libraries, podcast

The British Library Birthday Bash

Hello Book Nerds!

It’s Episode 7 and this time I’m taking you on a wander through the stacks of the world’s largest library…and quite possibly the deepest one. So grab your library cards and your book bag and your passports if you’re outside the UK because it’s time to head to the British Library.

Behind the Scenes

There’s not much behind the scenes information for this episode. I selected the topic because, as you might have guessed from the post title, July is the month when the British Library was officially founded in 1973.

I visited the library during my second trip to London and did my fair share of drooling over the book nerd treasure trove in the Sir John Ritblat Gallery, which you’ll learn about in this episode. After recording this episode, I’m eager to visit again because I had no idea of the treasure trove hidden behind the smoky glass tower!

Alright, that’s it, let’s get on with the birthday celebrations!

Clicking the image will take you to the episode’s web page where you can listen, or you can use the links just under the image to find plenty of other listening options. If you’d like to read along, a rough transcript is a bit lower down.

Listening links…

Links mentioned…

Images…

I usually save images as bonuses for my newsletter subscribers, but since they’re getting something extra special this time around, I thought I’d include photos with this post to help give you a better idea of a few things mentioned in Episode 7.

Of course, if you’d like to join the flock and get regular bonus tidbits, be sure to sign up today to get the Book Owl in your inbox every other week.

The round structure at left is the Reading Room of the British Museum and was the former home of the British Library. Photo by me.
St.Pancras Station (the brick facade influenced the design of the library). Photo by me.
Exterior of the British Library with Isaac Newton at left. Photo by Jack1956, public domain.
British Library interior. The smoky glass protects George III’s King’s Library. Photo credit to Andrew Dunn, Creative commons license http://www.andrewdunnphoto.com/

The (Rough) Transcript

Hey everyone, this is Tammie Painter and you’re listening to the Book Owl Podcast, the podcast where I entertain your inner book nerd with tales of quirky books and literary lore.

It’s episode 7 and this time I’m taking you on a wander through the stacks of the world’s largest library and quite possibly the deepest one.

This is a slightly longer episode so rather than go on about supporting the Book Owl with your hard earned cash, I’m just going to ask you to show your support by making sure you hit that subscribe button on your favorite listening app, by giving the podcast a review, or by sharing the podcast with one other person. And once again, Tierney of TierneyCreates and Helen of Crawcrafts Beasties have been superstars by mentioning the podcast on their blogs over the past few weeks.

Alright grab your library cards and your book bag and your passports if you’re outside the UK because it’s time to head to the British Library.

So remember at the start how I said this was the largest library. I lied. Square footage wise it may bot be, but it is the largest by collection. I don’t want to overwhelm you with numbers but this is going to be a very “Wow that’s a lot!” episode and that’s going to involve spouting some digits.

The collection, well it’s hard to pinpoint but estimates put it at 170 to 200 million items and that includes some 13 million books. I’ll let you book nerds drool over that for a sec, historical artifacts, and other media. To put the collection into perspective, Time Out magazine has calculated that if you looked at five items a day every day, it would take you 8000 years to see everything.

Now I don’t know about you but I tend to view way more than five items whenever I go to the library so I bet I could knock that down to 2000 years no problem.

But as we’ll find out, it’s not going to be easy to see the entire collection because it’s growing by leaps and bounds every single day.

I’ll get into some more numbers in a bit, but right now let’s wander back few years and explore the history of the library and a little bit about what makes the library special today.

So as I’m recording this, I’ve just turned the calendar page to July. And that’s the reason I chose this topic. Because the British Library was founded in July 1973. Now, the concept of libraries in England dates back centuries, but these were mostly private libraries whose owners allowed people to make use of their collections and could be pretty restrictive as you can imagine in such stratified society. It wouldn’t be until the 1850s when a truly public library would open.

But that’s a whole different topic and I’m going to steer you back to the founding of the British Library. So 1973, as far as British institutions go that doesn’t seem terribly old, but prior to this, the library had simply part of the British Museum since the mid 1700s. It was housed in what’s called the Reading Room which if you’ve been to or have seen pictures of the main lobby of the British Museum the Reading Room is that big round room above the gift shops and I’ll add a picture of that to the episode webpage so you can see what I’m talking about if you’re not quite sure. And, as with any link mentioned, the link to that page will be in the show notes.

And it kind of made sense that the library would be part of the museum because some of the items the library held, which were mostly acquired by donation, were hundreds even thousands of years old. These donated items included the entirety of George II’s Old Royal Library and George III’s King’s Library. George III, by the way is the one who happened to lose those pesky American colonies. So lots of old stuff sort of like what you find a museum, right?

But the collection wasn’t just in the British Museum. It was spread out in a mish mash of items to various buildings across London. Then along came the UK’s Library Act of 1972 which made the collection its own entity and that became the British Library. Trouble was, there was no actual library building for the collection to go to, so the British Library remained in the British Museum for nearly 25 more years.

Talk about the slow pace of government.

So after a lot of head scratching and probably a bunch of committees, the first idea to get the library collection its own home was to level the blocks facing the British Museum which is in the Bloomsbury area of London. And the Bloomsbury area isn’t some derelict neighborhood with rundown structures that are half-toppling over and in need of demolition anyway. These buildings, some of them historic, are still used by scientific and literary societies, businesses, and residents. So as you can guess, this is not go over well and after much protesting led most strongly by George Wagner the planning committee went back to the think tank.

Eventually, they settled on a disused area near St. Pancras station, and in the late 1980s, designing and building began. The architect who won the job was prepare for very long British name Sir Colin Alexander Saint John Wilson, who was nicknamed Sandy because wow that’s a long name. Sandy designed a place with a brick facade that fit in perfectly with the red brick of St. Pancras Station. 

And, number time, about 10 million bricks went into creating what would be the largest public building built in the UK in the 20th century. Of course some of those bricks were used to build the library’s entry piazza where a very large statue of Isaac Newton hangs out with a few other sculptures.

So, with a building and a piazza in place, in 1997, it was finally time to start bringing the collection to its new home. Trucks began trundling between the British Museum and the British Library in October 1997. And trundling. And trundling. In June 1998 Queen Elizabeth got out her big old pair of scissors and cut the ribbon to officially open the doors, but it would take four years to move the entire collection.

And just as a side note, the Reading Room of the British Museum is still open but it’s used primarily as a research library. 

Okay so QEII has cut the ribbon and you’ve wandered in. The first thing that will draw your eyes, besides the wide open interior, would likely be a central, six-story tower of smoky glass behind which are thousands of items. 

What’s in there? Remember Georgi III’s donations? That’s what’s inside. The contents of the Kings Library includes 65,000 books and 19,000 other items like maps and pamphlets. The smoky glass helps protect these antique items from UV light while still allowing you to gape at a tower of book spines.

Within the library itself, if you could to wander every area of the stacks, you would walk past find over 246 km of shelving, which is about 150 miles, but you’d have trouble ever reaching the end because another with around 8 to 9 km, or 5 miles, of new shelf space is added every year.

So why do they need to keep adding all this shelf space?

Because the British Library is what’s called a legal deposit and, no that doesn’t mean that’s where legal documents are dropped off. It’s actually a concept that dates to 1610. And what it basically means is that the library gets a copy of every single book published in the UK and Ireland and was made official in the Copyright Act of 1911. And while researching his episode I found the library’s annual statement for 2018. In that year, through the legal deposit, they added about 300,000 new physical items, and 250,000 digital ones. That works out to about 1500 items being added each day. Which will tack on several more years if you’re only looking at five items a day as I mentioned earlier. As a perspective my local library adds about 30 to 40 items.

So even though what you see of the British Library is pretty big, it’s kind of like an iceberg where you only see a small bit. I told you it might be the deepest library, right? Well, that time I wasn’t because this place goes down eight stories below ground. 

This underground area is environmentally controlled with moveable, color-coded stacks of shelves. And what happens is if you want an item from there, you put in a request, a print out goes to an assistant who goes and hunts down your item, puts it in a little red box and then it travels along a portion of the 1.6 km of conveyor belts to get to the pick-up desk. And for my newsletter subscribers, among a couple other bonuses, I’m going to have a video that allows you to ride along the rails with one of those items. 

When you’re done with your book, it goes back along the conveyor belt and an assistant resolves it. On average these poor assistant’s pull 3000 items a day which makes my legs tired just thinking of the miles they must walk.

So the library has miles and miles of shelves, millions of books, it’s just a big library right? Wrong. Because the library’s collection houses some astounding treasures that you can see for free.

As I said the library has been collecting donations of materials for a couple hundred years, long before they were ever actually a library, so they’ve gotten some amazing manuscripts, documents, and other historically important printed items, which are put on display in the Sir John Ritblat Gallery which is honestly a book nerd and history nerd paradise.

Now what’s on display does rotate to help preserve the items, but what you might see are things like, and keep in mind these are all originals, Captain Cook’s journals, song lyrics and letters from The Beatles (and no those aren’t from the two hundred year old donations), decrees signed by Elizabeth I – and if you’ve ever seen her signature on like book cover it really does have all those flourishes and everything and it’s really quite a signature. They also have copies of the Gutenberg Bible printed on Johannes Gutenberg’s press, they have two of the remaining copies of the Magna Cata from the year 1215, and they have the sole surviving copy of Beowulf. 

So all in all even if you you have no intention of doing anything at the library just going to that gallery is well worth making your way over to the building if you’re ever n London. 

But of course right now most of us can’t travel or aren’t willing to travel, but you can still visit the British Library. And I’ll have some links to these all on the show notes, but if you explore the library’s website, you’ll discover they have some unbeatable online resources. One of these is a sound library where you can listen to British accents from across the island. You can also click your way through several online exhibits including the history of writing the history of magic, and the history of mapmaking. 

But probably, the resource I could see losing the most time playing with is being able to head to their digitized manuscripts and flip through the pages of a few famous manuscripts. One of these is the St Cuthbert Gospels which if you’ve heard of the Book of Kells, which will be a topic on the podcast one day, you’ll be familiar with what an illuminated manuscripts is, and if you’re not, it’s a book, usually a bible on which the pages are decorated with brightly colored animals and intricate patterns. And even though the Book of Kells is probably the most famous of these, the St. Cuthbert Gospels, which were made in the early 700s, are actually about 80 years older. And thanks to the British Library and you can virtually turn page by page looking at it. If colorful bibles aren’t your thing, you can also browse the pages of Leonardo da Vinci’s notebooks from the early 1500s and try to read his backwards writing, look at his prototype helicopter, and ponder his many sketches. I believe the library’s website said they have they said they had 30,000 images of their various manuscripts, so that should keep you busy for a while. Maybe by then the travel ban will be over and you can go visit the books in person. 

So that’s it for the British Library or at least that’s all I’m going to cover it really does have some incredible displays so, when they re-open, if you can go I highly encourage you to do so. In the meantime enjoy those online resources,

As for my updates. First a bit of podcast news. I have been working on updating my old episodes and I know this is only episode seven, but I want to get this taken care of before things get out of hand. There’s a few of the earlier episodes that had some horrible horrible sound quality issues and, now that I’ve got a better handle on my editing software, I’m trying to fix them. I’ve just taken care of episode 3, so if you’ve listened to that and couldn’t get through it because of sound issues, try it again because it should be a little better. I’ll keep you updated with other improvements and I am constantly working at improving the sound quality of my recordings, but if you’ve noticed a sound issue, don’t be afraid to let me know using the contact info in the show notes, or by simply going to the book owl podcast dot com slash contact. 

As for my writing updates, well it’s July and I have jumped back into my Cassie Black trilogy with both feet. I’m working on Book One which was a bit of a decision process because I’d been originally thinking about getting Books 2 and 3 mostly done, then going back to Book One, but since Book One is so close to being done I think I just want to get through that and really hone that puppy to perfection, so I can put it out of my head. In June I also wrote a short story and I’ll be polishing that up this month as well. 

And speaking of stories if you want a free story from the Book Owl, there’s a link in the show notes to grab one. All you had to do is just click on that and enter your email address and you’ll get a free story sent right to your inbox. It’s a little gruesome, a little macabre, but it’s also a little bit funny so you might enjoy it and hey who doesn’t like free books.

Okay everyone, that is it for the show, and I will hoot at you next time.

The book owl podcast is a production fo daisy dog media, copyright 2020, all rights reserved. The theme music was composed by Kevin Macleod.

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