Thursday, July 8, 2010

British Library Visit

Image: a corner of the King's Library at the British Library

Today, we visited the British Library. The class was split into groups of about 10 and led by different guides; my tour was led by Heather Morley. As we learned yesterday on our tour of the British Museum's General Archive, the British Library used to share the same facilities as the British Museum. The current building opened in 1998, giving both institutions more space and allowing the British Library to include a few more collections, such as the Philatelic Society Collection and the Business & IP Reading room. The new facility also allowed them to better care for the items in their collections. The Library currently has three locations: the flagship site we were at, Colindale in north London, and the Document Supply Center in Boston Spa, Yorkshire.

Both the scale and architecture of the flagship St. Pancras location and the cultural significance of the objects in its collections, particularly the Treasures collection, are awe-inspiring. However, I was struck at how the British Library is a very different institution from the Barbican Library. Whereas the Barbican, as a public library, invests a significant amount of time learning what their patrons want and providing it for them, the British Library is a repository library, and its mission is to collect, preserve, and record the existence of books in the British National Bibliography. The result is that access to the British Library collections is extremely limited. As our tour guide noted, this dichotomy between access and preservation has been a quandary since the time of one of its founders, Sir Hans Sloane, who had several scores in his collection ruined by a buttered muffin brought in by Handel.

For me, the perfect metaphor for the British Library is the glass-encased King's Library running through its center (or centre, rather): so many books, beautiful, varied, rare, but all behind glass, and the only door to reach all those books is behind a gate marked Staff Only.

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