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The British Library came into being when George IV gifted his father’s vast collection of books to the nation in 1823.
They were originally housed inside the Reading Room at the British Museum, but as the collection grew it was decided to move them into a purpose-built home along the Euston Road. The space required was so vast that it took forty years to build and came in at three times its budget – a whopping £500 million!
The 150 million books, magazines and pamphlets are now stored on over 500 miles of shelving on fourteen floors (including six underground). It also has a public piazza, three large galleries, two restaurants and a shop.
As well as containing a modern copy of every book published in Britain, the British Library also has an historic collection of manuscripts that date back several millennia, from old Buddhist texts like the Diamond Sutra to the Lindisfarne Gospels of 698 AD.
The John Ritblat Gallery contains the most valuable possessions: a copy of the Magna Carta from 1215, the Gutenberg Bible from 1455 (the first book printed in moveable-type), and the first complete text of the New Testament, the Codex Sinaiticus.
Also on display are William Shakespeare’sFirst Folio, Leonardo da Vinci’s notebooks, and some music manuscripts by the likes of Mozart and Handel. They’ve got plenty of letters as well: like Henry VIII’s letter to Cardinal Wolsey, Elizabeth’s draft for a parliamentary speech, and Admiral Nelson’s handwritten love-letter to Lady Hamilton.
This review originally appeared in his London blog
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 Museum 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.
Mercifully, 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 damn sight better than the exterior.
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 by the likes of Beethoven, Bach and Mozart, and some handwritten scraps by The Beatles. The literature section contains some books by Ben Johnson and Marlow, and a copy of Shakespeare’s plays in his First Folio. They’ve also got a few of Leonardo da Vinci’s notebooks.
Amongst the historical documents is a letter from Galileo, written one month before his trial, and some pages 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 onboard HMS Victory.
And that’s just a very small sample… how about Captain Scott’s diary from his fateful voyage to the South Pole? Or 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. It’s impossible to read most of them, though, but it’s quite interesting to see what their handwriting looked like.
There are also lots and 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 also got a collection of old maps and landscapes, 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 the rigmarole of telling them what book you want, and why you need it, before they give you a pass and 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.)
> Read Craig’s latest review of the British Library “The British Library is a construction of such monumental ugliness that it’s worth seeing simply for that. Come and see the ugliest building in London! It’s as if they’ve tipped a billion bricks into a pile and now they’re waiting for the builders to start putting it all together. Only they won’t. Because it’s finished. This is it. Now it just sits on the side of the Euston Road in the same way that your black bin bags do on dustbin Monday. It’s too big to chuck a tarpaulin over it. There’s only one real exhibit for a tourist to look at, and that’s the ‘Treasures of the British Library’ room. It’s like a little museum of the written word, I suppose, with handwritten manuscripts… continued.”
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If you’re into literature then try the Charles Dickens Museum, Sherlock Holmes Museum, Keats’ House and Dr. Johnson’s House. You can also have a tour of the Globe Theatre and go and see a play by Shakespeare. You might like to check our events guide to see if there are any literary events coming up as well.
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