04 July 2013

Day 15 - London: British Library

Our day started off with a Tube ride to King's Cross station, to visit Platform 9 3/4! When we arrived there, the plaque was on the wall, but no luggage cart!
After ducking into the Platform 9 3/4 store around the corner, we learned a photographer would be coming shortly and could take a group picture at the sign...and he would have the luggage cart! So of course we had to stick around and wait.
We then made our way down the road to the British Library (http://www.bl.uk/). For me, this was a special visit - I had been thinking about entering the LIS profession, but still wasn't sure, when I went on a behind-the-scenes tour of the British Library two years ago. After that tour, I knew I wanted to work in a place like the BL and decided to apply to Simmons. Now here I was visiting as a grad student and archivist!

Our tour guide was Kevin Mehmet, and he was just wonderful - he is a self-proclaimed fan of the US and led us in three cheers for Independence Day under the watchful eye of Uncle Sam:
First stop on the tour was the reader registration area; all users of the library must register for a Reader Pass. We were given instructions on how to do so, along with a guide to using the Reading Rooms, and I would love to have a reason to register! The library has 1700 staff members, one-third of which are librarians. The British Library is the national library of the United Kingdom and Northern Ireland and has three goals: 1) To compile all the published output of the UK and NI within one month of publication [this means they received over 8000 items a week!], 2) To keep their holdings forever, and 3) To make the holdings available to researchers. They also provide leadership to the entire library community of the nation. I feel it is important to note that the US does not have a national library; the Library of Congress serves in that role, however their first priority is to be a library for the Congress, not for the nation as a whole. 

As it happens with a number of libraries we have visited, the British Library was started when Sloane bequeathed his books to the nation, and gave them to what was then Montague House and is now known as the British Museum. Originally the British Library was a part of the museum - in 1998 the British Library opened to the public in their current location, which was purpose-built as a library with the preservation of books in mind. It took four years to move the books over (which makes the Millis Library closure of a month seem like nothing!) Currently they house over 200 million items - 35 million are stored on four floors underground, with the rest being in three other off-site repositories. 

To get the books from the underground stacks, the library uses a really neat "Mechanical Book Handling System." When someone requests a book at a computer terminal, a slip of paper is printed out in the basement with a UPC. A library staff member retrieves the book, places it in a bin, scans the bin and then scans another barcode to tell the bin where to go...and it is off! There are 22 different routes the book can take, for a total length of 1 1/4 mile long, with 50 different rooms to launch and receive books. Emily sent an empty bin to the basement!
Books are guaranteed to arrive within an hour and ten minutes of your request, although it could be as fast as twenty minutes. You could even request a book when you are overseas and specify a date you will be in, and it will be waiting for you! They process about 2000 retrievals per day. 

My favorite feature of the library is the Kings Library. In 1820, King George III (who was king when we declared our independence!) left his book collection of 85,000 items to the nation. In his will, he insisted that the books be always on public display and to be used by the public. They are still on display and approximately 35 books per day are retrieved from his collection which spans six floors in the center of the BL:
I asked Kevin if there was any reference help given at the library, and was a little surprised to learn that there is really none offered to researchers. Ideally, the researcher comes to the BL with specific titles in mind, having already done preliminary research in other places and only resorting to the BL when an item is not available elsewhere. It does make sense that with the many people visiting every day, if reference was offered they would be swamped and be able to do little else. At the same time, I feel a  core component of a library or archive is having someone able to offer some guidance through the collection, which is something that cannot be truly accomplished with a closed-stack library like the British Library. 

Our last stop on the tour was the largest atlas in the world - it was previously the largest book, until an Australian book beat it by six inches recently. 
It is a restricted item, and you would need to present a really good reason for wanting to look at it up close, otherwise you would be given digital scans.

After our tour, we were free the rest of the day. I spent it visiting two museums, the National Gallery and the National Portrait Gallery. Both are vast and have massive collections, so I only was able to see a small part of each. Again, the best thing is they are free so I can return any time and continue exploring. 

Now we have a three day weekend with no class activities planned - I have to admit I am really looking forward to sleeping in a little tomorrow morning! All I know definitely is that I am going to do a day trip on Saturday to visit Winchester on Hat Fair day with London Walks, a really great tour guide. And maybe some shopping too, as I still need to go visit Selfridges!

1 comment:

  1. So glad to see you Bonnie! Maybe you'll work at the British Library some day. Do you need to wear a hat on Hat Fair Day? Love you Mom and Dad :)