The British Library

A New Home for the Hub of the Intellectual Universe


“They are tearing the heart out of the nation.” said an elderly gentleman, pointing an indignant finger at a truck barreling down Great Russell Street. “They are moving the books from the Reading Room, and all they know to do with them is to bury them in a potato field.”

This was England, and there was no need to ask what room he was referring to. For scholars like him who had grown gray under the blue-and-gold dome designed by an Italian revolutionary almost a century and a half ago, the center of England’s, and therefore of the world’s learning, was the Reading Room of the British Museum. It was the room where Darwin had taken notes, and so had Dickens, who told his biographer that his days in that room were he most useful he had ever passed, It was here that Pierre Roget composed the Thesaurus on which writers at a loss for an English word or phrase depend to this day. Macaulay had studied here, and so had Browning, Kipling, Hardy. Yeats had studied Irish mythology here, Isadora Duncan had studied the history of the dance. George Bernard Shaw had attracted attention by his habit of turning his eyes back and forth between Karl Marx’s Das Kapital and the score of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde. He was so grateful to the Library for all that he had learned there that in his will he left it a third of his residual estate, with the result that many an acqusition or exhbition today can be paid for with the steady flow of royalties from My Fair Lady.

  Marx himself sat here almost every day for twenty years, when he was not earning a living by writing articles for a New York newspaper, searching out the evidence to prove that the capitalist system was bound by its own internal contradictions to come to a violent end in the near future. Visionary revolutionaries came to acquire the intellectual background necessary for overturning ancient empires or for blowing up the world: Mahondas Gandhi, creator of modern India, then a young barrister; Sun Yat-sen, father of the Chinese republic, then a young student; the anarchist Prince Kropotkin whose disciples were murdering kings and presidents and prime ministers all over globe around the turn of the century; V. I. Ulianov, a young Russian exile who had changed his named to Lenin, but who called himself Jacob (or Joseph) Richter LL. D. When Ezra Pound wanted to launch a revolutionary movement he named Imagism in 20th century poetry, he did it over tea and crumpets in the bun-room down the hall.

And now this shrine of human knowledge, with all its accumulated traditions and memories, was being stripped of its unique treasure, the miles and miles of books in the stacks surrounding it, to be moved from quiet leafy Bloomsbury, where no one was ever afraid of Virginia Woolf, moved less than half a mile but to a totally different rough-and-tumble London, Somerstown, described in an 1846 guidebook as a den of thieves and criminals, and according to local taxi-drivers no different now. The books are now being housed (half of them are there already, the rest should be in place by 1999).in a building which has been the center of a storm of controversy for thirty-five years, on the site of a market for the potatoes shipped from the north country, across the street from St. Pancras railway station.

The Prince of Wales, who unveiled the cornerstone of the new building in 1982 subsequently looked at architects rendering of the structure and described it as a “dim collection of sheds,” which looked more like an academy for secret police than a library. Another critic compared it to a public lavatory and the National Heritage Committee called it “one of the ugliest buildings in the world...a Babylonian ziggurat seen through a funfair distorting mirror”

The French architect responsible for the new library on the Seine in Paris mocked Wilson for putting his books in the cellar as if he was ashamed of them. Where do you put your best wines? he shot back. But the French were proud of the commanding beauty of their four great glass towers, where everyone would see the books in their glory looming over Paris.

It is easy to understand the deeply emotional attachment to the inherited memories of legions of scholars, writers, book-lovers for whom the grand old domed room had become an ancestral shrine, the omphalos of the intellectual life. As one of them explained to me, working in the Reading Room you felt as if you were in a medieval scriptorium, surrounded by busy pens just like yours, all silently devoted to forging new links in the great chain of knowledge which man has bound around the earth. If you looked around from your desk all you could see was books, the walls lined with them up to a height of forty feet, even the columns holding up the dome are painted with false shelves and false book covers to give the impression of an endless circle of knowledge. There was a comfort in the very circularity of the room, its assurance that the world you were working in was not a chaos but a cosmos whose lawc could be revealed by patient study -- an assurance only minimally affected by the recent discovery that the dome is not a perfect circle after all, the east-west axis is four millimeters longer than the north-south.

Everything about the old Reading Room was designed to inspire reverence. It was spacious and airy and the light of heaven flowed down through majestic windows and a huge glass lantern at the top of the dome on the rows of desks radiating like the spokes of a wheel, where scholars and writers from all lands had been working for generations, poring over the records of, as one of its Directors has said, “every age of every civilization, every written language and every aspect of human thought.” If not quite the heart of the nation, it was certainly one its proudest symbols, as central to the world’s intellectual life as the Observatory at Greenwich a mile or so away is to the measurement of the earth’s surface.

And all the more central and imposing because, like the Holy of Holies in the old Temple of Jerusalem, very few people had ever seen it. Of the 6 million visitors who pour every year through the great gates and up into the entrance hall of the British Museum -- it comes at peak hours within a few percentage points of being as crowded as Heathrow Airport -- only a handful have ever stopped to get a glimpse down the corridor behind the Information Desk. There uniformed guards stood by the turnstiles through which less than one percent of those visitors ever passed, For to get through the turnstiles you needed a pass only given to someone recognized as being engaged in work which really demanded access to a library containing twelve million books and documents. Applicants merely looking up some references for a term paper or trying to trace their own genealogy, would be politely directed to another of the excellent libraries scattered through the London area.

At least that is the way it has been in modern times, since scholarship became a mass-production industry. The men who voted in Parliament in 1753 for the creation of the British Museum found it perfectly natural to provide for admission, without charge, for “all persons of decent appearance,” just as they found it perfectly natural to assume that a digest of all the achievements of God and man could be packed into a single house on Montague Street. Across the Channel at that same time it seemed perfectly natural to Diderot and his collaborators to summarize all human knowledge in the twenty volumes of the Encylopédie..

Standards were not as strict then as they are now, and what the founders of the British Museum offered to the public as a compendium of knowledge looks to our modern critical classificatory eyes like a helter-skelter collection of alternately useful and frivolous material. The bulk of what visitors saw in 1753 was the collection of some 55,000 objects willed to the nation by Dr. Hans Sloane, the best-known physician of the day, pioneer of inoculation against smallpox and the production of milk chocolate. It included exotic plants, fossils, antique statues, stuffed animals, King William and Queen Mary carved in walnut shells, a primitive electrical apparatus, a landscape painted on a spider’s web, a brick from the foundations of the Tower of Babel, a chicken with two heads. A single room on the ground floor of the house was equipped with a table surrounded by twenty chairs and by cases of stuffed birds, where visitors could have access to some fifty thousand books manuscripts maps and prints. It was a narrow dark cold damp room and at first attracted only five or six readers a day. One of them was Thomas Gray, author of the Elegy in a Country Churchyard, who came to feed his melancholic soul on the “stillness and solitude” of the place. Others were lunatics suffering from deep depression whose relatives parked them at the desks so that they could brood their days away.

But this was the century of Enlightenment, and soon an increasingly literate and well-educated public was demanding more than a cabinet of curiosities and a heap of miscellaneous books. The collections began to grow, they began to be rationally organized, proper objects for study as well as admiration. The public might turn out in greater numbers for the first stuffed polar bears to arrive from the Arctic than for the marble sculptures snatched by Lord Elgin (and probably saved from total destruction through decay and neglect) from the Parthenon in Athens. But the Museum was becoming more serious as it became bigger, and as more and more objects flowed in from the ends of the earth, from the lion-hunt of King Ashur-bani-pal of Assyria to Tahitian war canoes, from Pompeiian wall paintings to the treasures buried in Anglo-Saxon tombs, the older and more frivolous objects were gradually discarded: neighbors on more than one occasion complained of the smell of burning snakes. The Museum had to grow till it achieved the vast size of the present building finished in 1852, covering thirteen and a half acres, with its majestic neo-classic facade on Great Russell Street. . .

And the reading room had to grow with it, as the invention of pulp paper turned books, formerly a luxury good, into a commodity available to all. There were six successive reading rooms, increasingly growing in size, in the first century of the Museum’s existence, all of them objects of torrents of complaint, over smoky fireplaces, bad light from windows facing north, bad ventilation, bad smells, all combining to cause what was known as Museum Headache and to stimulate the growth of the Museum Flea, pulex mus. Brit. max., reported to be twice the size of the common household variety.

Eventually Antonio Panizzi, a young refugee from an Italian revolution, put an end to all that by designing the seventh, the classical and never-to-be-forgotten Reading Room in 1853.. He proposed to put it in the middle of the great interior court of the Museum building, where no one ever went because the sun never reached it and grass could not grow. The project was grandiose, imaginative and practical, and it won quick consent from the authorities. The plans were drawn up, approved, the money was voted, the construction went up at a rate and with an efficiency which would have been found as amazing in the time of Ashur-bani-pal as in our own. It was all finished, with all its copper sheathing and gilt trimming, in a little over three years, at a cost of 150,000 pounds which was only 70 percent above the original estimate. It was state of the art in building techniques and building materials, using cast iron, which allowed an incredible concentration of material in a small space. The dome of the reading room was two feet short of being the size of the dome of the Pantheon in Rome, but where the architects of Nero’s day had to build solid stone piers covering 7400 square feet to hold their dome up, Panizza’s e rests on iron piers occupying less than 200. It was clean and efficient, it had rudimentary air conditioning system and in due time it had electric light (gas would have been too dangerous), enabling it stay open past four pm in winter and on those all too frequent days when the kind of fog which a character in Dickens called “a London particular” reduced visibility to near zero.

There were still complaints. Air still circulated poorly - the poet Swinburne once passed out at his desk from lack of oxygen. The staff was overworked, underpaid, and generally more picturesque than useful to the readers. It was said that the Trustees, who were aristocrats all, used the Museum as a dumping ground for their aging butlers when they started dropping the wine bottles. And there were the eternal complaints of those bewailing the fall of traditional standards before the creeping subversive forces of modernity. “Must your officials in the Reading Room,” asked a letter received in 1932, “be so dowdily dressed? When I first made use of it they dressed in accordance with the dignity and tradition of the place and wore top hats. Today there was a callow youth in the sacred inner circle, dressed in what looked like a brown ‘sports jacket’, with dark trousers, a soft-colored collar which may or may not have been washed last week, and a loud tie. What impression does this make on foreign visitors to what is as near as I am likely to get to the hub of the intellectual universe?”

But these were only petty dissonances in a swelling harmony of praise. The Reading Room took its place along the Houses of Parliament, the Crystal Palace, the railways, the steel mills, the dreadnoughts, the Titanic, as one of the defining monuments of Britain at the peak of its power and glory.

Time has a way of catching up with monuments. As more treasures came swarming in from the ends of the Empire and the ends of the earth to add to pile up in the Museum and more and more millions of books were printed, it became increasingly impossible to keep them all in a space of thirteen and a half acres. To preserve some kind of administrative order it became necessary to cut off the books from the objects and create a separate entity called the British Library. But new Library and old Museum were still jostling each other in the same limited space; and something had to give Whole huge sections of the book and periodical collections had already had to be farmed out to other sites scattered around London, which meant that when you chose something out of the Reading Room catalogue you would be lucky to get it in twenty-four hours. It was either move out the Elgin Marbles and the Aztec skulls inlaid with turquoise and gold hoard from the Saxon ship burial of Sutton Hoo and the Egyptian coffin lid which according to a persistent Conspiracy Theory was responsible for the sinking of the Titanic, or move out the books.

It would obviously be simpler and cheaper to displace the books. The decision was finally made in 1962, and a promising 36-year-old architect named Colin St. John Wilson was commissioned to design a new building. He had no idea that he would be in his seventies before he be able to guide visitors around an almost finished building.

He admits that he need not have been surprised, it is an old English tradition to dither and delay over the construction of major public buildings, and this was the biggest peacetime construction job in England in the twentieth century. Sir Christopher Wren in the seventeenth had to fight his way through thirty-six years to get St Pauls Cathedral built to his specifications, and he was fired before the job was done. And Sir Charles Barry in the nineteenth had to fight almost as long before he could hear Big Ben booming out of his Houses of Parliament, and before that day came he had to hear Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli recommend that he be sent to the gallows.

The original plan was to build the Library on the other side of Great Russell Street. The architectural design was approved, but then it turned out that the owners of all the comfortable homes and shops and hotels and bed-and-breakfasts who would have to be displaced would have none of it, and they were politically powerful enough to stop the project dead in its tracks.

Then the usual round of troubles that attend the construction of public buildings took over. Year after year, plans were made and unmade, governments changed, ideas changed, budgets were slashed, costs were overrun, bureaucrats fought savagely for their turf, there were costly technical errors -- shelves that tipped over when books were put on them, 2000 miles of defective wiring -- and administrative errors, hints of corruption, bad weather. But in 1976 a new site was at last found, the potato market at St Pancras, and there in 1984 giant machines began to dig the hole eighty feet deep for the basement, the biggest basement ever built for peaceful purposes says Wilson, which would be the heart of the structure: it was where the books were to be stored.

Not everyone approved of the basement, nor indeed of any part of the building .There was denigration on the press, denigration by the Prince of Wales and other foes of any architecture deemed modern, petitions signed by leading intellectual figures on both sides of the Atlantic appealing for the survival of the ancient landmark.

And there were the familiar voices saying it would cost too much, the same voices which in 1753 had said that the twenty thousand pounds asked by Sir Hans Sloane to provide for his daughters might unbalance the Budget. (And the whole project might have been abandoned, and the collections gone to Paris or St Petersburg, if some one had not had the idea of a lottery which brought in ninety-five thousand pounds after the swindler who ran it had run off with a good part of the receipts.)

But the machine of progress had begun its inexorable march, and by the end of 1996, only three years behind schedule, and with a cost only three times the original estimates, the main building of the new Library was virtually complete and ready to start receiving books from Great Russell Street. Once the fences around the work site were taken down, the building could actually be seen, opinion began to swing. Critics began to find, grudgingly at first, that it is really a very handsome and appealing, as well as practical, building, bluff and forthright and British to the core. The Evening Standard which had been flinging mud at it for years now found “a structure of amazing originality and grandeur, warm, harmonious, friendly.”

Its outer shell is made of ten million handmade bricks -- the ideal building material, says Wilson, for the British climate -- in a style that is both contemporary and altogether in harmony with the St Pancras railway station and hotel next door. St Pancras, built in the 1890's, in the full flush of Victorian self-assurance, not long ago was universally derided as a fussy frilly Victorian-Gothic eyesore cluttered with pointed-arch windows and decorative turrets, but is now admired again. When it becomes the new terminus of the channel-tunnel railway, these two sturdy brick towers will be the first sight of London offered to visitors from the Continent.,

Wilson’s Library is majestic enough when you enter it, with a grand marble staircase leading up to the King’s Library, George III’s personal collection offered to the people by his son, six stories of books, shining in their ancient bindings. There is plenty of room for showing off the rare and ancient treasures accumulated over the years, and for exhibitions of new discoveries like the first century manuscripts found in India which have been called the Dead Sea Scrolls of Buddhism. But as in the old location, this Library is primarily work space for serious workers, and it is as up to the technological minute of the 1990's as the old one was to that of the 1850's. Instead of a single grandiose reading room, there are thirteen new ones spread out over three floors in eleven L-shaped rooms, air-conditioned, with an electronically controlled mixture of artificial with natural light from clerestories and skylights. Where the desks of the old room had inkwells, all the 1600 desks here have outlets for laptops and whatever other electronic devices can be hooked up to the wilderness of wires beneath the floors. It takes only a click, and any book you want will come up from any level of the basement and be at your desk in less than fifteen minutes. The desks are of American oak, spacious and handsome and a pleasure to work at. The rooms are pleasant to walk through, with just enough discreet curves in balconies and fixtures and ceilings and porthole windows to break the deadly rectangularity of so many contemporary buildings. The architect has added a certain subliminal pleasure by making sure that no two walls are exactly parallel, so that in whatever direction you look you are always either concentrating or expanding your vision, the way you do when you are studying a book.

Some unreconstructed lovers of the past will never forgive the new quarters for not providing the vertical dividers which in the old Reading Room protected you from the prying eyes of the person working at the desk opposite you. But in the spread-out configuration of the new rooms they would have made it almost impossible to spot the occasional malefactor who slips in, like the 19th century clergyman whom a supervisor on his raised platform in the center of the room was able to catch clipping sermons out of religious periodicals so that he could pass them off on his congregation as his own.


Creating this building was one thing. Moving into it was another, and no easy task. Books are very fragile, few but trained librarians know how to take one off a shelf without hurting it, and there is no robot yet invented which can remove them in bulk from their shelves and replace them on others across town.

No one had ever moved twelve million books before. The previous record was made by the Caliph Hakim II of Cordoba, which in the 10th century occupied much the same position in the world of culture as London would a millennium later. It is recorded that he moved his library of 400,000 books from one of his palaces to another in six months. He was outdone a couple of years ago, when some 240 kilometers of books and documents, the ones that hardly anybody ever asks for, were moved to Boston Spa in the north of England (if anybody does ask for them, they can be delivered to St Pancras overnight). With the valuable experience thus gained, the Library could start the massive move to St Pancras in December 1996, and by October 1997 a good part of the stock was already in place on the 340 kilometers of shelves there, ready to proceed by cart and elevator to the reading rooms when the electronic signal from above would arrive. It is now confidently predicted that all twelve million items will be in place on shelves in St Pancras and Boston Spa by early in 1999.

People are already speaking of the British Library as a success while its rival across the narrow seas in Paris is coming to look, despite is extravagant budget of over a billion dollars and its breakneck pace of construction (it had to be finished before the end of the second term of president Mitterrand who regarded it as his personal monument) more and more like a disaster. A disaster starting right at its doorstep, where a monumental staircase was built sweeping up 48 steps from the river-front in undifferentiated gray , about 400 yards wide without a single railing. No one had calculated that, facing due north it would be negotiable only by seasoned alpinists when the icy winds of a Paris winter blow. (Some railings have since been added, but owing to some postmodernist architectural dogma they can only go up sixteen steps at time, then you have talk horizontally about twenty yards to find another sixteen.) More troublesome in the long run is the belated discovery that a quartet of glittering glass towers was the worst possible design for packing books into. All but a handful of their 3324 windows have had to be boarded up to keep the books from frying in the summer sun, and it is reported that some of those nine-inch thick boards started to warp last summer. Meanwhile the books of the New British Library sit in good health in their underground home, kept at a constant temperature by the air-conditioning equipment in the single unpretentious brick tower.

As for the British Museum, it is delighted with the extra space made available by the departure of those millions of books, and has already embarked on an ambitious program to create a glass-roofed Great Court in its center, with all kinds of educational and commercial services. Panizzi’s Reading Room will be preserved, better than new because repainted in its original colors of cream and cerulean and gold, and it will still be a reading room, with a sizeable mass of reference books, open for the first time in its history all day long to all who want to come and use it. It will all be paid for by a lottery, just like in 1753.


What will the Library be like in another century, in 2097? Some people think there will be no need for libraries at all by then, everything ever printed on paper will have been digitalized, ready to be snatched out of the air by everybody’s hand-held computer. Others say that the quantity of reading material, digitalized or not, will continue to grow exponentially, astronomically, megastatistically, and the spacious halls of St Pancras will soon be bursting at the seams just like Panizzi’s dome. Already a fight is building up about the vacant land to the south of the building, which the librarians wants to preserve for future expansion and the government wants to sell to developers to help balance the Budget.

But this is England, and as long as there will be an England, there will surely be some kind of a Reading Room.

For proof of its eternal hold on the British literary mind, you may read Max Beerbohm’s unforgettable account of how he found himself on a summer day in 1897 lunching in a French restaurant next to a young poet, a proto-hippie with a wispy beard, a cape and a floppy hat. His name was Enoch Soames, and he had a total contempt for a civilization which left his three books of verse totally unbought and unread. If only, he said, he could come back in a hundred years when the world would be full of “endless editions, commentaries, prolegomena, biographies,” all devoted to him, it would be worth selling his soul to the devil to savor the moment. At this point a portly unpleasant-looking gentleman with pointed mustaches and a scarlet waist coat sitting at the next table took the opportunity to introduce himself as the Devil in person, and he was willing to offer in exchange for Soames’ soul an immediate trip to London for the whole afternoon of June 2, 1997.

Despite Beerbohm’s anguished pleas, Soames agreed, and promptly disappeared into thin air, to return for dinner that evening in despair. He had indeed turned up a hundred years in the future, and of course the only place he thought of going was the familiar Reading Room, where he could plunge into the familiar Catalogue volume listing items from SN to SOE, and he found nothing but the three familiar entries listing his three unread books. In all the vast mass of printed work devoted to the literature of his century he could find no word about himself except in a single academic survey, written in phonetic spelling which described him as “an imajnary karakter” in a “sumwat labud satire but not without vallu as showing how seriusly the yung men of the eiteen nintiz took themselvs.” Before he disappeared for good, he uttered one last heart-broken cry, “Try to make them know that I did exist.”

The Devil, we now know, had played a characteristically dirty trick on Enoch Soames. For on June 2 1997 he was far from being a forgotten nonentity. On the afternoon of that day a large group of his admirers was waiting to greet him in the old Reading Room.  There was no confirmed sighting of Enoch Soames that day, but perhaps that was because, as Beerbohm had said, the best word to describe him was “dim.” If he did turn up, and looked in Gallery 30 where the Library keeps on display in glass cases some of the most prestigious of the treasures it has collected over the years, he would have found one marked with his name, containing not only a pencil sketch of him by Max Beerbohm but a, possibly spurious, copy of his second book, Fungoids, described as privately printed in 1895. It was the same size glass case as those in other parts of the gallery displaying to the perpetual files of visitors one of the four surviving copies of Magna Carta, Lady Jane Grey’s prayer book, the original score of Handel’s Messiah, the battle plan of Lord Nelson for meeting the French and Spanish fleets at Trafalgar, a fair copy of Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, a manuscript page of Finnegans Wake, the original manuscript of the lyrics for Yesterday by Paul McCartney. For an imajnary karakter, that is not doing too badly, it is the kind of recognition for which more than one of the flesh-and-blood authors I know would willingly sell their souls to the Devil.