Sunday, 12 August 2012

Books Above and Under the Ground, The British Library

The British Library: Photo Courtesy of

The British Library, located in central London is the British equivalent to the United States Library of congress and has been, thus far, my favorite library that we've had the pleasure to visit. The British Library used to share space with the British Museum until the building above opened up in 1997. That makes this the most modern building we've been in so far and it really shows. The building is one of the first libraries built in the world that had preservation in mind as it primary concern. Designed to maintain a temperature of 17 degrees Celsius, and no more than 50% humidity, the building is ideal for book and manuscript storage. Mindful also of space the building goes 75 feet down into the ground, creating a labyrinth of storage for its massive collection of 35 million in house items (the total collection numbers somewhere in the realm of 180 million total items counting special collections and off site stored items). 

So to keep on with the math game that equates to about 900 miles of books if you were to take them and put them on the worlds greatest shelf and walk it. The British Library, like Oxford receives every book published in the UK, but they also receive newspapers, periodicals, and some foreign publications as well; up to 8,000 new items in a single day. In an effort to save space the British Library shelves books by size rather than using other, less space effective modes of shelving. Placers record the location of each book with shelf markers, creating grid patterns of the books locations. Grabbers, people who retrieve the books, work in small quadrants to try and make sure that there aren't heavy delays in retrieving books for readers. 

The British Library runs on three main principals laid down by the British Libraries Act passed in the UK in the 70s:

1) Acquire all published materials in the United Kingdom
2) Retain these materials forever 
3) Make all of these materials available to the public for use in research and enlightenment

The British Library and its 17,000 employees maintain the national catalog and try their best to make sure that these three goals are met. 

Accessing the Collection

You don't have to be a British Citizen in order to obtain a reader card at the British Library, you simply have to follow the steps laid out on their website in order to gain access to a reader's pass and therefore access to the collection. Like many of the libraries that we've visited you can't take the books out of the library, but you can read and conduct research in one of the libraries very comfortable reading rooms. More fascinating than getting your reader pass is the procedure which is used to deliver books to patrons once they've been requested. 

Getting Materials from the Collection 

Once you have your reader card and you're in your reading room, which at the British Library are divided into different rooms by subject, and access the catalog to choose the items you'd like to see. Once you have entered in your request at a computer station the request is sent to the ABRS system. This is the Automated book Request System. Books in the British Library, with the exception of the King George the Third library, are stored below ground in a massive facility. I'm not sure how much information I am allowed to place on the blog with regards to their system but I will say that through a highly organized and tested system of trollies and conveyer belts and diligent work on the park of the librarians and library assistants, it takes a maximum of an hour and ten minutes to get your requested materials from the underground storage fortress. The ABRS system can even monitor traffic of other books traveling to different reading rooms and adjust the route a book is traveling to accommodate heavy traffic and decrease the time it takes to receive materials. The library offers a handy video on how to request materials on their website here

Embracing Digitization

There are some truly amazing pieces in the collection at the British Library. The original manuscript and water color illustrations for the Hobbit (currently on display as part of their Wastelands and Wonderlands exhibit), and the original draft to the first Harry Potter novel, as well Magna Carta (which has only left the library once to travel to the US for its 200 year birthday) and innumerable other treatures. While many of the works in the collection are available to researchers, it is difficult for many to travel to the United Kingdom, and for others, casual patrons, or book enthusiasts its difficult to travel to, or have access to these collections. The British Library has recognized this fact and has made leaps and bounds in digitization efforts aimed specifically at bringing patrons, and enthusiasts from all over the world access to their best special collections. 

For those who are visiting the library itself, but don't have reader cards, they can see rare materials at exhibits, like the one mentioned above. There are numerous touch screen interfaces that allow visitors to access in-depth, highly detailed HD images of different works, along with pop up information and facts about the work they're accessing. For people a little further away from the British Library who might have a hard time getting there for a visit there are multiple ipad apps, with interactive HD images of the books, videos and essays about the work. They're produced one for Shakespeare, as well as one for Alice and Wonderland and a few more. They plan to make more and I can't wait to see what special collection items they give the digital treatment to. 


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