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight; the commonplace book of John Milton, a manuscript of Jane Austen's persuasion; Lewis Carroll's manuscript of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland; papers and/or drafts from Charlotte Bronte, Thomas Hardy, Oscar Wilde, Virginia Woolf, Harold Pinter, and Sylvia Plath. No, that wasn't all. Yes, I was an English major. There is so much more to see, and it's not all literature related.

We also took a tour of the British Library Preservation Studios, which I think will warrant a separate post due to the already ridiculous length of this one.

I looked forward to this day ever since I saw my syllabus, and it greatly exceeded my expectations. The British Library is absolutely amazing, and even though I already knew how lucky I was to be here, I felt incredibly appreciative of and grateful for the opportunities this program has afforded me.If any prospective students are reading this and trying to decide if the price tag of the program is worth it (I personally took out student loans) - IT IS. I have been here less than a week and already I know this has been one of the best decisions I have ever made. I'm already plotting ways in which I can come back to London and/or travel the world.

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