The British Library is the national library of the UK. It is a “legal deposit library”, and is entitled to a copy of every item published in the UK. As our guide explained, the library tries to balance access of these materials for current readers, with the need and desire to preserve items for use by future generations.
The current building was opened in 1997. Previously, the library’s collections were housed in the British Museum, but it outgrew that space. This is quite easy to believe, given that the library’s collection currently consists of 200 million items, and its collection increases by approximately 3 million items every year. The building sits on a large piece of land located near the St. Pancras & King’s Cross train stations. Most libraries I have visited, both in the UK and in North America, have to make do with buildings they inherit, and which often were built to house something other than a library. This building, alternatively, was meticulously designed for its purpose, by an architect who oversaw ever little detail of its building. [Update: In fact, the Library just became a Grade I listed building.] For example, from the outside, the building is designed to look like a ship. This theme continues inside the building, with port-hole-inspired window designs built into most of the doors. Readers were also given the option of choosing their favourite chairs for the Reading Rooms (which I can confirm are very comfortable!), based on a selection of chairs picked out by the architect, and which match the overall design and decoration of the space.
The design elements also have very functional purposes. For example, the building is designed to get as much natural light as possible, with windows built into the ceiling rather than on the sides of the building, in order to afford more privacy for people living in condos next door. There are several levels of underground storage, and a sophisticated (and reportedly highly accurate) system for calling and returning books, which involves tracking the book barcodes electronically.
A very striking design element is the King’s Library, which is a centrepiece of the building. The Library is comprised of the personal collection of King George III, which was gifted to the nation by King George IV. The glass walls offer a glimpse of the rare books in the collection. The only door to access these items is pictured below. To enter the King’s Library, a British Library staff member has to cross a bridge across a moat-like space that surrounds the Library.
And yet, despite the many strengths of the building’s design, it faces a problem that most (if not all) libraries seem to face: too little space. Funding ran out to continue the planned next phases of building, so there are currently 1000 fewer reader spaces than originally planned, among other things. But all in all, I was very impressed with the beauty and functionality of this space, and am looking forward to seeing how it evolves in the future. So far, it still feels like a wholly modern space, which is amazing given that the building it approaching the 20 year anniversary of its opening!