The British Library

The British Library

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 Ground Floor Entrance Hall
The Gates to the Library
The Gates to the Library
A Page from the Lindisfarne Gospels (c700)
A Page from the Lindisfarne Gospels (c700)

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 King's Library
The King's Library
A Manuscript page from Elgar's Enigma Variations (1898/9)
A Manuscript page from Elgar's Enigma Variations (1898/9)
One of the four original copies of the 1215 Magna Carta still in existence

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.

Shakespeare's First Folio (1623)
Pages from an Egyptian Qur'an (1304)
A sculpture of Isaac Newton by Eduardo Paolozzi in the Piazza
print

14 thoughts on “The British Library

  1. Toonsarah

    You’ve done an excellent job of highlighting what I often say is the most overlooked ‘sight’ in London! So few people (residents and tourists) seem to be aware of the treasures it holds and the fact that you can visit and see them for free. I’ve done a lot of work with the BL in my professional capacity and it’s an amazing institution for researchers etc. But not enough ‘ordinary people’ realise that it has anything to offer them. In addition to the Treasures collection that you’ve highlighted here, it has some excellent special exhibitions (some you need to pay for), a very good gift shop and a decent cafe with good wifi 🙂

    Reply
    1. Easymalc Post author

      Very well put Sarah. I couldn’t have put it better myself. I guessed that you would have spent many a happy hour there, and I only wish that I could enjoy the pleasures of this fabulous library as often as you could/can. Thanks, as always, for your encouraging comments.

      Reply
  2. Francisco Bravo Cabrera

    I must say that I have always enjoyed tremendously reading your accounts, and looking at the fabulous photographs that you take. This article is fascinating. As someone who loves books, loves history and loves seeing the original works, this is a very special place. You have captured the essence of the British Library splendidly Malc. One thing about the John Ritblat Gallery, is that they, along with many other similar institutions and museums throughout Europe need to do is to allow photography and videotaping. Many do allow people to photograph but not to video and I think it’s about time that they realise that it is a profitable thing for them to do so understanding that it serves quite well as a free publicity. A most interesting post as usual Malc and all the best,
    FBC.

    Reply
    1. Easymalc Post author

      Thanks again for your comments Francesc. They’re always very welcome and not just because they’re always complimentary. I’ve had any number of discussions in the past about allowing photography, and I feel, like you, that there could be ways around this that would suit everyone. Another topic for another day perhaps.

      Reply
    1. Easymalc Post author

      Although it’s modern, there is so much of historical interest for people who like books and a whole lot more. Thank you for taking a look and your lovely comment.

      Reply
  3. starship VT

    Malcolm, you’ve covered some fascinating topics in your posts, but this is one of my favorites because I am certainly a reader and lover of good libraries. I’m sure, too, that you planned for this post to fall on World Book Day, yes? (Did you see Sarah W.’s FB post today?) The British Library holdings and collections certainly must be unparalleled for both the quality and quantity. It also looks like a very inviting place that I’d love to visit. Shame it had to be closed during the lockdown but thank you for this marvelous post

    Reply
    1. Easymalc Post author

      Your comments always manage to give me a lift Sylvia. You’re a bit of a wordsmith yourself. Thanks for taking a look and I’m glad it brightened up World Book Day for you as well. 🙂

      Reply
  4. scooj

    Wonderful. In his early retirement my step-father, who had worked as an editor with the TLS, used to visit the British Library three or four times a week. Books were his life. Your post has brought back some happy memories.

    Reply
    1. Easymalc Post author

      I can see why he would visit so often. I think I could be the same if I lived nearby. It’s an absolute treasure trove as you might imagine. I’m glad that it’s brought back some more memories Stephen.

      Reply
  5. Karen

    Just incredible! How lucky are we to have this entire library in our capital city and totally free to visit! Some of the ancient dates on books and manuscripts make your eyes boggle. Thanks for another top post, Malcolm. You the man! x

    Reply

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