Public tours of the British Library run regularly and today I was lucky to get a private one. The Library is the copyright library for the United Kingdom requiring the legal deposit of all publications, which the library must keep in the collection. Approximately 8,000 items are received every day! The British Library Parliamentary Act was passed in 1972 ensuring that the fragmented major collections held elsewhere at the time, such as the British Museum and the East India Office, could be unified in one place. It took 30 years to build and was opened by Queen Elizabeth in 1998.
The building consists of 280 kms of stack, 9 floors underground. Only half of the collection is on site and the remainder is stored in Yorkshire.
Requirements were put in place to allow for community space and the design was not to impede on the view of neighbouring buildings. There are 11 reading rooms with about 4,000 seats. There was a Stage 2 proposal but the Thatcher government cut this. Although funding was provided later for an on-site conservation centre.
There are currently over 200 million items in the catalogue. Books are stored by size and the library has a unique location classification system. There is a strict admission policy and users in the reading room are required to obtain membership cards, which include a photo and are valid for up to three years.
We were shown the unique delivery system that runs on a conveyor system throughout the building.
The King’s Library, the personal collection of King George III is displayed beautifully in a glass tower near the entrance of the library; a condition of its donation by King George IV was that it always be on view and that it would be made available for scholars to access as had been the practice of his father. 8,500 volumes cover a wide range of subjects and include rare first editions. Staff process 70 – 80 requests per day to access items from this collection.
The Treasures Gallery is a permanent exhibition. It includes manuscripts and printed music, historical documents, maps, and views and books. Highlights include original material of the Beatles, Shakespeare, illuminated manuscripts and Magna Carta.
We were shown the “turn the page” technology enabling visitors to turn the page on a screen of digitised images of some of the treasures. This was invented by staff at the Library and has since been implemented in exhibitions by other libraries and museums. This is also online as part of the virtual books exhibition
I also visited their other free exhibition A-Z of Crime in the Library