Today the British Library is housed in what from the outside is a very a non-descript building. Resembling a giant warehouse, it stands on Euston Road in London next to St Pancras station, its much more imposing neighbour, and is a stone’s throw from both Euston and King’s Cross stations. It therefore enjoys an ideal location in terms of accessibility.
Rather amazingly, the current building was opened twenty years ago last year: there are posters inside that celebrate this. And, in contrast to its dull exterior, inside the building is magnificent. A majestic staircase sweeps ever upwards (there is an escalator for the lazy or less fit), each floor an ingenious showcase to shelves full of books behind glass from George III’s peerless library. There are comfortable working areas on every floor, available to anyone who needs to nip in to find a place of work for a few minutes – or a few hours – before catching a train. Often these are occupied by students – interestingly, mainly overseas students – are they more aware of this national resource than the home-grown variety? There’s a restaurant, cafés and a shop; and everywhere it’s light and bright and warm, the antithesis to poky, stuffy and forbidding, facilitation of modern scholarship made vibrant.
Beyond are the reading rooms. Anyone who can provide the right credentials can get a reader’s card. It does involve quite a lot of waiting about – and being turned away if you haven’t brought the right documents with you. You need a passport and recent proof of your address on a utility bill or bank statement. Security is tight – partly because St Pancras is viewed as a possible terrorist target – but the bag searches are quick and this care taken over readers’ safety is reassuring. Once the reader’s card has been secured, it provides access to the reading rooms, accompanied by a wonderfully efficient book selection service. Books may be ordered online in advance of turning up at the library, and they will be waiting for you when you arrive.
All this is free. But for a payment of £80 a year, you can become a member of the British Library as well as a reader. This provides many benefits, including free access to the exhibitions for you and a friend, free access to up to four events per year and discounts on purchases from the shop, cafés and restaurant. The current exhibition (it closes on Sunday) is Leonardo da Vinci: a Mind in Motion, and features a collection of Leonardo’s scientific writings, drawn from three major collections. It is well worth a visit if you happen to be in London today or over the weekend.
Even if you are only an occasional visitor to London, you are likely to get your membership ‘moneysworth’ over the year. More importantly, you will be supporting one of the world’s greatest libraries, a national treasure of which we can unequivocally be proud in these times of turmoil and political farce. So this short post is meant as a little nudge: if you aren’t yet familiar with the British Library, and can make time for a visit – or go to its plainer but as a provider of scholarly resources equally munificent sister at Boston Spa – our betting is that your life will be enriched.