The British Library in London is the largest library in the world. Their collection of books, maps, newspapers, magazines, music, and other objects exceeds 150 million items, with at least 3 million added every single year. I had visited the library last summer to see their temporary propaganda exhibition, but until a few weeks ago I’d never been simply to see the library and its permanent contents.
The British Library is located just a few steps from the King’s Cross/St Pancras underground station. If you enter via the portico on Euston Road you’ll be greeted by the iconic “Newton” statue by Eduardo Paolozzi in the piazza. There is also a very cleverly named indoor-outdoor cafe, The Last Word, in this area.
While it’s not my favorite building in London in terms of beauty, the British Library certainly takes the cake in terms of size. The library has over 112,000 square meters of floor space spread out over 14 floors. (That’s over 1,200,000 square feet for those of us who can’t quite grasp the metric system yet.) It was the largest public building built in the UK in the 20th century, and I suppose it has to be to accommodate its ever-expanding collections!
There are three free permanent exhibition rooms in the British Library – the Sir John Ritblat Gallery, the Philatelic Exhibition (stamp collections), and Conservation Uncovered, a small exhibition about preserving books and music. The majority of my favorite things to see at the British Library are found in the Sir John Ritblat Gallery where over 200 treasures are displayed, but there are quite a few interesting things to see outside of this popular gallery, too. Keep reading for seven totally rad things you won’t want to miss seeing at the British Library!
I apologize for the quality of the following pictures. Using a cell phone camera in extremely low lighting is never a good idea!
The King’s Library
If you make it past the front entrance, you won’t be able to miss this one. The King’s Library is an impressive six-story glass tower at the center of the library housing King George III’s collection of over 85,000 books and manuscripts. Most date from the 1400’s to 1800’s and can be requested for viewing in the Rare Books and Music reading room.
Mozart’s Musical Diary
For the last eight years of his life, Mozart kept a hand-written notebook of his compositions – date, title, and instrumentation on the left; first few bars of music on the right. It’s behind glass, of course, so you can’t look through the pages, but it’s still pretty spectacular to see the handwriting, with its smudges and corrections, of someone so brilliant.
Works by other composers, such as Beethoven and Chopin, are also displayed here in the Sir John Ritblat Gallery.
Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures Under Ground
If you can read the text in the grainy photo, there’s a pretty neat story behind this book that most of us now know as the popular children’s book, Alice In Wonderland. Touchscreen computers are scattered throughout the gallery where you can flip through and read the pages of this book, plus a few others. (In the time Cory and I spent walking around the gallery, Lexie had already read over half of Alice’s Adventures Under Ground!)
Other important handwritten pieces of literature can be seen here as well, like Beowulf, Jane Austen’s Persuasion, selected works by Charles Dickens, and Shakespeare’s First Folio.
The Gutenberg Bible
Printed in 1454 and only one of a few remaining copies, the Gutenberg Bible was the earliest printed book in Europe using Johann Gutenberg’s printing press, an invention allowing multiple copies of one material to be printed quickly. The thing that caught my eye here was the beautiful illustrations. I never had anything like that in my old King James version!
Sidenote: If you’re looking for the oldest ever known printed book, that would be The Diamond Sutra, a book printed on a scroll in 868 in China, and it’s also on display in the Sir John Ritblat Gallery.
The Magna Carta
Sorry, no picture for this one. The Magna Carta is kept in a separate room attached to the Sir John Ritblat Gallery under even lower lighting than the rest of the pieces in the gallery. It was difficult to make out the text with human eyes, so my dinky phone camera certainly couldn’t have captured it. Still, it’s absolutely worth seeing. The Magna Carta was a charter, signed in medieval England between King John and his barons, that eventually led to the rule of constitutional law in England and inspired other famous documents, like the U.S. Constitution. Only four copies of the original version remain – two are here at the British Library.
The Beatles’ Handwritten Song Lyrics
My personal favorite thing to see at the British Library are The Beatles’ song lyrics, handwritten by members of the band. You can tell these lyrics were written on a whim as anything and everything was used to copy them down – backs of envelopes, torn out notebook pages, and even the back of a birthday card meant for John’s son, Julian. (The age before everyone just used the Notes app on their smartphone!)
An unsent letter by John is also displayed here with doodles of himself drawn on it. A pair of headphones rest next to the small exhibit allowing visitors to listen to The Beatles introduce themselves or choose from a selection of popular songs. This is a must-see for Beatles fans!
Although it’s displayed in a somewhat less obvious part of the library, make sure you check out this unique piece of 3D art by Patrick Hughes located on the lower ground floor before you leave. (Just ask a library employee – they’ll be able to point you in the right direction!) I won’t ruin the surprise for you, but to get the full effect you’ll need to walk back and forth in front of the piece, keeping your eyes trained on it. It’s a very cool illusion!
Visiting the British Library and its permanent galleries, including everything mentioned above, is free, but if you’re coming here to check out a particular book, keep in mind that materials inside the library are not available for loans. If you’d like to use items in the library for reading or reference, you’ll need to submit documentation for a pass to one of the library’s reading rooms.
The British Library is open every day. There are tours available for all of the public areas, as well as the reading rooms, but you’re also always welcome to explore the public areas of the library on your own like we did!
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