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British Library: Palace of the printed word


It's been likened to a huge ocean liner sailing through central London, while it reminded Prince Charles of a finishing school for spies. Whatever you think of its appearance, however, the British Library is one of the world's great repositories of learning.

Containing more than 150 million items in over 400 languages, and used by more than 1.5 million people per year, a massive modernist building stand in sharp contract to the neo-gothic grandeur of the Victorian St Pancras Hotel next door.

Inside, you can pore over everything form the Magna Carta to original scribbled Beatles lyrics, from Shakespeare folios to a precious Gutenberg Bible, from handwritten musical scores by Chopin and Beethoven to manuscripts by Jane Austen and Charles Dickens. Some date back millennia, others belong to the digital age. Officially opened by the Queen 21 years ago, the Library contains books, magazines, manuscripts, maps, music scores, newspapers, patents, databases, stamps, prints and drawings, and sound recordings. 

Its inner sanctum is the Sir John Ritblat 'Treasures of the British library' Gallery, which tells the remarkable stories of more than 2000 years of human intellectual endeavour, and contains some of the world's most exquisite and influential books.

It's a strange, almost eerie experience as you stand in the darkened, air cooled gallery and scrutinise the drafts of the manuscripts of famous books- complete with crossings out and revisions- and try to follow how the author's minds were working to perfect them.

And, barely believably in this commercial age, admission is free. You could spend a whole afternoon there, or just an hour or two if you are due to catch a train at nearby St Pancras, King's Cross or Euston stations. 

As one visitor pithily put it: "Where else can you see the original Manga Carta and handwritten lyrics to Ticket to Ride across the room from each other?"

The Library's reading rooms have been used by legions of celebrated literary ad political figures, including Karl Marx, Oscar Wilde, Dickens, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Bram Stoker, Mahatma Ghandi, Rudyard Kipling, George Orwell, George Bernard Shaw, Mark Twain, Vladimir Lenin, Virginia Woolf and H G wells.

It contains 310,000 manuscript volumes: from Hames Joyce and Handel to Lennon and McCartney, and from material over 300 years old (Chinese oracle bones) to today's newspapers.

The library receives, by law, a copy of every publication produced in the IL and Ireland- and, if I had the nerve, I'd love to ask a librarian for a copy of one of my own slim published volumes, mainly on railway history. I have an unfounded fantasy that my books are stored in one of the soaring stacks of the magnificent vellum-bound King's Library- but I suspect they are more likely to be kept in the rather more prosaic surroundings of the library's over-spill site 200 miles away at a former munitions factory in Yorkshire. 

Entering the spectacular foyer from Euston Road is an experience in itself. There's also a formidably well-stocked shop. 

The library serves researches, writer, academics, students and business and industry as well as people like myself and my wife who just pop in occasionally to browse the exhibitions and enjoy some tea in the congenial surroundings. 

Almost 400,000 people visit the reading rooms annually and there is space for more than 1200 readers.

Three million new items are added each year. All this requires more than 625km (nearly 390 miles) of shelves, which grow by 12km every year.

"If you saw five items each day, it would take you over 80,000 years to see the whole of the collection," said a spokesperson.

The world's earliest printed book, the Diamond Sutra, is sometimes displayed in the exhibition galleries along along with many other treasures.

The library has not been without controversy, however. Some years after his infamous 'monstrous carbuncle' attack on modern architecture in 1984, an unimpressed Prince of Wales described the reading room of the library as looking "more like the assembly hall of an academy for secret police."

For researchers in the North, the Library's massive outpost at Whetherby in West Yorkshire provides a gateway to vast research collections that include journals of the sciences, arts and humanities, millions of monograph titles and the UK national newspaper collection. 

The storage building at Boston Spa near Wetherby are set in around 60 acres of semi-rural land on a former ordnance factory site, well served by transport links for speedy distribution. There, more than 100km of shelving houses a collection devoted to inter-library loans.

Readers can consult millions of items including books, periodicals, newspapers, microfilm, sound recording and electronic resources in the reading room. It provides full temperature and humidity control, maximising the lifespan of newspapers and eliminating the risk of fire thanks to low oxygen conditions. 

Around 85 percent of the items requested at St Pancras are now also available in the North. The Universities of Sheffield and York even operate their own free minibus service for staff and students.

The St Pancras Library also stages a changing series of special exhibitions, for which there is a charge, 

Over the past 20 years blockbuster exhibitions have included 'Sacred Texts', 'Magnificent Maps', 'Magna Carta' and 'Harry Potter: A History of Magic', and a greatly expanded events programme including music, talks and festivals from the world's leading writers, novelists, performers and thinkers. 

The latest exhibition we saw was the incredible 'Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms: Art, Word, War' earlier this year, in which we were able to read some of the earliest surviving words inscribed in English, on objects both large and small. 

Treasures from the Library's own collection, including the lavishly illuminated Londisfarne Gospels, Beowulf and Bee;s Ecclesiastical History, were displayed alongside breathtaking finds from Sutton Hoo and the Staffordshire Hoard. The Domesday Book offered its painstakingly detailed depiction of the landscape of late Anglo-Saxon England Codex Amiatinus, a giant Northumbrian Bible taken to Italy in 716, returned to these shores for the first time in 1300 years. 

Cultural highlights this year have included:

A selection of notes and drawings from Leonardo da Vinci's notebooks, brought together in the UK for the first time to mark 500 years since his dealth.  

A landmark exhibition spanning five millennia and five continents exploring one of mankind's greatest achievements the act of writing.

A major exhibition considering the theory, practice and art of Buddhism, starting on October 25. 

Chief executive Roly Keating said of the building's 20th anniversary last year: "This is the perfect opportunity to reflect on what an extraordinary building this is- visionary, utterly unique, inspiring to work in and to visit- and to celebrate the achievement of those who worked so hard to create it.

"As (the buildings architect) Colin St John Wilson said, 'It is the essence of the Library to grow', and we will continue to develop his legacy, evolving the St Pancras site into one of the world's greatest 21st century centres of knowledge, meeting the future needs of our users, supporters, the local community and our partners."

The library has a much wider social effect reaching far beyond the scholars and researchers who use it. The surrounding neighbourhood of St Pancras and Kings Cross has also undergone a huge transformation, with the opening of the Eurostar terminal at St Pancras and the redevelopment of King's Cross station. The library has been a key partner in the cultural dimension of this development. 


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