Secular cathedrals

January 19, 2011

London transport – photograph by Liz Mathews

Introducing the building, the architect of the British Library invokes the lost library of Alexandria, that potent symbol of the treasure house of knowledge destroyed by the Barbarians.  He describes the library as a secular cathedral, an almost sacred space.  (I only query the ‘almost’.)  By presenting this library as the antithesis of the Nazi book-burnings, he also identifies it as a champion of ‘the freedom and diversity of the human spirit’, which the books that it houses both embody and protect.

(The Nazis, of course, weren’t the only burners of books.  Radclyffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness, which now seems so innocuous, was burnt in the cellars of Scotland Yard, the fate of banned British books.  However, there are now several first editions, which somehow escaped the flames, perpetually preserved in the British Library, which is some compensation.)

Although the Round Reading Room at the British Museum was much-beloved by the scholars who used it and mourned its passing, there’s a grandeur about the scale and scope of the ‘new’ Library that makes it – especially now – a contemporary wonder of the world.  (I went on one of the early reader’s induction courses, when the whole puzzling system was carefully explained to bemused researchers who were used to filling in request-cards to order books they’d looked up in a physical catalogue.  I’m not sure if they even do those tours now, since the technology is more familiar, but the ethos is similarly serious and helpful.)

There’s a persistent urban myth that the British Library is nuclear-proof, and that many people sought shelter there in the confusion after the London tube bombs.  Its enormous storage basements are fire- and flood-proof, and would certainly serve as a deep shelter just as well as the tube stations that were used during the Blitz.  But since a nuclear strike doesn’t leave anything to emerge to, whether the cellars would stand up to it seems like an academic point for any human shelterers.

The books might well survive, though.  Since the collection is of virtually everything ever published, it would give a strangely complete picture of our civilisation to later visitors from another planet; from the ‘things in books’ clothing’ that still get an ISBN to the most obscure specialist monograph, it’s all there.  Not to mention the treasures; the Lindisfarne Gospels, Magna Carta, original manuscripts by Jane Austen, the Brontes, Virginia Woolf, et al. The impression given to the theoretical aliens would be of a wonderful civilisation, a breadth of culture and expertise beyond imagining, an artistic achievement that indeed expresses the intense beauty of the world, as well as its darker aspects.

In this anti-intellectual country, so distrustful of the arts, so resistant to education, it seems extraordinary that such a magnificently unapologetic, vast library was ever created.  Now it’s there, it would be difficult to abolish it completely, but like all our other monuments of learning, its funds have already been cut.  There may be fees for some of the services in future, or entrance charges for exhibitions. But for now, it’s all free – reading rooms, permanent collection, temporary exhibitions.

The current exhibition there, Evolving English, is huge, diverse and fascinating.  My own favourite exhibit is the Elizabethan phrasebook for adventurers to the New World, complete with advice on behaviour to the local inhabitants, as well as pronunciation of their language. But the signage is also a highlight, from over yonder to down the apples and pears; somebody enjoyed doing that, and the visitors like it too.

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