3 October 2018

Two minds

I was interested to attend the new(-ish) British Library building just next to Kings Cross station. I’d seen the old BL reading room, Panizzi’s dome, but that was decades back. That original building is now the British Museum and the Library has its own, new construction. Purpose built. Megan and I were once librarians. We both worked at the National Library of Australia, so this was of professional interest. We actually attended with some friends who happened to be in London, also ex-librarians. So four colonial librarians, two from our parallel institution, attending a library tour at the BL. The tour was for all comers, so not a particular professional interest, but we got to see the King’s Library in the heart of the building, some work areas and delivery mechanisms, something on the location systems and the treasures and membership. We heard of legal deposit and international collections, St Pancras and Boston Spa, and of 35 millions items on-site (four levels of underground compactuses) from a total collection of 200 million. We asked a few questions about cataloguing and subject headings and browsing. It’s a busy place and books are accessible but not evident, except for the central pillar of the King’s Library which was discarded by Royalty to the nation with the requirement that it remain on display. One thing you learn in librarianship is the ability to discard. Obviously the King was not thus trained. We mused on AACR2 and its replacement (after my time, RDA), LCSH and old catalogue cards and effective locations and physical book sizing (it’s important for efficient storage). At least I wondered about the policy to collect all forms of one item, eg hardback, paperback, Kindle, etc. Mostly pretty basic stuff. Then a coffee and the Treasures Gallery. The Gallery is very textual, bookish but there are some memorable works, not least Codex Sinaiticus, Magna Cartas from 1225 and 1225 (Australia’s copy is 1297, of which three provisions are still in British (English?) law!), a temporary exhibit on Michael Palin and a disappointingly mawkish and self-absorbed display of the Beatles, a collection of musical manuscripts from Bach, Handel, Mozart and more, international holy books and book art. My favourite was the lovely Carmina regia.

But my two minds? One was the building itself. We were shown a model and drawings and told the architect had a year in the navy in his youth so modelled the building on a ship (the ship of knowledge). You could see the resemblance. It seemed a trivial comparison and demeaning for the concept and centrality of knowledge in civilisation. Not a good look in our eyes. But prominent in the foyer was a huge poster that spoke of welcoming and that spoke to our best images and love of the concept of the library. To some degree it’s passing as information becomes digitised. Access is a wonderful thing, so no problems there. The Net doesn’t provide everything, but it provides lots, perhaps most, even if it takes awareness not to be misled. But this statement of openness of knowledge to all was worthy of such an august institution. The best that British can be when it’s not colonialising or Thatchering or Brexiting. It’s the essence of the much-loved British pub writ large. Strangely I can’t find the text on the BL site or online. I question the “20 years of welcomes” at the end (surely it’s more) but here’s that statement.

Welcome researchers on a bit of a mission. Welcome mildly curious people. Welcome person looking up the history of Leicester city centre. Welcome poet seeking space. Welcome midlife entrepreneur wanting advice. Welcome scientists with a theory it's going to take at least 10 years to prove. Welcome local fancying a cup of tea. Welcome teenager gothically in love with Lord Byron. Welcome tourists who thinks we’re the British Museum. Welcome musicologist who will be in the papers with what you discover today. Welcome school learner who really wasn't expecting it to be like this. Welcome students scrolling through Twitter. Welcome person who doesn't want anyone to know what that you're working on. Welcome diligent journalist looking at a cached web page from 2006. Welcome parents in with the kids to see an exhibition (sorry about the tempting shop). Welcome all ten people who think they've got the most niche interests in the whole building. Welcome librarians from everywhere. Together we've got this. Welcome, knowledge. Welcome, curiosity. Welcome, imagination. Welcome, UK. Welcome, world. British Library: 20 years of welcomes.

The British Library is now located in St Pancras with further storage at Boston Spa.

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