I was lucky enough to have a guided tour of the British Library earlier this week. What a phenomenal building. Situated close to St Pancras Station, it’s an ideal place to browse if you are waiting for a train. Oh, and to undertake any research on anything published in the UK - and I mean anything. A quotation on the website states that if you looked at five items a day, it would take you 80,000 years to get through the entire collection. No wonder its vaults reach underground to a depth of six multi-storey car parks. However, even that amount of space can only take 40% of the collection. The rest is in Boston Spa, Yorkshire.
The British Library, Euston Road, London
First we (I was with fellow members of the management committee of the Society of Authors) were shown into the Board Room. Dominating one side of this imposing room was a long polished wooden table upon which the curators had placed a selection of interesting books and manuscripts for us to drool over – sorry – I mean inspect.
A few of the publications from the British Library’s collection. We weren’t allowed close-up shots of the works because of copyright laws. To the foreground of the picture was JG Ballard’s handwritten manuscript of his bestselling novel set in Japanese- occupied Shanghai, The Empire of the Sun. The blue ‘sheet’ to the right is a rare plan of the Lunghua Camp in which the Europeans and Americans were interned and where Ballard was born. Can you see how messy the writing is? Draft work is always messy – a point I try to emphasise on school visits.
Other items included ‘A Choice of Coleridge’s Verse (1996) edited by Ted Hughes and dedicated to artist Leonard Baskin. The reason this edition was of particular interest was because Hughes had embellished his dedication with a beautiful ink drawing of a dragon, making the copy extra-special.
James Runcie with Nicola Solomon (Society of Authors) examining ‘The Antibook’ by Nicanor Parra (2002) The curators wanted to show that they don’t only store ‘traditional’ books but books designed in a variety of intriguing ways.
A bird’s-eye view of the Reading Room. Anyone can use the Reading Room but you have to register first with ID. Bags are not allowed and users are only permitted to take in a pencil with which to make notes. Retrieving items from the archives can take an hour an a half, despite the mechanised track which brings them up, so it’s best to order what you want the day before.
In addition to the Reading Room, the British Library always has displays and exhibitions running. This one was on English composer Benjamin Britten’s use of poetry in his music. The ledger in the glass case contained Wilfred Owen’s famous poem ‘Anthem for a Doomed Youth’, then called ‘Anthem for a Dead Youth.’ There’s something quite moving about seeing a writer’s original draft work, I think. And, as if it wasn’t enough of an honour to see such a seminal poem by one major war poet, the draft had been annotated by yet another, Siegfried Sassoon.
Our tour included a behind-the-scenes visit to the Conservation Department where ancient books and other ephemera are repaired and restored. This was a light, airy space almost like an airbase hangar. It consisted of about twenty work stations with a person at work at each one; gluing, pressing, binding or doing some painstaking repair to restore their designated item.
The visit left me feeling in awe of so many things. Writers and artists – that goes without saying - but also the hundreds of people (often volunteers) who curate, restore, collect and care for our literary heritage, not only in such grand buildings as the British Library but also in the smaller, less imposing collections throughout the UK. Thank you, lovely people. Thank you.
Of course no visit is complete without a visit to the gift shop. The one at the British Library is a magnet for book-lovers (though not skint ones). I couldn’t resist this mug, commissioned as part of the Propaganda Exhibition.