Monday, 10 August 2009

British Library

The British Library was my favorite part of the entire trip. It is a depository library, which means that everything that gets published in the United Kingdom gets deposited here. Therefore, it has a vast amount of books on a vast amount of subjects in all languages. The reading rooms do not actually contain books. Rather, the patrons register as a reader, go to a reading room, and then find the books they need in the catalog. When they find the materials they require, they order them and the person working downstairs (the library goes underground many floors) takes the printout of the order and goes to retrieve the materials. There is a special type of device similar to a conveyor belt that runs all around the library. The person puts the materials (rare and old materials are not handled in this way) onto the device and tells the machine which reading room to take the book to. The patron can then work at their station but they cannot take materials home. Sometimes people come in to the library believing it to be a lending library and become disappointed. It is not similar to a public library even if anyone can become a reader. It is more similar to the main research library on 42nd street in NYC.

They also had a gallery of important manuscripts. This really affected me. There are works of literature by British authors which really affected my life and how I think about things. I went into the gallery and all of these books were all in a row in the form of original manuscripts. They had Virginia Woolf's journals which gave her the idea for Mrs. Dalloway, Jane Austen's Persuasion, Sylvia Plath's poetry, Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre, and also a Shakespeare first folio and orginal Beatles lyrics. They also had Jane Austen's writing desk. To me, I have always had this very strong connection with Virginia Woolf. I have always felt that if she met me she would totally understand me and how I think. I have felt like she is like my long lost best friend in history. To view her journals, paper that she actually touched and wrote on, made me remember everything about her writing that really affected me, and it was a very moving experience. It was similar to when I tried to find where she lived. She lived in Bloomsbury and a hotel has been built where her house was. Still I remembered her mentioning Tavistock Square in her journal when she came up with the idea for To the Lighthouse, and so to be somewhere where she had walked, thought, and lived really affected me in a deep way.

The British Library also had on display the Magna Carta and many religious documents. They also had screens where one could digitally turn the pages of very old books, zoom in, view text versions, and rotate images. All in all it was a very enriching experience for me.

We also toured the conservation studio. They taught us about the processes that are involved in repairing and preserving old and valuable works. They first estimate how many hours a project will take, and discuss with the curators what is worth doing based on the estimate. If something is not that important and will occupy a whole team for a year, they may not decide to start the project. Since conservation can also be very mundane it is important for them to mix up activities for the employees so their spirits do not get crushed. They seemed to be very professional and competent, and it made me wonder in the future about possibly taking some kind of professional workshop or continuing education class to learn about practices and concepts of conservation.

The building of the British Library was designed to have many features similar to that of a ship. It was controversial when it was built, but I really rather enjoyed it. There was also a huge column in the center filled with books originally donated by George the 3rd. He really wanted his collection to stay in one piece and they are mostly housed together. If a patron requests one of these books, a librarian goes inside the column to retrieve it. Our guide said the column is fireproof and if the librarian was inside during a fire he or she would have to exit through the roof. That does sound rather dangerous.

I found this visit to be highly informative and incredibly interesting.

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