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Sunday, May 12, 2013

The Brtish Library--My Mecca

"I have always imagined that Paradise will be a kind of library." ~Jorge Luis Borges    
   Me too! Wherever I go when I die there will be the largest library in the universe filled with books, art, music, and comfortable chairs overlooking a garden of paradise--literally; now that I have visited the British Library I am much closer to picturing paradise, having had a teasing, taste--a starter as they call little nibbles before the main course over here.
   I remember when I came over to the UK for the first time in May of 2010. It was a three week opportunity to ensure living aboard a narrow boat in the UK would work for me, before we ventured into matrimony. At the time Dear Sir said, "I guess we will have to make a trip into London so you can see Big Ben, the Tower, and Buckingham Palace."
   "Nope. I can see those things with you any time after we are married and living here on the boat. I'm only here for three weeks and that isn't enough time to meet your family and friends and visit London. What I really want to visit is a library. Any library will do." 
   This being our second trip to London, we finally made it to the British Library. Amazing is the only word I can conjure for it, which falls far flat of the reality!
    I stood enthralled by the low modern roof line of the British Library with the spires of St. Pancras Rail station reaching for the skies behind it. The piazza out in front of the library is filled with tables, platforms and places for folks to sit and read, eat a bite of lunch, chat and meet. 
   Inside the front entrance hall is a massive sculpture of a book chained to a ball is titled Sitting on History by Bill Woodrow. It depicts books as captors of information which we cannot escape. 
   The British Library and five other libraries in the United Kingdom are entitled to receive a free copy of every item published or distributed in Britain. Its holdings include 150 million items amongst which are 14 million books, (Yes I am drooling!), 58 million patents and 3 million sound recordings.
   This library is open seven days a week to everyone but it is not your average local library; instead it is a depository for rare books, stamps, art, journals and the collections enshrined at the British Library which are astounding. To use this library one needs a reader pass which is obtained after showing documented proof of residence address and identification. The pass provides access to the British Library Reader Rooms in which one may gain access to the collections which reside here. This library is worth a trip to see the permanent public displays available to everyone without a readers pass.
   As we passed the front information desk I spotted this clock which is projected onto the wall! I love the way time is displayed as artistic utility and an example of graphic computer imagery.  The stairs delivered us to The Folio Society Gallery in which the present Exhibit titled "Murder in the Library: An A-Z of Crime Fiction which will take you on a fascinating journey through the development of crime and detective fiction, from its origins in the early 19th century through to contemporary Nordic Noir, taking in the adventures of Sherlock Holmes, the first appearance of Miss Marple and the fiendish plots of Dr Fu Manchu along the way." (The British Library,, accessed 05/12/13 online.)                                                         

To the right is the placard for Sherlock Homes: the great detective created in 1886, killed off in 1894 and resurrected in 1902 after sustained public clamour. The novels and short stories have never been out of print. With over 250 different appearances--his only serious literary challenger is Dracula--but then he isn't human... to the right is one of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's hand written manuscripts. Each alphabet letter is represented in this exhibit by a crime fiction author and an original manuscript or first edition of a book is displayed.
My legs showing below a panel of the rare U.S. Inverted Jenny stamp
   As we left this exhibit we stumbled on the Philatelic collection! A wall of enclosed folios which pulled out for viewing includes 80,000 items on display: postage stamps, revenue stamps (Americans, remember the stamp tax act which ignited the American Revolution? You can see the revenue stamp for it displayed here!), and many other postal related documents.
   Established in 1891, it includes fifty major private collections which have been  donated to the British Library  making theirs the most comprehensive 
philatelic collection in the world.
   The inverted Jenny was issued in the United States May 10, 1918 to commemorate the start of delivering mail by air. The sheet displayed an image of Curtis JN-4 bi-plane upside down--a very rare printing error. Only one pane of 100 error stamps was ever found. One Inverted Jenny Stamp sold at U.S. auction in 2007 for $977,500. A block of four sold for $2.7 million in 2005.
   I could have included a very clear picture of it from Wikipedia but mine is actually taken at the library, blurry though it is!
    To the left is a picture of a reproduction of an 18th century printing press similar to the one created by Johann Gutenberg in 1454, and modeled on one used by American printer and politician Benjamin Franklin. This one is on display in the Library and one can get a close up view. It is amazing to think of how this machine revolutionized printed materials! It was the computer of its time in its own way...finally we wandered into the Sir John Ritblatt Gallery: Treasures of the British Library
   It was here, surrounded by rare maps, historical documents, rare books and manuscripts that I wept as I stood with ear phones on, listening to a Beethoven Sonata as I studied his handwritten manuscript of the same. I gazed in wonder at the spidery script and small notes dancing across the old paper, entranced by the beauty of his music which I heard in my head thanks to headphones. Beethoven heard it in his head thanks to genius, and shared it with the world despite going deaf.
   Included in the music collection are Mendelssohn's Wedding March, Mozart's marriage contract from 1782, Handel's Messiah, and original hand written musical notations from Elgar and Ravel. I also saw Beatles lyrics such as Hard Days Night scribbled on the back of a birthday card. 
   I also saw the First Folio of Shakespeare's plays from 1623, published seven years after his death. It contained 36 plays, half of which had not been previously published. The document was open to the page of Henry IV, part I.
   Les and I viewed the Magna Carta together. Dating form 1215 there are four copies still in existence. We looked on one of Leonardo Da Vinci's Notebooks, written left handed from right to left in Italian, with captivating sketches; I looked at Captain RF Scott's handwriting as it traveled across the pages of his diary, spelling out the circumstances and misfortune of his South Pole expedition in which he and his crew died 11 miles from safety after being beaten to the Pole by the Norwegians. 
I contemplated the handwritten works of Samuel Johnson, Wordsworth, Robert Browning, and Oscar Wilde.
   I stood spellbound, looking at Jane Austen's 1792 notebook, relishing her ink blots, scribbled out words and passages.
  Most touching to me were the sacred texts which dated back to 700 ACE. It was not the perceived sacredness of the small missals and private hand copied bibles per say because I am not a Christian and I don't see those words as necessarily sacred. It was actually viewing an 11th century book and noting that every page was dog eared on the bottom right. Ho many hands sifted the pages of this book over the past 1000 years? And there I stood in the 21st century, my mind racing back in time to imagine...such are the gifts bestowed for free to the public by the British Library.


Anonymous said...

The British do their historical museums so well, so much better than any where else in the English speaking world. I think of the railway museums at York for an example in my relam, and restored railways too.

It is Sunday May 12, here in Canada. Mother's Day, which is prompting from me communications with surrogate mothers to me. My own Mum passed over in June 2011 and I think of her as she was
and always shall be in my own mind.

It is also very cold (4 degrees C)
and very wet, and windy here today, the balance of the week apears to be similar. And a five hour drive by automobile north of here they've had heavy snow and freezing temperatures. Hey, it's Canada for gosh sakes!

Bryce Lee

Anonymous said...

The library is a marvellous place.

I have been a member for many years and never cease to gaze around when I pass through the doors (after security that is!)

NB Valerie & Steam Train by Les Biggs

NB Valerie & Steam Train by Les Biggs