It’s interesting that in the world’s largest holding library you are unable to check out a book and need special permission to touch one. While I had visited this library before, I went back for a proper tour just a few weeks ago. (There isn’t much to see on your own, so a tour is a must.)
In the UK and Ireland, a copy of every publication is donated to the British Library for the sake of archiving the printed word. Besides books, the British Library archives store catalogs, maps, games, stamps, play scripts, and musical scores. Moving images, as well as sound recordings such as music, animal sounds, and regional accent samples, are stored as well.
Three million new items are added to the collection each year, some of which are donated from other countries in different languages. Miles of shelving are added annually to accommodate new additions.
While the main library is in London, other branches are in Oxford, Cambridge, Yorkshire, Scotland, Wales, and Dublin.
Contrary to most libraries, the British Library organizes their books according to book size because the Dewey Decimal System would be too time-consuming for reshelving books. When a book is returned, it is placed at the end of the shelf next to books the same size.
If one wants to look at a particular item, a registration process must be completed. If one wants to look at a particular item, permission is granted based on genuine scholarly purpose. It is mostly university students, professors, and industry researchers who are granted access. As nothing can be checked out, items only can be viewed in monitored reading rooms. The Magna Carta is the most requested item (and denied).
When an item is requested, it goes through a system between the walls that reminded me of luggage at an airport with trays on automated tracks.
Seventy people work in the basement 80 feet below ground where items are stored on 20-foot high bookshelves. The lowest level of the building is filled with pumps since the basement rests below the water table and River Thames. The King’s Library holds King George III’s collection (photo below) which is considered one of the most important from his era. Originally donated to the library when it was part of the British Museum, the collection is now housed in a customized area with a clever fire plan.
In case of fire elsewhere in the library, a fire retardant gel would fill the space between the double glass panes, and King George’s collection would be pulled out of the skylight to safety. Since water would create a lot of damage to books in case of fire, other precious books are stored in an emergency blast freezer corridor. This means a vacuum sucks out air and blasts the area with cold air (-18°C) to freeze books. Then those books are transported to freezer holds in area grocery stores for safe keeping. Sounds like a movie!
Next time I would love to attend Conservation Studio: Behind The Scenes Tour. Offered monthly, this will be on my list for next time.
More Info: British Library Tour