On my regular commute to UCL IOE, I often walk past the British Library and see the queues of people from the public waiting to go in, and whilst I signed up to be a member a few years back, I never thought I would have the opportunity to go “behind the scenes” and be shown around the basements of the British Library…
The building itself is a wonder to look at from the outside and when you get into the foyer, it is hard to believe that the building is 43 years old. For you historians out there, the British Library was established in 1972 as part of the British Library Act 1972 and the collections that this beautiful building holds began their development when the British Library was part of the British Museum.
As we were introduced to some of the staff who worked there and made our way to the lifts (one of many as I was going to discover…), it was clear that this trip was going to be an enlightening one.
Whilst making our way down to the basements, we were informed how deep we were actually going, and to give you a visual of the depth, let’s say that the whole area which the basements occupied under the library is equivalent to 8 storeys (there were four levels in total).
The deeper we went, the quieter and colder it became…and you could clearly hear the sound of the underground trains making their way to their destinations- we were told that the Victoria line passes by one of the basements. It was surreal to think that we were so deep underground as it didn’t feel like we had gone that far at all!
When we arrived at the first section, it was amazing to see the amount of stacks there were and how many books they contained! It made our two onsite library stacks look miniscule compared to just this area… and there were more to see. The first section was like a maze and had the most intricate and most resourceful system I have ever seen when it came to fetching the requested items for the readers who wanted to see them.
There was what you could describe as a “rollercoaster ride for the books” aka the ‘mechanical pulmonary system’. The staff who worked in this department placed the requested books into a plastic tray and then sent them on their merry way onto the pulmonary system and on to their designated area upstairs. From there, the books were taken to the specific reading rooms for the readers. Now this system really impressed me as it worked- most of the time I was told- so well that it is able to keep up with the demand from the general public and with the collections which consist of around 170,000,000 items. You can definitely say that having some mechanical help is well needed to ensure that everyone is happy and the collections are able to be seen.
As we made our way through the different basements, it was clear to see that this library is a treasure chest of books and collections, written in different languages, scripts and from vastly different historical periods. To read the entire collection, on the basis of reading 5 items a day, it would take you around 80,000 years to read everything, so it is safe to say that the British Library holds reading content, which in its entirety, you would never be able to be read in your lifetime- but you could at least try!
As we reached the final basement, we were able to look at the maps of the UK that dated back to the 1500s, and it was fascinating to see the intricate detail of the hand drawn maps of the boroughs and counties around England and the United Kingdom. I even got to see my hometown, which I never even knew dated back as far as then! At the end of the trip we made our way through the labyrinth (it really would be easy to lose yourself down there…) and back to the “real world”.
I would highly recommend visiting, when the next opportunity to go and see the basements in the British Library arises, because even though you get to look around the main library, it is easy to forget that this is a library which has the second largest collection of books in the world. That being said, when you go to the British Library next… never judge a book by its cover.