EXPLORE THE GRAND ARCHIVES OF THE BRITISH LIBRARY
The British Library receives a copy of every single publication produced in the UK and Ireland – as a result, it has over 150 million items in its catalogue, with three million new items added annually. It also has millions of sounds archives of voices such as James Joyce and Florence Nightingale.
The British Library, 96 Euston Road, London NW1 2DB. Phone: 0330 333 1144
I would venture to say that the British Library is my favourite place in London, but, like most best loves, it has another side that makes me afraid. I find it is best reserved for days of calm and rest and looking through windows, not unlike a church.
Since 1662, it has been required by law that a copy of every text published in the UK is given to the British Library. This covers everything you can imagine: Thomas Hardy to Glamour magazine, Jonathan Swift and Daniel Defoe to medical journals and Agatha Christie. It is a catalogue of every whim of language, fashion and warfare.
In addition to books, the library has millions of sounds archives with the voices of James Joyce and Florence Nightingale captured in boxes. It also has Handel’s Messiah written in the composer’s hand, which looks like squashed insects. There is an eleventh century Qu’ran, Shakespeare’s First Folio, an ancient Gandhara scroll on birch bark and handwritten lyrics by The Beatles. I don’t think it’s hyperbolic to say that an alien could study these vaults and laddered shelves and piece together an understanding of human culture.
If you take out something that is really one of a kind, you must wear white gloves and hold open the pages with satin snake weights. It makes you feel important.
On hyperbole: I think it is in the British Library that I became truly aware of my own limitations. I would look about me at the other people there and how they studied, turning pages for hours without once looking up. Their minds seemed like sponges that could keep drinking and drinking and never need to breathe. They had attention spans built to fit this library.
Most of the texts are kept in hundreds of kilometres of underground storage around the country. If you’re in London and wish to see a page of Victorian poetry, somebody will drive to Yorkshire to bring it back for you in a couple of days. I think this is one of the best things ever. It’s the most patience you are likely to find or need in Euston. It is the anti-Twitter.
And this slowness suffuses the whole library. There are wide staircases to climb to the reading rooms, and you’re searched twice before you can sit down with your well-travelled book. The guards are looking for melting chocolate and leaking pens as well as weapons – some of the volumes are so rare. If you take out something that is really one of a kind, you must wear white gloves and hold open the pages with satin snake weights. It makes you feel important.
But it also used to make me panic. When I noticed I couldn’t lose myself like the people around me, that I couldn’t do concentration or commitment, these thoughts exploded onto other aspects of my life. I have felt, in these huge rooms, that I am destined for a small life and narrow walls. I have stared straight ahead, worrying and worrying that I will never be what I want, moving in and out past the security, drinking coffee until I feel sick.
I have worked out what to do. Leave, and open a book, my own book, with chocolate and ink on. It doesn’t matter how often I look up, because in books there are windows that I can see on my own. Here are my worlds without walls, and they can be touched with bare hands.
Photographs by Juhi Pande