Tuesday, 8 July 2008

Site 2: The British Library

July 8, 2008

The British Library is a short walk from three underground stations (short walks always being a big, fat plus, in my opinion. At least where a chance of rain is concerned -- and I am very concerned!), and it's a delight leading up to the entrance doors, strolling through the piazza completely dry. The grounds are quiet when we first arrive, not yet ten o'clock in the morning (but given the bhangra music which later permeates, however, the action soon picks up in the afternoon). Inside the library is a different story: the foyer, the staircase leading down into the cloakroom, the staircases leading up to rooms yet unknown -- it is a fairly bustling center of action. Researchers totally abide by carpe diem.

Once inside, I make a beeline for the racks of brochures, all of which I find are of that rare and hopeful breed of being both (a) helpful and (b) really lovely to look at. Armed with the latest news of library events, tours, and introductory everything, my next beeline is to... the restrooms.

Of course, given my impeccable timing in all matters, I find that our tour guide has arrived when I return, and hurrying over, I manage to catch his position and name. The British Library's Donation's Officer, Kevin (no last name as far as I am aware, and not unlike Cher or Madonna -- which is very rock star librarian of him), starts by giving us a brief history of the library. Being a national library, the British Library is charged with three central aims: to acquire the entire bibliographic output of England and Ireland, to maintain and keep these materials forever, and to make available their collections and technology. Pretty substantial shoe-filling here. And seeing their goals through, in an on-site collection that numbers 35 million books, that takes a lot of manpower in addition to vision -- 2,300 staff, in fact.

The British Library website helps to broaden where Kevin (or my note-taking, rather) leaves off. Navigating the site with a specific designation in mind (i.e. using the online catalogue, identifying services, popular collections, et al) and for different sorts of users, whether they be for educational, business, personal, or Top Secret purposes -- is made simple by the Go To heading listed at the bottom of the page. For the fast and furious, a breakdown of the library can be found in easily digestible bites on the Quick Information page. Here, you can, well, quickly gather information on the library's holdings, usage, and the all important question -- where exactly is this library, and when can I visit it? For those homebodied souls, Quick Information also includes digital resources that users can access from the comforts of home, or internet cafe, or wherever wi-fi takes them.

Returning to my actual tour, Kevin delightfully stuffs our heads with more British Library statistics, and British humor (/humour -- Kevin seriously laments the death of the letter "u" in American spelling) in general. Some dates, if you please: In 1961, the library came into being, so to speak, separating itself from the British Museum. Original plans for the library meant to knock out several Georgian-style buildings within the museum's vicinity, but public outcry (thank you, people) put a halt to those designs. The British government eventually bought land for a new site from the railroad system, back when it was privatized; and in 1973, the British Library became its own organization. Just ten years ago, 1998 brought the library to a newly renovated structure, where it remains today.

It's hard for me to imagine such a move, relocating 20 million items. But it can be done, in 4 years actually. The groundwork of developing such vast collections began much earlier, of course; Sir Hans Sloane, one of the library's founding fathers is credited with starting the rather excellent trend of donating personal collections to the nation. (He also had a hand in encouraging his friend Cadbury to purchase chocolate from Jamaica, yet another endeavor that we can all take satisfaction in.) More than the physical giving of books, Sloane perpetuated the idea that knowledge is to be shared. The spirit of public libraries depends upon this thread, however tenuous or strong we make of it. It's a great ideal. Of course, I am equally, if not morbidly interested with the disaster contingencies plans they have in place.

Six floors beneath us is sixty percent of the library's holdings, a mixture of open space and stacks and many things that could go wrong. In the event of fire: air vents are made thin to allow for easy access for firefighters. In the event of flooding: a subterranean water systems exists, where rainwater is collected, then shifted into the River Thames. And for the sake of our ears, a 40 foot wall works to absorb sound.

However safe the stacks may hopefully be from natural disaster, we can only imagine. We do not have access to them after all, not as public users. The British Library adheres to a closed stacks policy. But with a library golden ticket, a.k.a. Reader's Pass, users are able to access the materials. Thanks to my inherent paranoia, I have with me every identification card I own (my passport, my international student ID card, my driver's license, as well as my old driver's license -- don't ask why) and course syllabus; I am totally set for yet another library card. And really, one can never have enough.

Any wistfulness on my part as to browsing is soon put out when Kevin informs us of the library's classification system. "Size," he says. At first I think he means an acronym, but no, it's all straightforward, and entirely incomprehensible. Kevin explains that they use a grid reference: location, floor, quadrant, in terms of how to find items. He then claims that, "The Library of Congress is terribly jealous," which I suppose could be true, given the space-saving, and I'm no fan of Dewey (the classification nor the man). Living on an island is hard storage-wise times, but come on, size? Seriously? Maybe it's just me, but I can't order myself as a librarian that way. For once, I am pretty happy with America's supersize ways.

However, the bigger dilemma for me, now, at this very moment, is trying to end this entry. I know -- you undoubtedly feel -- I must. But like the 800 miles of shelving which wrap around the British Library, my notes seem to have taken a similar turn, long and meandering. I haven't even got to King George III's personal book collection! Jane Austen's letters to Casssandra! Beowulf! It's impossible to fit the enormity of what the British Library holds, and what those holdings mean, not in a single blog entry. So I bite off what I can chew; and it's not the naming of parts but the possibility, really, seeking the world's knowledge, that holds true.

The British Library homepage [official site]

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