25 August 2011

The World's Best Library

The British Library is second only in scale to the Library of Congress, holding 14 million books and over 150 million items in total, in pretty much all written languages. It is the world's most important research library, with documents dating back to 2000 BC. As foremost of Britain's six legal deposit libraries, it must, by law, be provided with a copy of every British publication. This adds over three million items per year.

Until 1973, the British Library was a department of the British Museum, housed in the famous circular Reading Room (which now forms part of the museum's Great Court). In 1997 the library moved to purpose-built accommodation at St Pancras. This had been 15 years in the building, Prince Charles having laid the foundation stone in 1982 after seven years of planning and wrangling. Contrary to Charles's later rant, Colin St John Wilson's building is both spectacular and gorgeous, and is thus a lovely place to be.

Outside, the dark red brickwork echoes that of the nearby St Pancras Hotel, built by Sir George Gilbert Scott (grandfather to Sir Giles). The large plaza is broken up into various levels and areas, is very pleasant to sit in and admire the sheer quality of the execution, particularly the brickwork, and the pinkish-red metalwork, contrasted with black railings.

The interior is even better. The building is huge in scale - eleven reading rooms, four basement levels, over 200 miles of shelving, a highly efficient mechanical book-handling system, three exhibition galleries - but doesn't overwhelm. The building is centred around the King's Library, 60,000 volumes collected by George III, clearly not so mad after all; and given to the nation by George IV.

This is housed in a glass-walled tower, rising through six storeys, and is beautifully lit. The circulation areas of the library are fantastically generous, lending the building a feeling of openness. These are balanced by a variety of comfortable seating areas, non-reading room study areas, and a couple of quality cafés.

The best place to view it all from is the fifth floor gallery, from which one can look down through the atrium, see the King's Library at its heart and the magnificent main staircase. The detailing, including stair handrails wrapped in soft leather, is exquisite. Yes, it was late and over budget. It is likely, though, the best large public building in Britain for a good few hundred years.

1 comment:

abijsmith said...

Exceptionally well framed photographs; something almost Mondrian about them...