British Library

British Library (53)

The British Library is the national library of the United Kingdom and one of the largest in the world. Despite this, compared to the national libraries of other countries it is very recent. In fact, the operations to realise this achievement began in 1969 and, after several stages to pass the specific legislation required for its creation, it began its institutional path in 1973.

To compile its enormous collection, it was necessary to join the archives of diverse pre-existing institutions. Firstly, the book department of the British Museum; then the National Central Library and the National Lending Library for Science and Technology. In 1974 the British National Bibliography project was added and the Office for Scientific and Technical Information. Then in the 80s the collections of the India Office Library and Records and the British Institute of Recorded Sound were added.

Another obstacle to overcome was to have a headquarters with sufficient space to house all the volumes. This was achieved with the decision to build what would eventually become the largest public building ever built in the United Kingdom in the 20th century. Despite its large cost, it has become the perfect ideal base for the British Library. The project was the responsibility of the architect Colin St John Wilson, who designed a redbrick structure that covered 112,000 square metres of space.

Any figures regarding this temple of wisdom, which accumulates, among other items, books, manuscripts, newspapers, maps and an impressive sound archive, are dizzying. Let’s look at some of them: the collections is made up of 150 million objects, among which, apart from the books, features 4 million maps and 8 million stamps. The library receives a copy of every book published in the United Kingdom and Ireland, which today represents some 16 million volumes. To house the collection requires 625 kilometres of shelves. Every year 12 kilometres of shelves are added. The building, whose basements reach 25 metres depth, has a total of 14 levels.

If this were not enough to be going on with, perhaps you would be interested to know that the British Library conserves objects that date from 300 BC to the newspapers of today. Among its treasures feature a personal notebook of Leonardo da Vinci, the first ever edition of The Times, dated the 18th of March 1788, and the recording of Nelson Mandela’s speech during his trial. 

This huge library is a space open to everyone, where 1,200 readers can sit, and in which exhibitions are held. The most important thing to remember is that if you visit it then take it easy and be aware that you will only be able to see a miniscule part of the collection. To give you an idea, if you see 5 objects from the British Library every day, you would take 80,000 years to see the whole collection as it is today, not taking into account that 3 million new objects are added to its archives every year. So, you had better get started right away...

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