Tuesday, 8 July 2008

The British Library: 8 July 2008

Images courtesy of British Library and Elizabeth Minter
(L-R: King's Library, Book and Chain bench, Jane Eyre manuscript)

A Librarian's Dream

The British Library is the third largest library in the world, preceded by the Moscow Lending Library and the Library of Congress respectively. It houses a total of 170 million items or the equivalent of 800 miles of shelving. This number grows at a rate of 8 miles per year. The organization which was separated from the British Museum in 1961 has three legal obligations: 1) to acquire everything published in the UK; 2) to keep these archives forever; and 3) to make their collection available to all who wish to access the items.

Though the Library has been independent of the Museum since 1961, it's own building was not completed until 1997 and its doors opened in June 1998. It took almost 4 years to move the entire collection, a large portion of which is stored beneath the forecourt. This space descends 6 stories and contains over 35 million items.

It's important to note that there is no shelf browsing within the library. Patrons must know what they wish to request. The process of requests is quite intricate and fascinating. There are four systems integrated to bring the item to the patron within an hour and fifteen minutes time. The items within the British Library are not classified according to subject but rather by size. What at first thought seems ridiculous to those accustomed to libraries in the United States is actually quite efficient. This classification system allows the best use of space and less work when new acquisitions come in.

While all of this was fascinating, I found that the most exciting part of our visit was the items on display within the Library. I was left speechless by the original manuscripts of Jane Eyre, Beowulf, The Gutenberg Bible and many original musical scores. The magnitude of the collection and the availability was absolutely inspiring! I will certainly be getting myself a reader pass or as we Americans would say a library card.

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