Saturday, July 16, 2011

British Library

ne cannot see the British Museum and rule out the British Library. Mostly because the Library existed before the Museum. A gentleman by the name of Sir Hans Sloane had the strange belief that knowledge should be shared. Sloane was rather educated; he was a physician, traveler and scholar. Amongst his many other accomplishments he invented quinine tablets for treating malaria and perhaps most important of all... he introduced drinking chocolate to Europe. He intended for his books to be used for a library after his death.

Another noteworthy founder of the library is Sir Robert Cotton. He was keen enough to gather up many books before they were destroyed by Henry VIII. These two collections were the beginning of what would later become the British Museum and the British Library.

The British Library is also known as the National Library of the United Kingdom, Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Similar to the Library of Congress in the United States, the library is responsible for housing one of every publication with an ISBN in the UK. This means that the library receives 8,000 new titles EVERY DAY. This presents a monumental cataloguing task. The books do have CIP of Catalogue in Print data which has some cataloguing information. However, since this data is being provided by the book's publisher, the cataloguers must do their own cataloguing in order to ensure there is no bias.

The library's materials are spread out among four facilities. The main branch houses some 35 million books. Built below the building is the largest subterranean tower block in Europe. There are four floors of shelving and the underground Piccadilly line actually runs through the stacks. This place is huge. In the countryside of Yorkshire there is another even huger complex which houses 60% of the library's materials. 185 million items. Big.

The main building in London as it exists now has only been in operation since 1997. In the 1950's the idea was proposed that the library should be removed from the museum and have its own facilities. In the 1960's construction began on the new building. 36 years later, the building opened. So what happened in all that time in between? As the librarian put it, "Monumental Cock-up." Due to poor planning and finances the process took much longer than anyone expected. And the consequences: the building is half as big as it should have been and cost twice as much.  Half the room, double the price. Rather than becoming a failed attempt, the library is thriving and making due with the limited space. One would never know. Perks of seeing behind the scenes, eh?

How do you use the library? You have to come in knowing what you are looking for. Because you cannot just cruise the stacks yourself, you have to look at the library's catalogue and know what you want before you can really get started. Bring an ID or passport and a debit card and fill out an application and you will be issued a reader's card which will get you a spot in one of the reading rooms.

How do the books get to you? The library uses a system called Automatic Book Retrieval System. Once the librarian has located the book, he or she will place the book into a basket which is placed on a conveyor belt which takes the book to the appropriate reading room. This process involved a lot of scanning of bar codes and it will take about twenty minutes for the book to get to you.

The library is the worlds 3rd largest library but is considered the world's richest library.  The library has made a point of cultivating a diverse collection that would reach any patron. There are 180 foreign language curators and 35% of the libraries patrons live abroad.

One of the first sights you will see upon entering the library is the stories high glass tower of stunning gold-tooled, leather bound books. This collection is known as the King's Library and is the complete personal library of King George III. There are 67,000 books in this collection and all are available to look at. In fact about 30 books a day from this collection are requested.

Some of the many treasures the library has is the Klencke Atlas, the world's largest atlas. The worlds largest stamp collection lives here including the worlds first stamp, the Penny Black. To name just a few of their other collections are manuscripts by Milton, Austen, Wordsworth, Bronte, Johnson, Wilde, Conrad, Woolf, Marlowe, Middleton, Chaucer, Darwin, Freud, Hayden's Messiah, Beethoven, Schubert. They have a collection of Beatles documents including hand written lyrics by George Harrison and John Lennon and lyrics for unrecorded songs. Oh, and the Magna Carta.

There is also a fantastic exhibition of science fiction which traces the earliest manifestations of what we now call science fiction and how the genre has grown and expanded to include such a diversity of ideas. And as if they knew I was coming, waiting in a case for me was the artists book Edwin Abbott's 1884 Flatland by Arion Press.

*The amazing display cap above is by Jessica Hische, an amazing designer I came across in my perpetual search for awesome design and typography. The letter comes from her Daily Drop Capproject.

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