Thursday, July 8, 2010

The British Library

I'm going to be very honest with you and admit something unflattering about myself. There have been a few moments on this trip where I stare at the amazing collections housed in a single collection and think "They have all this?!? That can't be fair..." Then, of course, the voice of logic chimes in that since whatever it is in several cases originated in this country, it probably is more fair than I want it to be.
I had several of those moments today in the British Library.
To start with, the British Library has approximately 175 million items in its collections. Despite the fact that all of the books are stored only by size (no Dewey Decimal!) to limit the amount of space used per item, that still tallies up to about 800-900 million miles of shelving. A good portion of the books in the London section of the British Library is stored in the largest subterannean tower in Europe. And the British Library's collection is continuing to grow every day of the year. So even to a dedicated bibliophile, that's a LOT of books.
What does the British Library try to do with all of these books? Preserve them! Which would sound simple enough except for the fact that about 200 years ago papermakers started using pulp instead of rags to make paper, and "the bane of the library world" (acidic paper) was born. This is part of why a large portion of the British Library's collection in London is stored in the labyrinth mentioned previously; they can maintain the perfect temperature for the coexistence of humans and books, 17 degrees Celsius, with 50% humidity. Also, whatever water is dripping around drains down to the lowest floor of the subterannean tower, which features tanks and pumps to put all the water back where it belongs, in the Thames. So even when it is flooding, the basement treasure house remains nice and dry.
Another interesting feature of the library is that from a certain angle it looks like a nautical vessel. Apparently one of the main figures in the making of the British Library's own building (whose name I somehow did not write down, and therefore do not at all remember) was formerly in the British Navy, and righted the wrong of never having the experience of captaining a ship by building the library in the shape of one.
For some reason it hadn't occured to me that the British Library would collect stamps, but they have the largest Philatelic (that's your vocab word of the day, meaning "stamp") collection in the world, with over 8.25 million, and even have the printing press of the first British postage stamp nearby to boot.
The British Library works a bit differently than others. There's a very strong registration process to get a reader's card, including providing documentation of your identity and address and sitting through an interview with a Library employee. By law, if someone is going to recieve a card, they will recieve it within an hour and ten minutes from when they stepped into the registration room. This process and its documentation is what is responsible for nabbing someone from the Middle East who had begun a habit of stealing precious documents from the library--he had given his true address for his reader card, so they just paid him a little visit and found all that he had taken. After you get your reader's card, you must know exactly what you're looking for before you come in to look at materials. The fact that so many things are now online helps with this.
Next in our tour was a behind-the-scenes look at the Automated Book Retrieval System, a really neat thing to see. When a reader requests a book, down in the basement two identical slips are printed out complete with a barcode and information about what book, where it's located, who requested it, and what desk they are sitting at. A library assistant ( there are approximately 200) then takes handfuls of slips with a rolling cart, procures the different books, leaving an orange envelope with the first slip tucked in where the book is kept. The second slip is tucked into the book. When a cart is full, the assistant takes them over to an ABRS portal, scans each book's slip, places them each in their own "basket" (plastic bin), scans the barcode on the bin, scans the destination (there are a lot of different reading rooms, seperated by topic), and sends the books off into the system. The system talks with various other computer systems in place, including the integrated catalog, and not only gets each book successfully to its destination without harm, but reroutes it to avoid traffic. There are 22,000 different routes the books might be taken, but they are at their destination in 20 minutes or less than the point in time that they were requested (by law). Then a light comes on to let the patron know that their book has arrived, and the reader simply goes over to a particular desk to recieve their book(s).
Other amazing things about the British Library: it has a really neat interactive computer program called "Turning the Pages," which describes perfectly what you get to do with sections from 6 historical books of amazing value. The Sherborne Missal, c. 1400; the Lisbon Bible, 1482; an Ethiopic Bible from the 17th century; the Sultan Baybars' Quran; "The Golf Book," a Book of Hours from the 1540s famous for one of its illustrations featuring an early game of Golf; and William Blake's notebook, procured in 1787 and used for over 30 years. I looked around most of these books while I was in the library, but apparently you can also download the program here and try it out at home.
Here's where the museum envy occured: the British Library's collection of their treasures. They have, among other things, Jane Austen's writing desk and early notebooks; an original (handwritten) copy of Jane Eyre; the first major music book of England; the earliest version, called a "composition draft," of Handel's Messiah. The libretto for the 1st performance of Handel's Messiah; Mozart's marriage contract; the signature draft of Mozart's Horn Concerto in E flat; Haydn's autograph score of his Symphony no. 96. Haydn's publishing contract; Beethoven's tuning fork, which was also owned by Gustav Holst and Ralph  Vaughan Williams. Beethoven's atuograph score of his Violin Sonata in G Major, op. 30/3. An original score of Mendelssohn's Wedding March; Elgar's Third Symphony, begun about the time he died, complete with random doodles and other writer's block symptoms. An entire collection of Beatles items, including papers used in writing "I Want to Hold your Hand" and "Help!" Julian Lennon's first birthday card, on which John had jotted down his work on the composition of "A Hard Day's Night." An envelope which Paul McCartney used to write the lyrics for "Michelle." Another collection of Lewis Carrol's "Alice" books, beginning with the original copy of "Alice in Wonderland," originally titled before it was published as "Alice's Adventures Underground." Various prints for various editions by such different artists as Mervyn Peake, Salvador Dali (that one was really interesting), and Marketa Prachatika, and a Russian version translated by Vladimir Nabokov. A version with the original Tenniel illustrations, but printed in shorthand. A pretend "Alice" book focusing on the glories of Guinness beer, and the original woodblocks used to print Tenniel's illustrations.
Wouldn't you love it if they shared some of this stuff with the rest of us? I see a FaceBook group starting now, campaigning for traveling exhibits by the great artifact treasure houses of the world...
P.S. There's many impressive online features of the British Library, such as online exhibitions and an online gallery. Check it out!
P.P.S. Current image courtesy of the Wikipedia page for the British Library.

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