The British Library is home to some of the most famous written and printed works in the English-speaking world. From two of the four original Magna Cartas, the Lindisfarne Gospels and Shakespeare’s First Folio to works by Jane Austen, Charlotte Bronte and Lewis Carroll. Then there are manuscripts of Handel’s Messiah, Elgar’s Enigma Variations and even the hand written words for the Beatles’ ‘I Want to Hold Your Hand’.
All this and more can be found in this famous library which holds almost 14 million books, over 4 million maps and more than 8 million stamps. There are something like 170 million catalogued items in total which makes it the largest library in the world by volume.
Unbelievably, it wasn’t until 1973 that all these treasures were brought under one umbrella when an Act of Parliament created the National Library, and even then, there was no one main library building to speak of. That was rectified in 1997 when a new library was built at St. Pancras. Although there’s a northern offshoot at Boston Spa in West Yorkshire, most of the collection is housed in London.
The large red brick building holds eleven reading rooms and most of the people that come here seem to be doing research, but for the casual visitor the room to head for is the John Ritblat Gallery.
The John Ritblat Gallery is where you’ll hopefully find what you’ve come here to see. I say ‘hopefully’ because the items on display are constantly being changed around, so if you’ve got a special reason to come here make sure you check beforehand that what you’ve come for is actually here.
One thing that is always here is the ‘King’s Library’, a towering collection of over 60,000 books belonging to King George III. It’s all behind glass so don’t get too excited.
The only downside is that photography isn’t allowed inside the John Ritblat Gallery, but some of the treasures can be downloaded from their website and used in the public domain, some of which I have included here. In any case, that shouldn’t stop you coming here to see some of the most important books, manuscripts and more, not just from the UK, but from around the world – and it’s all free.