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A Look inside the British Library

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The following is a guest post by Tammie Nelson, project manager of and an Information Technology Specialist at the Library of Congress.

Ever since I have been working at the Library of Congress, I have made it a practice to find and photograph the national library when I visit a new country. Judging by many of the Pics of the Week on In Custodia Legis, I’m not alone (David Mao, the Law Librarian of Congress, also stopped by the British Library during a visit). I have walked past the British Library before, but this was my first time going inside.

This building is new (opened in 1998). As a result, it may not have the aura of glory you feel at the Library of Congress Jefferson Building. But that is made up by a wonderful design, fantastic holdings and exhibits, and a sense of earnest and energetic participation. I arrived at 11 am and stashed all of my stuff in a locker. I started with reconnaissance to get the lay of the land, then visited a temporary exhibit “Picture This: Children’s Illustrated Classics” – an original artwork from Paddington, Peter Pan, Willy Wonka, Secret Garden, The Wind in the Willows, The Hobbit, Iron Giant and more.

Inside the British Library

As I was visiting this exhibit in an open area of the “upper ground” floor, I could see that the library was filling up. Most people were clearly regular researchers; they went to the locker room, put their research essentials into a clear plastic bag, locked the rest of their belongings in a locker and headed for the lifts to the reading rooms. Other people filled the seats and benches that line the first three floors, which are open in a split-level layout. A few people sat on the floors, with notebooks, books, or laptops. One guy was nestled cozily in a corner behind an oversize cutout of a tree from Wind in the Willows, while a young woman sat in the shadow of the Iron Giant.

The centerpiece of the building is a four story stack of old and rare holdings, called “The King’s Library,” within a climate-controlled glass enclosure. I kept an eye out, hoping to see a librarian on the catwalks but never did.

A cafe and a large restaurant wrap around two floors of the King’s Library; both were overflowing. I sat in the cafe sipping cappuccino, scribbling in my notebook, and enjoying my table’s proximity to the stacks of old and rare books.

A Popular Place

I also visited the Centre for Conservation, which offers a small exhibit full of information about preservation and conservation including a time-lapsed video of the painstaking restoration of a book. There is also a lovely courtyard with outdoor seating; it was raining so the seats were empty.

I did not have time (or sufficient documentation) to obtain a readers’ card, so the closest I got to the reading rooms was to peer through doors as other people entered. Next time!  (Their requirements are stricter than ours at the Library of Congress.)

I spent the most time by far in the “Treasures of the British Library” exhibit. I divided my time there into three separate visits to give my brain time to absorb and to allow time to scribble notes in anticipation of a possible blog post.

There are over 200 artifacts in the exhibit. Here are some of my favorites, in no particular order:

At the Coffee Shop
  • my favorite audio clips: W.B.Yeats and James Joyce reading their own works; Virginia Woolf on the BBC delivering a talk titled “Craftsmanship;”
  • the words to “A Hard Day’s Night” scribbled by John Lennon on the back of a birthday card to his son Julian;
  • unique Beowulf manuscript (unique = original) that was saved from a fire in 1731;
  • Jane Austen’s teenage journal, with an inscription from her father:  “Effusions of Fancy by a Very Young Lady Consisting of Tales in a Style Entirely New,” which I thought to be endearing, but after some googling it seems that her father meant it in a disdainful way;
  • Tyndale Bible (first English translation of the bible);
  • Codex Alexandrinus and Codex Sinaiticus (Greek bibles from the 4th and 5th centuries);
  • pages from DaVinci’s notebook;
  • the oldest known English document (679 AD)
  • Gorgeous sacred texts from many faiths; Lotus Sutra from China, 629 AD, illuminated Buddhist scrolls from Thailand and Burma, Hindu scrolls with impossibly small writing, a 9th century Qur’an, Taoist illuminated texts, Jewish sacred texts, and so much more;
  • suffragist Maud Arncliffe Sennett’s 1911 scrapbook including  bills from a hardware store labeled “Bills for the impedimentia with which I broke Lord Northcliff’s windows;”
  • amazing examples of early printing from China; and
  • Magna Carta documents (a particular interest of the Law Library of Congress)

I was able to locate a transcript of the Virginia Woolf recording online; I will let her close this post:

Words are “the wildest, freest, most irresponsible, most unteachable of all things. Of course, you can catch them and sort them and place them in alphabetical order, in dictionaries, but words do not live in dictionaries, they live in the mind.”


  1. I’m appalled by the terrible quality of the pictures used in this piece about the British Library. It is shameful that these are being used to show off this important British establishment.

    The saying that a picture is worth a thousand words is totally turned on it’s head by these images, which fail to give the view the information they were presumably intended to give. Get a good professional in next time to produce your promotional pictures!

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