Me (the delinquent blogger) and the British Library

20 12 2009

My big fear in starting this blog was that I would be unable to post often enough to maintain an active blog.  That fear was realized this past month.  I have some good excuses – I traveled to London and Paris over Thanksgiving, then was sick and then finished graduate school.  I’ve had topics in mind to post about but haven’t had much time or energy to post.  I’m going to get back into blogging and with that in mind, I wanted to share my experiences from the British Library which I took a private tour of when I was in London.

The British Library was originally part of the British Museum.  Planning and construction started for a new building around 30 years ago and the building was intended to be 3 times the size it is now (which is pretty large if you consider all the underground shelving).  The tour of the library was fascinating, although probably more so for a librarian than for the general public.  They really undersold the tour since it’s about the library itself, and not its treasures (which include a Gutenberg Bible and Shakespeare’s first folio).  The tour is also on the pricey side at 8 pounds but was totally worth it.

A few of the most interesting parts of the tour:

  • The glass display in the middle of the library holds George III’s personal collection, since his collection started the British Library.  However, the display was intended to hold card catalogs.  In the time between planning and constructing the building, catalogs moved online and there was still a giant space intended for the card catalogs.
  • George III was rumored to have chosen his books based on appearance rather than content (and they do look quite nice in the glass case) but there are handwritten notes in a good number of his books.  Patrons can request the books by title and staff retrieve them.  Most books can be touched by patrons but for some they need gloves and for others, which are old and rare (or really older and rarer) a staff member has to sit there and turn the pages.
  • The library is surrounded by the subway and was built out as much as possible without hitting the tube on each side.  You can feel the tube go by while you are in the library.
  • Behind the Reference Desk (which has a sign saying “Reference Enquiries”), there are 400 year old books right next to Ulrich’s, Balay’s and Wolford’s, same as any other library.  In the reference collection, it was the same thing – 20th century literary criticism next to old reference books and ones in other languages.

The most interesting part to me is the struggle about the identity of the library.  The British Library is a library of last resort.  To even get a reader’s pass (which sounds so much nicer than a library card) to just read books in the library for the day, patrons need to bring a proof of address (not just UK, any address will do) and a list of books at the library that they need to see.  Once patrons have that pass, they can request any book in the library they want.  They receive a copy of every publication produced in the UK and Ireland.  When we were on the tour, we were able to see the books that patrons requested.  In this library of last resort where you need to have a desk spot in a reading room before they will deliver any books to you and that you can’t take the books out from, the books requested included: Windows Vista for Dummies, Dan Brown’s latest book and others of that sort.  These are books that can be found at any local library, yet they were requested and held for patrons at the British Library.

This reminded me so much of the signs we have next to the computers at our academic library.  It asks that before using facebook or checking email on our computers, students take a look around and make sure that there aren’t any other students are looking for computers to do work.  Our mission as an academic library is to provide resources to support the curriculum and learning at the college.  We provide entertainment resources, but they are secondary.  The British Library attempts to ensure patrons are looking for unique resources for scholarship by requiring a list, but clearly there are some using the library for more common books.  On the tour we learned that there are days where if you don’t have a table by 9am, you won’t find one all day.  I wonder if the British Library should do more to ensure it’s patrons are using the “appropriate” resources or redirect them to other libraries.  I usually tend to be of the thinking that libraries should provide what it’s patrons want and need, rather than what we think they want and need.  This tour showed me how critical having a mission and vision of the library is and how decisions should be made based on the mission and vision.