Friday, January 18, 2008

The British Library - Five Stars and No Crowds

London is blessed with five star attractions such as the British Museum and the National Gallery, so much so, that visitors really are spoiled for choice. Unfortunately, major attractions often come with major liabilities such as long lines and high costs. For years, NoCrowds has been singing the praises of undervalued institutions, arguing that the overall experience was better with the little guys than the superstars. After yesterday’s visit to the British Library, we are happy to report that this national treasure offers the best of both worlds, the collections of a superstar and the experience of a hidden gem.

The British Library has been around since 1753, founded as part of the British Museum, to preserve the collections “for Public Use, to all Posterity.” By the middle of the 20th century, the library had badly outgrown the world famous Reading Room where Karl Marx wrote Das Capital and planning began for a new library which, after lengthy setbacks, opened in 1998. It is, according to the Harvard University’s LibraryNotes, “the only major public building to be built in Great Britain in the 20th century. No other project, since the building of St Paul’s Cathedral …took so long to construct or was surrounded by so much controversy.” Like St Paul’s, the British Library is now considered an architectural triumph and on that basis alone, is worth a visit.

As impressive as the building is, what NoCrowds found even more inspiring was the celebration of human creativity as recorded in the books, manuscripts, maps, and music scores on display. Over the course of a morning at the British Library, and without giving a media mogul a single penny, we saw the original specimens of what can only be described as mankind’s greatest hits: the Magna Carta, the Gutenberg Bible, the Lindisfarne Gospels, Leonardo da Vinci’s notebooks, the Beowulf manuscript, Shakespeare’s First Folio and much, much more. From the audio archive, we had the thrilling experience of hearing Virginia Woolf talk about the art of writing, James Joyce read from Ulysses and Alice B Toklas describe the day she met Gertrude Stein. We shared these treasures with only a handful of visitors and it was an awesome moment to realise we could savour our experience of the Magna Carta in a room all to ourselves. For our money, cultural tourism doesn’t get better than this.

While the exhibition galleries are an oasis of calm, the rest of the Library is a beehive of activity filled with all kinds of people working on laptops in every possible nook and cranny. We loved the energy of it all and the feeling that the British Library is a thriving contemporary institution. While looking at the long line of 21st century applicants queuing for their readers passes, we wondered if any of them might also change the course of history like former pass holders Marx, Lenin and Ghandi.

At the end of our visit, we paused for a while and just watched the comings and goings. The thought that all these people felt the need to consult the 150 million plus items covering thousands of years of history from all cultures and civilisations, filled us with optimism about mankind’s infinite quest for knowledge. For a moving and memorable experience that is easy on the purse and good for the soul, the British Library is hard to beat.

The British Library
96 Euston Road
London NW1 2DB
Tel: 44 (0)20 7387 0626

Opening times (public areas)
Monday – Friday, 9:30 to 18:00 (until 20:00 on Tuesday)
Saturday 9:30 to 17:00
Sunday and public holidays 11:00 -17:00

Free Admission

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