On my last visit to London, I decided to finally make my way to The British Library. As an avid reader and a fiction writer, I’m obviously a big fan of libraries, but this is no average library. This one is the big daddy of public libraries. The numero uno. The library to put all other libraries in the shade. Depending on your sources, it holds either the largest or second largest collection of books in the world. Formerly part of the British Museum, The British Library houses some of the most important books, documents and sound recordings in the world; both culturally and historically. Its collection is so extensive, that if you attempted to look at five items in the library every day it would take you precisely 80,000 years to see its entire treasury of books.
Originally, the libraries contents were scattered around London in various different buildings. Eventually, a purpose-built library was constructed in 1998 and its extensive and precious collection was carefully collated, catalogued and stored here. Despite the library’s relative youthfulness, as iconic buildings go, it has already been listed as a building of architectural and historical significance. When I arrived, I was very impressed by the exterior of the library, with the sprawling red-brick library hunkered close to the ground and the massive bronze statue of Isaac Newton, based on William Blake’s painting in the gardens. The exterior is interesting, but the interior is something else. Modern, bright, airy. The most impressive part of the building being The King’s library. It is housed in shelves within glass columns passes through each floor to the ceiling, and six floors downwards into the basement like a spine. There are high ceilings and light-filled reading rooms, and there is so much space. Unlike many places worth seeing in London, it wasn’t overcrowded.
And the abundance of space is where I hit a stumbling block. I wasn’t sure where to start in my exploration and began to get into a tizzy that I’d rush past the most important parts. Luckily, there are tours. on offer. I opted for The Treasures Tour, which is a guided walk through The Treasures Exhibition in the Sir John Ritblat Treasures Gallery. It is £10 for the hour-long guided tour and well worth the money. The Treasures Exhibition can be viewed without a guide but it is huge, and somewhat intimidating; so if you’re short on time, or you don’t know what you’re at, it’s worth doing the tour. You will get so much more out of your visit.
The Treasures Tour has something for everyone. Obviously, it’s a must for lovers of fiction writing and history; but you can bring anyone along and I guarantee you they’ll take something from it (as long as they don’t actually try and TAKE something from it, cos that’s highly illegal, and you’ll probably get caught).
- There are ancient versions of sacred scripts such as the Koran, Torah and Bible. The Library features texts such as The Gutenberg Bible and The Cuthbert Gospel, a 7th-century manuscript written in Latin that is the oldest European book to survive fully intact. There are also formerly banned copies of the bible written in English.
- Original pages from one of Leonardo Da Vinci’s notebooks.
- One of the four existing copies of the Magna Carta
- Original handwritten compositions by Mozart, JS Bach, Elgar and Handel.
- Original handwritten drafts of the lyrics to Strawberry Fields Forever’,’She Said She Said’ and ‘In My Life’ written by John Lennon for The Beatles.
- Historical documents such as the original WWII ultimatum letter from Britain to Germany.
- Old maps of an unrecognisable Britain.
- Original letters from British Kings and Queens, such as an original letter from Mary Queen of Scots and one from Queen Elizabeth to her brother after she was refused permission to visit him on his sickbed. I’ve always found female monarchs more interesting than the male ones because they had challenges relating to perceptions of their gender that Kings never had.
In terms of the purely literary treasures, there were too many to list, so I’ll just give an idea of the some of the items held by the British Library, which may be exhibited in the Treasures Hall when you choose to visit.
- The sole existing manuscript copies of Beowulf, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and Malory’s
- An original copy of The Canterbury Tales from around 1476 and 1483.
- Shakespeare’s first folio.
- The Bronte Sisters’ school report, which entirely overlooks their talent as writers.
- Notebook drafts of Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway.
- A handwritten draft of Jane Austen’s Persuasion as well as pieces of juvenalia and her writing desk.
- First drafts of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, originally entitled Alice Adventures Under Ground, and illustrations by John Tenniel.
- The original manuscript of De Profundis by Oscar Wilde, a letter of apology penned to his lover while in prison for gross indecency.
I loved the fact that there were many, many manuscripts by women writers. It’s not often that you will go to a museum and see things created by women, so carefully and lovingly preserved and showcased. In writing, particularly in English, women are well represented and recognised for their gifts. Some of the most famous novels of the 19th and 20th are written by women. I am lucky that writing became my passion. It is important to see what you can be; or at least aspire to be.
Obviously, I was there for the literary treasures, but every bit of the tour was interesting to me. Every moment of it. One of the highlights for me was the Magna Carta. I actually didn’t know anything about it before I arrived. I’ve only recently started taking an interest in the history of the British and French monarchies
Our guide was excellent; offering insights into the history and operations of the library itself. He proudly spoke about one of their recent acquisitions. He spoke of the history of printing, writing in the English language, how the books exhibited in The Treasures Room are rotated regularly; so that no one item is given too much attention and that all of the treasures are given their day in the ‘sun’ and then safely stored away. I’m emphasising this because if you visit, you may not see everything that I’ve listed, but you may see something even better.
You’ll note that I took no photos inside the Treasures Room. That’s because photos are NOT permitted, and I wouldn’t even chance a sneaky snap in here. I wouldn’t dare. I can tell you that the in which the treasures are kept is dimly lit, presumably to preserve them, but it adds an extra aura of gravitas to the exhibition. I can also tell you that the texts are illuminated in glass cabinets with descriptions beside each. But if I want to look at the treasures again, I can do so online. There are digital versions that can be accessed on the website, and one of my favourite tools is the virtual book Turning the Pages™. But really, like most precious things, nothing is quite so special as seeing them in person. In fact, knowing that I couldn’t snap away and that now was the time to listen, look and enjoy, made me mindful that the time was now to appreciate these treasures and planted me firmly in the moment.
The library is hugely popular with tourists like myself because of its tours, exhibitions, events etc., but it is, first and foremost, a proper working library with a huge number of reading rooms and well-lit study spaces for students and readers. A fantastic local resource, that offers paid, but also free of charge workshops and talks. They also have incredible online resources such as webinars for people hungry for knowledge but who may not have regular access to the library. I didn’t have time to settle in with a book, or settle down with my laptop and do some writing, but I definitely will do that one day. It would be lovely to write in a place where, only feet away, there are pages in cabinets whose surfaces bear the handwriting of Oscar Wilde and Jane Austen.
Londoners are blessed to have this place at their disposal, and yet most Londoners I know have never been. People take for granted what they have on their doorstep, I’m guilty of it myself. I only recently visited The Book of Kells for example. But I implore you… Londoners, come and see this place. All libraries are special. All are unique by virtue of the librarians that look after them, and the books inside them, and the access to knowledge that they provide to the community no matter what their age, class or circumstances.
But this library? Well it’s just a little bit extra special.