British Library review (Oct 2014)
This is out-of-date! I have been here again since I wrote this review
If we built the British Library 150 years ago then I'm guessing it would have been fantastic. We would have got the equivalent of Tower Bridge, the Natural History Musuem and the Royal Courts of Justice. But, alas, we built it twenty years ago, so we ended up with this instead. What a monstrosity! It's a big car park, that's what it is. No, wait... it's a supermarket. It's a prison. What is it? It's three million wasted bricks, piled up into the first shape they could think of... the cheapest shape possible. Even the clock looks like something out of playschool. It really is ugly. It's even uglier than me, and that is saying something -- because I am pretty ugly.
I am reminded of that story about St. Basil's Cathedral in Red Square -- about how Ivan the Terrible poked the architect's eyes out so that no one else could build anything as beautiful. Well, we should do the same thing with the bloke who built the British Library, but for the total opposite reason -- so we don't ever again have to look at something so bad. With a building like this you can usually find a few pigheaded people who like it, and champion it, but the British Library is the only building I know which absolutely everybody hates. Even Stevie Wonder hates it.
Once you step inside it starts to look a little bit better. It opens up into a vast entrance hall with some stairs and escalators, and some huge bookcases spanning several floors that look like they are full of dusty leather tomes. It's nothing to write home about, but it's a better than the outside.
The only real exhibition they've got for the tourists is a room called 'Treasures of the British Library'. It's very dark and quiet inside, and even a little reverential; full of lowly-lit display cases containing books and faded manuscripts. They've got some old music scores, for example, by the likes of Beethoven, Bach and Mozart, and some handwritten scraps by The Beatles. The literature section has got books by Ben Johnson and Marlow, and a copy of Shakespeare's First Folio. They've got some of Leonardo da Vinci's open notebooks too.
Amongst the historical documents is a letter from Galileo, written one month before his trial, and some stuff by Anne Boleyn, Elizabeth I and Mary I. They've also got a letter from Charles I, written whilst he was banged up inside Carisbrooke Castle, and Admiral's Nelson's last letter to Lady Hamiltion, written two days before the Battle of Trafalgar. And that's just a small sample... how about Captain Scott's diary from his fateful voyage to the South Pole? And pages from Alexander Fleming's notebook... on the day that he discovered penicillin? The absolute holy of holies is a copy of the Magna Carta from 1225. So as you can see, there are plenty of truly historic documents on show. It's impossible to read most of it though, because it's all so feint and scrawled; but it's quite interesting to see what their handwriting looked like, I suppose.
There are also lots (and lots) of decorated bibles and religious texts. All very old and beautiful. And some early books from the dawn of the printing press. They've got a few old maps and landscapes too, and some oriental stuff.
It's not the biggest exhibition in the world, and you will probably be done inside half an hour, but it's worth a visit if you're interested in that kind of thing. But that's basically all that you can see as a tourist. There are a few corridors and cafes for you to walk around, but you need to get hold of a pass to see the actual books -- and they vet everyone beforehand. You have to go through a process of telling them what book you want, and why you need it, before they dare to let you loose in the library -- so it's not as simple as just turning up and sitting down for a read. (I sat down and had a cup of tea instead.)
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