(focused on Law librarianship and reading rooms)
On a wet Wednesday afternoon, I met the other graduate trainees and our ‘responsible adult’ on the steps of the great building, designed by the architect Colin St John Wilson. The British Library started life as the British Museum’s Department of Printed Books in 1753. However by passing the British Library Act of 1972, Parliament decided that the British Library should be established as a library in its own right. From its conception in 1962 to its completion the British Library took 30 years to build. The first reading room opened in November 1997 and the Queen officially opened the building in 1998.
We collected our passes from the desk and considering the number of degrees between us, it took a worrying amount of time to match everyone to the correct pass with their name on it. Then we waited around in the Piazza for our contact, Jonathon Simms to arrive. He arrived and took us to the model of the British Library, where he started to explain the geography of the building. The British Library employs over 2000 staff and is based on three sites: St Pancras and Colindale Newspaper Library in London and Boston Spa in Yorkshire. The building is split between humanities on the West side and sciences on the East and the basements descend 23 metres underground, as deep as the Victoria line! There is also a Mechanical Book handling system which helps transport parts of the 150 million item collection.
After examining the model, we went on to the Reader Registration Centre, where 30,000 new passes are issued annually. We then made our way to the Law reading rooms, which had many Law statutes on display on the open shelves. We also looked in to the Asian and African Study room, which contains a collection of 350 languages and the archives of the East India Company. Then we wandered on to the Business and Intellectual Property Centre, which is one of the most comprehensive collections of business information in the UK.
We made our way to the conference room, where we would be shown a presentation and video. On the way, the busts of the founding fathers of the British Library: Sir Robert Cotton, Sir Joseph Banks, Thomas Grenville and Sir Hans Sloane, were pointed out to us. We also passed the Kings Library, which is a beautifully displayed tower of books collected by King George III and donated to the nation by King George IV. The tower contains 65,000 rare volumes, 20,000 pamphlets and more than 400 manuscripts and is a high use collection.
We then went to the Conference room, where Jonathon showed us a slideshow on his career as the curator for Law and Socio- Legal Studies. I also found out some interesting information about some current projects at the British Library. For example the Learning department, which has developed a website and innovated a new History timeline to interest children in History. There is also a very interesting project going on in the British Sound Archive, concerning Oral History. We then watched the aforementioned video on how books were transported within the British Library.
All in all, this was an interesting visit, not only to learn slightly more about the arrangement of collections and space in the British Library but also the career of a Law librarian.
by Hannah Dare
On May 26th we visited the British Library. This library holds the second largest collection of books in the world, next to the Library of Congress. The British Library is one of the six copyright libraries in the UK, but unlike the others it must legally hold a copy of everything published in the country. Housing 150 million items and acquiring 3 million new items each year poses serious challenges in terms of storage and accessibility.
Despite the fact that we did not have a professional tour around the library, we had a wonderful guided tour lead by a knowledgeable and enthusiastic guide. She told us all about the building and purpose of the library, and how it services its readers.
In the early 1970s it was agreed that the British Library’s constituent sites, of which the British Museum Library was the biggest, should be housed together in a new building near St Pancras station. Unfortunately, the construction of this edifice was fraught with difficulties. It took over twenty years to complete and the costs rose considerably above expectations. The main problem lay in digging four underground floors to store the collection. Nevertheless, the new British Library was finally inaugurated in 1998. It provides readers with an airy and bright public space, eleven reading rooms, an exhibition hall and numerous lecture and seminar rooms, as well as a restaurant. In the centre of the building an imposing glass structure houses the beautiful books of King George III’s library, which according to his wishes is kept together and available to the public.
Lately, the British Library has relaxed its membership policy; in fact, it is no longer surprisingly difficult to consult its holdings. Now anyone with a good reason to use the collection can do so. The material is retrieved from the underground storage and is delivered to the reading rooms through an enormous electronic conveyor belt system which runs all over the building. Our guide even showed us an amazing video of how a book gets from the storage vaults to a reader.
It is truly the ultimate library and not to be missed.