Wednesday, August 13, 2014

July 3: British Library

Today, we toured the British Library, one of the largest libraries in the entire world. Holding over 200 million pieces, the British Library's collection when lined up covers over 300 miles; you can check out their catalog here. The main building, which is what we visited, holds forty percent of the total collection, with
A Shot of the Entryway!
the remaining sixty percent at satellite centers throughout London and the UK. The bulk of the main building is underground with eight stories going under. Curiously, this construction does pose two main problems: 1) there is a great deal of underground pressure from the Tube and 2) there are many Bubonic plague pits underground. Indeed, there have been incidents in which construction workers found plague pits and had to evacuate. The librarian giving the tour told a rather disturbing story: once, they accidentally discovered poison gas underground and had to evacuate so they could clear it out!

While the library does have a tremendous amount of material available, it is not for everyone. The British Library specifically serves people who are researching—professors, students, writers, etc.—and are in need of materials not readily available in public libraries. To access the collections, you need a library card and must be 18 or older to apply for one. The librarian assured us there were practical reasons for this age limit. First, because the library holds the largest collections in the world, it also has the largest collection of pornographic material in the world. Much like the Library of Congress, the British Library must have copies of everything that is printed in the UK, including newspapers, stamps, and, yes, porn. Second, the library prosecutes anyone who steals or damages materials. I am ambivalent about these restrictions, though; on the one hand, I understand the library’s caution in allowing anyone to view their tremendous collections, but on the other, I’m not sure I agree to the levels of exclusivity they achieve through this caution. One cannot even talk to a reference librarian—indeed, one cannot even ask a research question—if one does not already know what books one wants to use. I found this procedure more practical in theory than in practice. If one is just beginning her research, how will she know what pieces to access if she is not allowed to talk to a librarian?

Speaking of which, we were allowed into a secret observatory over one of the reading rooms (each collection—humanities, maps, etc.—has its own reading room) in which librarians can watch people using the manuscripts. The librarian pointed the cameras out to us—the visible ones, that is. She told us there are cameras in the desks to watch patrons. Additionally, when one requests a manuscript, the librarians weigh it before and after one uses it; if there is any difference, they begin searching. Once again, I was ambivalent about these measures: while I found them profoundly invasive, I did understand their purpose. These documents are not like, say, a Stephen King novel or an Encyclopedia Britannica at your public library; they are historic and irreplaceable. To be honest, I have not entire worked out my feelings about the degree of surveillance there.

Overall, I felt privileged to see the inner-workings of one of the greatest libraries in the world and would happily research there…that is, if I met their qualifications.

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