2010 Bookseller Resource Guide
The British Library
The property boom and Thatcherism dried up in the 1990s. The King’s Cross and St. Pancras area remained the seedy haunt of prostitutes and drug-users, the transient and homeless—until reinvigorated first by the library and now by the new railroad terminal. Nevertheless, the rear of the library complex still looks crudely truncated. To compensate for the reduced space, state-of-the-art warehousing and book-handling facilities have been developed at Boston Spa in Yorkshire, some 200 miles north of London, where space is considerably cheaper; the enormous newspaper and magazine archive remains in the dismal outer suburb of Colindale, where it was first moved in 1905.
Prince Charles, passing the library site in the 1980s, glimpsed a half-built concrete shell and likened it to a Stalinist secret-police headquarters. This was all the encouragement the tabloid press needed; spotting an easy target, they ganged up on the library and gave it the roughest of rides, jeering when costs inevitably spiraled and shelving collapsed. There was an almost universal ignorance about the uniquely demanding construction standards and the stunning engineering solution: mining out each basement level from the slab above to prevent the whole of St. Pancras Station from slipping, with a sea of London clay, into the hole. No one sang the praises of the intricate and perfectly executed brickwork, or the magnificent piazza that gradually emerged over the deep basement levels. Readers and academics, too, found themselves siding with the sneering detractors over the supposed insult to their traditions and sacrosanct places in the Reading Room.
Thus the British Library has had a short but turbulent history, suffering insult and ignominy for a good half of its life from the unlikely combination of the tabloid press and the royal family. Despite mountains of ill-informed and simply ignorant reporting (all carefully cataloged and preserved in the library’s extensive newspaper warehouse, of course) and government policy-reversals, the library quietly got on with meeting the very real challenges of the twenty-first century.
The building—a complex of the most intricately engineered space, as much below as above ground—straddles the tunnels of the London Underground. Yet the collection resides in carefully controlled and stable conditions with a delivery system designed to minimize the once-endless waiting time for books.
Today, there is almost universal agreement that the resultant space and working environment is far superior to the old facilities. The scale is magnificent and well adapted to digital technology—the site boasts the largest WiFi hotspot in central London. The collection is far more accessible to the general population and over 140,000 reader passes have been issued. If your interest is that of a tourist rather than a reader, which exhibition do you head for? The Gutenberg Bibles? The Lindisfarne Gospels, a seventh-century Celtic manuscript masterpiece? A 1,200-year-old Chinese scroll, the Diamond Sutra, one of the world’s oldest printed works? Or perhaps something more modern, like an original copy of the Magna Carta (the library has two), the sole surviving manuscript of Beowulf, or a First Folio of Shakespeare?
The towering King’s Library—60,000 books donated by George IV in 1823—rises through the various levels and dominates the main entrance hall. Can you imagine a happier solution for a space originally designated for a gigantic card index suddenly made redundant by the computer revolution? Elsewhere there are constant exhibitions reinforcing the unique appeal of books for new generations. The recent bicentennial celebration of Hans Christian Andersen was literally overshadowed by a gigantic origami swan swooping over the exhibition.
Like all major public institutions in the U.K., the British Library is under constant pressure to “perform” for the taxpayers, rather than act as some intimate academic club. This leads to a potential conflict.
“The curatorial role has always been that of a tightrope walker,” explains Dr. Michelle Brown, manuscripts specialist and former curator of the Lindisfarne Gospels, a passionate advocate of public access. “You need to act as a responsible custodian for material with a view to its long-term preservation, but still recognizing that these things have to live as well. It’s no good just putting them on ice; it’s getting the right people alongside the right materials at the right stage in both their histories, so they make the most of the encounter.”
Dr. Clive Field, the director of scholarship and collections, sees the institution performing a similar balancing act. “If you go back to the library’s foundation,” he said, “the collections have always been there for the benefit of studious and curious persons. We’re not a national museum, but equally we’re not a mausoleum; we’ve built up fantastic research collections and we continue to invest heavily in them with a view to them actually being utilized. Obviously there are stewardship responsibilities. We have to address preservation and conservation issues and that means we must restrict access to certain items. But generally the collections are there to be used by anybody who has a serious intent and is capable of actually benefiting from them, so it’s research broadly defined. Our biggest challenge is the growth of the collection.”
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