A Reader’s Quest: The British Library

Copyright 2012 by Paula S. Jordan

This may just be the greatest library in the world: 14 million books, 920,000 journal and newspaper titles, 58 million The British Librarypatents, 3 million sound recordings. 130 million items in all, spanning 30 centuries and originating, as Philip Howard* puts it: “from almost every country and language since man stopped building the Tower of Babel.”

Texts both ancient and modern, world-renowned and rescued from obscurity. Works of music, art, mathematics, the sciences, and every known branch of literature. The earliest printed book, the Diamond Sutra, from 686 A.D., found buried along the edge of the Gobi Desert. Maps, letters, and manuscripts. Technical drawings, patents, and musical scores. A vast collection of contemporary material in an ever-expanding range of electronic media. Jane Austin’s writing desk. And one white ‘60’s- era envelope with Paul McCartney’s first scribbled lyrics for “I Want to Hold Your Hand.”

King George III's Library

King George III’s Library

The Magna Carta, Beowulf, the Lindisfarn Gospels, the Codex Sinaiticus, beautiful early Qu’ran and Jainest texts, Gutenberg’s 42-line Bible, Shakespeare’s First Folio, a Leonardo daVinci notebook, Sherlock Holmes, Alice’s Adventures Underground, The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles. (More on some of these in later posts.)

The largest single “item” may be King George III’s 65,000-volume, 19,000-pamphlet library, collected from the mid- 15th to the early 19th centuries and considered one of the most significant collections on the Enlightenment. It occupies a specially-designed six-storey UV-filter glass tower at the heart of the Library.

My personal favorite? Bill Woodrow’s bronze sculpture in the lobby. A book big enough that I could actually crawl into it! And weighted with a ball and chain lest it fly away.

Finally! A book I could actually crawl into!

Finally! A book I could actually crawl into!

But, for most of the world, the coolest thing of all has to be the British Library web site.  You can search the main catalog. The online gallery section lets you see 30,000 items from its collection. And its virtual book feature allows you to browse 32 of the Library’s greatest treasures online. The entire book. Every page. And you can turn the pages yourself.

* The BRITISH LIBRARY: A Treasure House of Knowledge, by Howard, Philip; Scala Publishers Ltd, 2008