Libraries are one of my Things, and so, although I hadn’t really made a point of looking for one, when I came across The British Library in one of the guidebooks it immediately went on the list. They had a great gate, and courtyard, and the building was an impressive multi-storied affair built around the King’s Library – a glass tower holding George III’s collection.
The Library is repository for 150 million items and counting. There was a Greatest Hits Gallery – OK, I think they called it Treasures from the Collection or some such – that had a selection of documents ranging from original scores by Handel and Mozart to manuscripts by Jane Austen and Charles Dickens to sacred texts illuminated and embellished with gold leaf to scientific documents from Galileo and Alexander Fleming (Discovery of penicillin) to a copy of the Magna Carta and a papal bull annulling it. Absolutely overwhelming. The history, and the objects themselves, visually – it fascinates me to see people’s handwriting – somehow it makes them that much more real and gives a connection to their creative process. There was also a special selection of items celebrating the 500 year anniversary of Sir Thomas More’s Utopia, with various editions and translations.
There was also a (free) exhibit on Punk, which I checked out, and an (admission fee) big feature exhibit on Shakespeare in the movies, which I did not. (GAH! Looks like the current headline exhibit is on Maps. Ah, timing.) I walked around, oogling the tower of books from different vantage points, checked out the Conservation Centre exhibit and peeked in some of the reading rooms. WHICH!!!! If one has a card, one can request (almost) anything in the collection and get to sit there and look at it!!! Even out of the tower. You request it from the catalog, a slip gets printed out, and every hour “staff goes in with a barrow and fetches them.” Apparently it’s a hollow column with lifts in the center for accessing the books. That pretty much blew my mind, that one would be able to look at these items. So cool that is possible.
I really had had no idea what to expect, and I don’t think The British Library is usually on any of the lists of “Places to Go when you’re in London”, so I was pleasantly surprised by how much awesome it turned out to be (I mean it’s hard to go wrong with libraries, but this really was next level), and very glad I had visited. Oh and there were presses on display!